The Joker: Heath Ledger vs. Joaquin Phoenix

‘Joker’ marked the second excellent 21st century portrayal of the infamous D.C. villain. So, which performance edged in front of the other?

I finally got round to watching ‘Joker’ (2019) and am very happy I made the eventual decision to view it. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think of it as the masterpiece which others have described it as – much like ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008) – but also like ‘The Dark Knight’, it will surely be remembered for years to come due to an utterly mesmeric portrayal of D.C’s leading villain. This got me wondering, which portrayal of the Joker did I prefer, and why?

First though, I need to consider perspective. This perspective being my view of each actor prior to watching them in their respective movie. When I first watched ‘The Dark Knight’, I’d be lying if I said I had any clue who Heath Ledger was. Though this probably wasn’t helped by me being quite a bit younger, I wasn’t really familiar with any of his work. This allowed me to watch his performance with zero expectations. It couldn’t be more different for Joaquin Phoenix however. The man has consistently gone underappreciated since his role as Commodus in ‘Gladiator’ (2000), with other excellent performances in films such as ‘Signs’ (2002), ‘Walk the Line’ (2005) and ‘The Master’ (2012) (which I felt he was very unlucky not to win the best actor Oscar for). Not that any of this should really matter, but it does have a lasting effect on the way you perceive the quality of a performance.

Copyright Warner Bros.

Though the same, the two portrayals highlight very different characters. Ledger’s Joker is a political anarchist who aims to create chaos within Gotham – by showing that “when the chips are down, these civilized people will eat each other.” In some respects, he poses as Batman’s moral compass, forcing him to make a choice which will ultimately have dire consequences, irrespective of the final outcome. Meanwhile, though the actions of Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck lead to a political revolution, it is one that he is quick to try and distance himself from. Fleck’s motivation is far more instinctive and one that audiences will find much easier to empathise with – a belief of being abandoned by society and those wealthy enough to occupy its upper rungs. 

Copyright Warner Bros.

As good as Phoenix is, I felt like he had to be given character traits to make himself scarier and more unsettling (like laughing in situations where he shouldn’t be) whereas none of that was needed with Ledger. Phoenix was made to be creepy, while Ledger simply emanated terror. Plus, and this is a bit unfair on Phoenix, but for me, a performance is inherently scarier when you don’t fully understand the emotional drive and reasoning behind actions. Just look at Michael Myers from the ‘Halloween’ series. His horror was largely derived from the lack of a clear motivation or back story. He simply killed because he was evil. For me, Ledger’s performance is the more unique and manages to be disturbing beyond the simple premise of turning against something that you feel wronged by.

Considering all this, I think Heath Ledger remains at the top of the perch. His turn as the Joker was simply more career defining – a career which sadly halted to a premature stop.

Featured Image Copyright DNA India

2 comments

  1. I agree with you on Heath Ledger. Phoenix’s Joker wasn’t meant to be scary or unsettling, though. He was meant to be understood and seen for the man he is, rather than just a terrifying villain. In subsequent films, Phoenix’s Joker would have to have his identity stripped to create that same sense of mystery with Ledger, but for ‘Joker’ (2019), that was not the goal of the film.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think we were supposed to view him as scary in the sense that his persona was derived from the way that societal neglect can shape someone – which in a way is more terrifying than an anarchist who just wants to create chaos.

    Liked by 1 person

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