Who was the Better Joker: Heath Ledger or Joaquin Phoenix?


J.P. Simmons, Entertainment Editor

This article contains some spoilers for Joker. Now that Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker has hit theaters for some time now, I thought it timely to finally tackle the official debate: Which Joker character was better, Ledger or Phoenix?

To begin, let’s discuss what both Jokers were about. The late Heath Ledger’s Joker that appeared exclusively in 2008’s The Dark Knight, was created and modeled as the quintessential symbol of chaos and destruction. In the film, he is an intelligent criminal mastermind who destroys and kills his way through Gotham City in an attempt to upset the societal stability. His ultimate goal is to prove to Batman and Gotham that with little “pushes,” anybody could turn out as evil and twisted as he could.

Phoenix’s Joker, whose real name is Arthur Fleck, takes on the same areas. Although Fleck strikes many as an awkward and skittish loner, he is eventually revealed to be his true self who feels his best, but most dangerous, when wearing the makeup and suit. When Fleck appears in-costume on the fictional Murray Franklin Show, he claims that the way that he lives and how he is treated would be “enough to make anyone crazy.” This shows that he might’ve tried not to be a sadistic killer, but that he eventually concluded that he enjoyed causing pain and disorder in Gotham. It is a tough call to judge which Joker causes more disorder, but Ledger’s Joker would have done in a matter of moments what Arthur Fleck could do in the whole film.

The next thing to discuss is their image. Ledger’s Joker wears the iconic purple suit and a well-kept vest and tie under it all. This Joker’s makeup style takes less inspiration away from actual clowns and more from combat-inspired warpaint. His scraggly and disheveled curly green hair also served his dark demeanor. His look was then completed with scars seared into the sides of his face, giving the shape of a longer smile. Fleck’s Joker, however, takes a much different approach.

Throughout Joker, Phoenix dons makeup in several ways but the audience doesn’t get a full glimpse of his Joker until the final parts of the film. His Joker wears a more light-colored suit with a more focus on the color red than the traditional purple. Phoenix also sports long hair in this film and I do believe this is a little homage to the late Ledger’s Joker. His makeup is more enhanced and complementing of a modern circus clown with a red nose, red slits above the eyes for eyebrows, and blue triangles circulating around the eyes. Because Fleck’s original job in the film is a clown-for-hire, this had something to do with his final look. Have to admit that when I first saw Phoenix’s final look, I wasn’t amused but I’ve grown to favor it as it looks like a different approach and original in its own way.

One last thing to discuss is the characters’ laughs. If I were to pick a Joker portrayal with the best laugh it would have to undoubtedly be Mark Hamill, who fantastically voiced the character for years in several Batman franchises. However, this battle is between Ledger and Phoenix. I found Ledger’s laugh to be quite twisted, but I personally thought that he underutilized it. I feel that a proper Joker should laugh passionately and frequently and use the laugh as an instrument, in a way, and I felt that Ledger lacked that. Phoenix laughs in nearly every scene that he is in and changes the tone sometimes. There are scenes where he stretches his voice to greater heights to make it sound more theatrical, but more controlled.

My final verdict is that Ledger still takes the crown for the best portrayal. I found Phoenix to be very close to Ledger’s ranking, however, I felt that though Ledger didn’t use his laugh as frequently as Phoenix, Ledger laughed when necessary for a film with a tone as The Dark Knight had and that the lack of laughing was appropriate. I also found Ledger’s Joker’s talking voice more twisted and changed than Phoenix, who hardly changed anything about his talking voice for the role. Both takes on the character are interesting and different than the original source material but Ledger’s role holds up to this day and remains one of the top portrayals of a villain that we’ve ever seen.