Comparing Joaquin Phoenix and Heath Ledger's performances as the Joker. Who did it best?

Image of Joaquin Phoenix Joker, and Heath Ledger's Joker

Copyright by DC and Warner Bros. 
WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the Joker movie.

Joaquin Phoenix is the man of the hour right now in the world of cinema. His portrayal of the Joker in his namesake film as been widely lauded and applauded, even for those that didn’t love the movie itself. The actor's performance is dramatic, emotional and includes a sense of danger and unpredictability that defines the Clown Prince of Crime throughout the decades.

Of course, his performance has also led to comparisons with one of the iconic iterations of the character, which was Heath Ledger’s Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight film. And we can debate all we want about the two films and their respective qualities, but no one can deny the level of effort, performance and commitment that both actors delivered to play DC’s most iconic villain.

But if we take the time to analyze both performances, we can safely say that there are major differences between both portrayals and that is something worth taking the time to read. So, here we provide a few comparisons of how these two performances are opposite or just plain different from one another.

Roles

Joaquin Phoenix Joker side by side comparison of Heath Ledger's Joker.

Copyright by DC and Warner Bros. 

While this is an obvious fact, it’s actually worth taking into account when comparing both performances. Ledger’s Joker was playing the role of the antagonist while Phoenix’s is the main character, so we have a different perspective on both versions.

Ledger’s Joker is the antagonist and we don’t know anything about him beyond his desire for creating chaos and to prove that anybody can be corrupted; Phoenix’s Joker, on the other hand, is a slow descent into insanity and darkness, showing a main character who is deeply flawed but still a good person that tries to get by and keeps being pushed down and down to the abyss.

So, from one you have the antagonist that you love to hate (a more classical take of the Joker in that regard) and from another you have a man who falls deeper and deeper into the worst parts of his nature.

Ideologies

Image of Heath Ledgers Joker, holding the Joker card.

Copyright by DC and Warner Bros. 

Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight is a man that believes that anybody can be like him and anybody can be corrupted after he or she is put through the right circumstances; he is a counterweight to Christian Bale’s Batman, who is heroic and rightful, which works as a lesson in humanity’s proclivity to good or evil. All his plans and all his actions are led to that: to prove his point that only you need one bad day to become like him.

Meanwhile, Phoenix’s Joker is a different case: he is a broken man who had enough of being pushed around and wanted to commit what he considered to be justice in the third act, but unlike Ledger’s, he is not trying to make a big statement or anything of the sorts–he just wants to get back at the world after all the things he had to go through.

They both serve different ideologies and messages: the first one is more of a representation of our worst instincts (and Batman would represent our best) and the second one is more of a cautionary tale of what happens when we don’t practice empathy and respect for those that might be struggling with something in their personal lives.

Planning

Image of Joaquin Phoenix's Joker Performance

Copyright by DC and Warner Bros. 

In this case, I think this is where the two versions differ the most.

Ledger played a Joker that was a man with a plan and with a clear notion of the goal he wanted to achieve. And while he is certainly very unpredictable, he knows what he has to do to achieve his objective and manipulates many of the characters to do this. In many ways, he is a bit of a chess player, with the iconic questionnaire scene with Batman a prime example of how he always has the upper hand on a intellectual level even if he is outmatched in a physical confrontation.

With the Joker film being an origin story, it’s a bit understandable why Phoenix’s version of the character is not as manipulative or devious as the Ledger one. Yes, it could have been done that way with a few tweaks in the script, but in this version we have a Joker that is certainly driven by insanity and this leads him to be a man with no plan, rather focusing on what he wants to do on the spur of the moment.

I think the best way to explain this is that in the second act of The Dark Knight, Joker has set up everything so that Harvey Dent or Rachel may die, with Batman having to choose to save someone he cares about and losing another. On the other hand, Phoenix’s version comes to the third act without a plan and we, the audience, don’t know nothing of what he may do–there are hints that he may kill himself, but then things turned out to be very different.

One planned a revolution while another made it happen by accident, which is another way to look at these two versions of the character.

They are both unpredictable in their own right, but one is that way by thinking outside the box (Ledger) and the other one is driven by his desires at the spur of the moment (Phoenix).

Emotional performance

Image of Joaquin's Joker Performance. The Joker sticks two fingers in his mouth to force a comedic smile.

Copyright by DC and Warner Bros. 

I would have to say that Ledger’s Joker is not exactly the most emotional of performances in a conventional manner; he is focused on delivering a performance of pure evil and demonic intellect, becoming more of a symbol of humanity’s worst traits and a great villain to boot.

Obviously, this is one of the aspects Phoenix excels in his performance: you can’t help but feel for his character and everything he goes through, thinking that his inevitable fall into insanity could have been avoided in multiple moments. He makes you care for the character and that is something that was very difficult because you can’t make the Joker sympathetic in a high degree, but Phoenix manages to balance things out to make a very solid origin story.

Conclusion

Image of both Heath Ledger (Left) and Joaquin Phoenix (Right) standing together at an award show.

Copyright by DC and Warner Bros. 

It’s hard to choose one of both versions–you can throw in Jack Nicholson’s version of the character to the discussion, as well. They are very different portrayals of a very unique character and they are done in a way that want you to feel very different about each one–Ledger wants you to love to hate him while Phoenix wants you to feel for him and his tragedy.

It depends a lot on your personal preferences and I have to say that we also have to wait for time to pass to have a more unbiased opinion of Phoenix’s portrayal of the Joker–right now we have the film too fresh in our memory and perhaps that ways a role in this discussion.

Regardless, no one can deny the fact that we are dealing with two of the most fascinating displays of acting talent in movies based on comic book characters and with two tremendous actors giving performances for the ages.

 


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