To be honest, the Joker is one of my favorite villains of all time. I just can’t help but stare in awe at this character. Apparently, I’m not the only one, as Warner Brothers has invested so much into the upcoming flick. With each adaptation, from Jack Nicholson to Heath Ledger, and now Joaquin Phoenix, the story of the Joker seems to get more complex with each movie. The real question is why is he such a stand out character to me?
As an English major, character development is something that I study immensely, and there is nothing more interesting than someone who does bad and thinks it’s funny. That alone opens up the door for many different directions for the actors to take the character in. Does he think it’s funny because he doesn’t know better? Is he disturbed? Was he tormented? Why is this character like this? Each important cinematic Joker (Nicholson, Ledger, Leto, and now Phoenix) had to explore these questions when determining the best way to show us, the audience, who this character really is. Examining each of these actor’s chosen method of portrayal gives us many different versions to latch on to. Mine just so happens to be Heath Ledger’s version.
We Get It… You Like Joker!
Heath Ledger’s Joker is, in my own opinion, the most well developed character I have ever seen on a cinematic screen. It’s challenging to show psychological damage without being stereotypically crazy, and Ledger manages to do that. But what does that have to do with Phoenix? With so many revivals of iconic characters, it’s hard to make them stand out unless you’re unique. With the MCU, everything is the same. There’s one person who plays Iron Man (well, played), there’s one Thor, there’s one Hulk (that counts… sorry Edward Norton fans)… you get my drift. With DC Comics, every time there’s a revival of a beloved character, they always have to meet the standards the last actor or actress set, and the Joker has had several bars set.
Batman (1989) – Jack Nicholson
To begin, we have Jack Nicholson in Batman (1989), starring as a very mob-esque style Joker. This is the one we all know and love, the one that explains the name. Everything seems to be a joke to this character. It’s as if he is still a child, his moral compass is not yet developed, and he just wants to have fun in his way. I mean, vandalizing an art gallery with neon paint? It’s devastating for the poor artists and the gallery’s owner, but the way it’s portrayed is that its comical. It’s funny, he’s the Joke-r. Even when he kills Carl Grissom, the gun shots are cartoon-esque, he dances around with the gun and even fires it over his shoulder without aiming, or even looking. He is the initial, iconic version of the Joker, chock full of jokes just waiting to be played.
The Dark Knight (2008) – Heath Ledger
After that, we have Ledger, the sociopath who thinks it’s funny to torment, but not because he wants to. This Joker has a troubled past and wants to take this out on those who wronged him. He’s the compulsive liar, and is so good at it that there are times where we don’t always know if he is lying or not. He plays everyone around him until the very end. If killing someone isn’t the best method, he won’t. Yes, he throws Rachel Dawes off of a building, but he knows Batman will save her. He doesn’t do it because he wanted to kill her, and that’s because he is the physical embodiment of organized chaos. When confronted by Batman about why Joker doesn’t just kill him, he responds with “I don’t want to kill you… You complete me,” because he lives off of trying to get Batman to break his own rule. Everything this Joker does is for a reason.
Suicide Squad (2016) – Jared Leto
The most recent is Jared Leto in Suicide Squad (2016). What makes this Joker stand out is that he has way more to his appearance than any other Joker. He is covered in tattoos, has a silver grill, and is also noticeably younger. Leto’s portrayal seems to try too hard to be Joker, whereas with Ledger, he doesn’t seem to want it, but he’s forced to be it. This version to me is all show, don’t tell. He doesn’t need to show you he’s crazy, it’s quite literally written all over his body. Jared Leto’s version also wants to contribute to crime, much like Nicholson’s portrayal.
Joker (2019) – Joaquin Phoenix
Finally, we are brought to Joaquin Phoenix. The new Joker (2019). The reason I initially compared him to Ledger, was because after watching the trailer several times, he seems to also be taking the troubled past, misunderstood, sociopath route (Even the makeup is similar!). He just wants to fit in and is constantly mocked. He wants people to want him, but he gets shoved off. This torment builds up until he reaches a breaking point. He finally gets himself out there but it’s as this character, this clown. The Joker. Phoenix seems to have drawn inspiration from both Nicholson and Ledger when crafting this version’s backstory, and is pushing towards the top of the Joker chain.
Overall, this new Joker has a lot of potential, and has even gotten, despite not even being released yet. But will it stack up to Heath Ledger’s? Honestly, I think it will, but then again we only have a trailer to view and compare. With a lot of new potential in terms of character development, a different angle to view the Joker from, and an fresh origin story, I’m positive that people will be talking about Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal for a long time. Whether you think he is better or not is for you to decide.
Joker hits theatres October 4th, 2019.