Heath Ledger's Joker VS Joaquin Phoenix's Joker
Two incredible actors … one role. Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’ll pitting the late great Heath Ledger against living legend Jaquin Phoenix to see who gave us the superior big screen incarnation of iconic Batman villain, the Joker.
Come along as we evaluate a wide-range of categories to determine which interpretation of the Clown Prince of Crime reigns supreme.
Round 1: Costume and Makeup
There are a lot of contributing factors that go into making the Joker such a timeless bad guy and enduring pop culture figure, but there’s no denying that his trademark look ranks pretty highly on that list. For his 2019 take on the character, director Todd Phillips borrowed some elements directly from the comics while also taking a few notable liberties. Phoenix sports Joker’s trademark purple suit, complete with the orange/yellow vest and blue-green accents. It’s perfect. For Joker’s face however, the clown makeup is a pretty major departure from the source material, going for a more classic clown look, including blue triangles around the eyes and a red nose.
In adapting the Joker for his grounded and gritty take on the Batman mythology, director Christopher Nolan arguably took even greater liberties with Joker’s aesthetic. Purple is still the character’s go-to color, but the coat is longer - more of a purple overcoat than a traditional suit jacket or tailcoat. In the comics, the Joker’s face is permanently white, but Ledger’s version of the character is clearly wearing makeup, which visibly smudges throughout the film. Perhaps most notable, however, is the addition of Glasgow smile scars, which he accentuates with red makeup to create his twisted smile.
Neither of these takes on the Joker’s aesthetic feel as comic-accurate as Jack Nicholson’s - and that’s okay! We love Joaquin’s Joker suit, which seems like a better fit than Ledger’s overcoat. But when it comes to deviations from the source material, Ledger’s seem more effective; the scars in particular feeling like a better choice than Phoenix’s traditional clown makeup. Ledger takes round 1!
WINNER: Phoenix: 1/ Ledger: 0
Round 2: Laugh
Comics might be a soundless medium, but even on the page, Joker’s laugh feels distinct - a key part of his perverse identity. Now, it’s safe to say that Joaquin Phoenix has clearly put his own spin on the Joker’s laugh. It’s an open-mouth, full-body laugh, one that seemingly comes out of nowhere, going from zero to 100, and sometimes stopping as abruptly as it began. Though it might start off low, it often rises to become quite high-pitched, which is when it’s most unnerving. When Arthur is particularly uncomfortable, however, it’s high-pitched right from the get go. And that’s arguably the most interesting aspect of this interpretation of the laugh; it’s actually a nervous tick that predates Arthur’s Joker identity
Before Phoenix, Ledger similarly put his own stamp on the Joker’s signature laugh. What’s most intriguing about his particular take on it is that the character seems so self-aware of his laughter. He twists the laugh and changes it depending on the situation; sometimes it’s low and ominous, other times it’s a high-pitched rasp. When he walks into the crime boss meeting to perform his pencil trick, he even fake laughs - which is something that the Joker isn’t particularly known for. But that’s what makes Ledger’s laugh so distinct; he’s not just a madman who loves to laugh, he’s a madman who wields his laugh like a weapon, a tool to scare and unnerve others.
When most people imagine the Joker’s laugh, it’s Mark Hamill’s animated iteration that comes to mind. Both Phoenix and Ledger’s laughs are a major departure from this, and each manages to accomplish something totally unique with it. But by giving the laugh a psychological foundation (and upping the creepy factor), Phoenix takes the round.
WINNER: Phoenix: 1/ Ledger: 1
Round 3: Schemes
Being a great supervillain ain’t easy. There are a number of aspects of your identity that you need to get just right, from your name and your aesthetic, to your particular criminal niche. The Joker - even more so than most supervillains - is known for his elaborate, larger-than-life and needlessly convoluted plots. Now, we don’t want to spoil anything for you, so we won’t get into specifics, but Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is more a force of nature and symbol than an elaborate schemer. For those looking to see Joker, criminal-mastermind (in the comic book sense) with a penchant for cartoonish ploys, well… Phoenix ain’t playing that kind of clown.
Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker was undeniably a major departure from his comic book counterpart, and this equally applies to his scheming ways. His version wasn’t interested in clown-themed plots, smiley faces or poison laughing gas. But for all the colorful theatrics that Nolan stripped away from the character, his preference for cruel games nonetheless felt very true to the character. Throughout the film, Joker sets up multiple elaborate scenarios that would have done his comic book counterpart proud, from the Ferry experiment to his double kidnapping of Rachel and Dent. His deadly shenanigans, like the opening bank robbery, represent exactly the sort of planning we expect from the Clown Prince of Crime.
Costume and makeup aside, neither Ledger nor Phoenix’s Joker seem to have embraced the character’s more carnivalesque side. But between the two, the Ledger’s Joker definitely showcases a greater aptitude for comic book worthy schemes, whereas Phoenix’s Joker is on more of a personal criminal journey.
WINNER: Phoenix: 1/ Ledger: 2
Round 4: Psychology & Motivations
As Arthur Fleck, and eventually the Joker, Joaquin phoenix is magnetic. A struggling wannabe comedian with serious mental health issues, Fleck has had more than just “one bad day”, and descends into full-blown madness. Detaching from societal standards and norms, he allows insanity to become his muse, guiding him on a path of violence and willful chaos. Of course, he’s also got some specific bones to pick, particularly with Thomas Wayne. Phoenix fully inhabits this role, and by dialing the crazy to 11, delivers an awe-inspiring performance, making this character, no matter how sick, feel fully-fleshed out.
Alfred said it best: [“some men just want to watch the world burn”]. Heath Ledger’s Joker, like his comic book counterpart, is wholly disinterested in material goods or wealth. He is an agent of chaos, pure and simple. To him, order is a construct, or rather an illusion, and he wants to prove that the world is in fact every bit as crazy and unpredictable as he is. In many ways, he sees himself as the hero, an emissary for a harsh, nihilistic truth in a society obsessed with imposing order. The thing is, though he can be erratic, he’s also quite lucid - which is just what makes his motivations so terrifying.
Heath Ledger undeniably took the Joker to unprecedented cinematic heights by really making his psychology one that we wanted to dissect and analyse. But Batman remains the central figure, whereas 2019’s “Joker” is a character study dedicated to Arthur’s twisted mind, which Phoenix does a masterful job bringing to life. Joaquin earns another point!
WINNER: Phoenix: 2/ Ledger: 2
Round 5: Voice
Now… some might argue that it’s redundant to compare voices considering we already talked about Phoenix and Ledger’s respective laughs. But the Joker’s voice and laugh are two very different beasts, each playing a big part in his identity. Many actors have given voice to the Joker over the years, but no one has ever gone in quite such a unique direction as Phoenix. He makes the Joker come across as quiet and soft-spoken, speaking in a polite and delicate manner that’s somehow scarier than the typical villain snarl. It’s a real testament to the concept of ‘less is more’. That being said, some fans might be thrown by just how significant of a departure it is from the conventional Joker voice.
When Heath Ledger voiced Joker, he went for something a bit more villain-appropriate, but he nonetheless managed to make it feel distinct from Jokers past and future. While playing the role, Heath Ledger is constantly manipulating his voice. Much like every aspect of his character, especially his backstory, Joker’s voice is hard to pin down. Sometimes it’s low and gravelly. Sometimes it’s quiet, almost empathetic. But it can also explode into a violent, almost animalistic roar. Regardless of his tone, inflection, pitch or volume, Ledger maintains a maniacal edge, one that makes you hang on to his every word.
This was a tough one. As compelling, unique and unnerving as Joaquin Phoenix’ Joker voice was, it didn’t always feel like Joker. Ledger, by contrast, went with a voice that, while definitely different from Joker’s past, felt wild, expressive and dynamic - three words that epitomize the character. And so he takes the final round, and with that… the competition. But it sure was close, and Phoenix’s performance deserves immense praise.
WINNER: Phoenix: 2/ Ledger: 3
Did we pick the right Joker? Be sure to debate it in the comments and of course, don’t forget to subscribe to WatchMojo for more entertaining versus battles.