Joker was undoubtedly one of the most successful movies of 2019 – both in terms of box office performance and critical acclaim. Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck, the mentally ill loner who goes on to terrorize Gotham city, was met with universal acclaim – deservingly so.
The problem, however, is that many fans – and even some critics – have gone overboard and declared that Joaquin Phoenix’s version of the Joker is better than Heath Ledger’s version, which in my opinion is blasphemy.
As good as Phoenix was, he could never overshadow Ledger, for reasons I intend to discuss in detail in this article. Just to be clear – this is not a comparison of Phoenix’s performance with Ledger’s performance. They both excelled in their roles. This is a comparison of the character they played.
Without further ado, let us get started with the comparison.
Scary Joker vs. Wimpy Joker
The first and perhaps the most obvious difference you can notice between Ledger’s Joker and Phoenix’s Joker is that the former is a menace and the latter is a joke – quite literally.
Ledger’s Joker was virtually a force of nature – unpredictable, uncontrollable, and dangerous. Phoenix’s Joker, on the other hand, is a timid clown who is incapable of scaring anyone – leave along terrorize an entire city.
Take, for instance, the scene in The Dark Knight where the Joker meets the mob bosses and suggests that they kill the Batman. He walks into the lion’s den all by himself, kills a henchman without breaking a sweat, and casually reveals that he has strapped himself with enough explosives to blow them all to kingdom come.
The high point of Phoenix’s Joker, on the other hand, is where he takes out a few rich bankers who bully him on a subway. Paul Kersey did it 40 years ago and he looked a lot meaner and menacing than Phoenix’s Joker can ever hope to.
Agent of Chaos vs. Victim of Circumstances
Ledger’s Joker, to put it simply, was an agent of chaos. He blew up things and killed people because – in his own words – he wanted to introduce a little anarchy into the establishment. He was not a rebel, he was not an anti-hero, he did not belong to any sect, and he was not driven by any ideology. He did not even have a plan. He was, again, in his own words, a dog chasing a car.
The only thing that Ledger’s Joker believed in was the evil lurking inside every man. He genuinely believed that any man, no matter how good or moral he is, can be forced to embrace his dark side, under the right circumstances. That is why he relentlessly targeted Harvey Dent and the Batman, who were the two symbols of human goodness in Gotham.
It is also why he could not be reasoned with, bullied, or threatened. When the Batman tries to scare him, the Joker simply laughs in his face and says that he has got nothing to threaten him with. Simply put, he was a force of nature. He represented chaotic evil in all its glory.
Phoenix’s Joker, on the other hand, is a victim of circumstances. He was not born evil and he tries his very best to be a good son, a good neighbor, and a good citizen, until circumstances force him to break the law and commit crimes.
Think about it.
If social service programs had not been cut in Gotham and if Arthur Fleck still had access to his psychiatrist and his medications, would he have gone off the rails and turned into the Joker?
If he had not gotten fired from his job, would he have turned into the Joker?
If the single mom – whom he fantasized about – had shown any interest in him, would he have turned into the Joker?
If Murray Franklin had not made fun of him, would he have turned into the Joker?
If his mom had not lied about him being the son of Thomas Wayne, would he have turned into the Joker?
The answer to all these questions is ‘not likely’. This is precisely why Phoenix’s Joker could never generate a sense of dread and panic among the citizens of Gotham like Ledger’s Joker did.
In other words, in order to stop someone like Ledger’s Joker, you have to take extraordinary measures – like spying on an entire city, which the Batman did. You have to burn the whole forest down, in the words of Alfred.
To stop someone like Phoenix’s Joker, all you have to do is increase funding to social service programs and get him a primetime slot on national TV. In no time, he would be raising a family in the suburbs, driving a Prius, and paying his taxes like a model citizen.
The Problem of an Origin Story
One of the things that made Ledger’s Joker such a fascinating character is the lack of an origin story. Where was he originally from? How did he become the Joker? How did he get those scars? Nobody had a clue.
The mysterious part made Ledger’s Joker that much more terrifying, as you had no idea who he was or what he was capable of doing. In a philosophical sense, it is even more fascinating because here is a man who has transcended his past. He does not care to talk about his past and deliberately lies about it, because he does not care who he was. He only cares about what he is now.
Arthur Fleck’s life, on the other hand, is an open book. He does not shy away from admitting that he lives with his mother or that he has mental illness. It makes him relatable – he could be any one of the millions of Americans who are struggling with mental disorders and are hopelessly pessimistic about their future. It takes the allure and mystique away from the character.
So, there you have it folks. These are the reasons why, as much as I enjoyed Phoenix’s version of the Joker, I never found it better than – or even as good as – Ledger’s Joker. What do you think?