Joaquin Phoenix vs Heath Ledger: Which Joker performance should be crowned Gotham's finest?


Todd Phillips' take on the notorious villain is one of the most talked-about films of the year.

This isn't exactly an easy one to settle!

When looking back over a rich history of cinematic villains, there are so many which come to mind. Most film fanatics would argue that the greatest movie villain of all time is Darth Vader of the Star Wars franchise. However, the helmet-clad antagonist met his biggest match in 2008 with the release of The Dark Knight

Christopher Nolan's brooding superhero epic was a game-changer in every sense and has been on the fast-track to achieving modern classic status ever since. There's so much to appreciate about the film, but its biggest credit is Heath Ledger's Joker performance. 

It was an incredibly ambitious and hypnotic take on the character, earning him a posthumous Academy Award. Soon after, most fans declared that it would never be topped, but Joaquin Phoenix's portrayal in Todd Phillips' acclaimed origin story has opened up a discussion that we honestly never anticipated having. 


Joaquin Phoenix as Joker

So, casting direction and surrounding elements aside, let's focus our lens on the performances themselves. 

First up, we'll discuss Joaquin Phoenix's performance as the iconic villain. Upon first glance, the actor's work is instantly impressive. We see him applying make-up for his job as a clown, tearing at his mouth to force a menacing, painful smile - a tear trails black paint down his face. 

For the entire runtime, it becomes impossible to peel your eyes away from him. He lost a substantial amount of weight for the role, lending the character a gangly, skeletal appearance which is enhanced in many shots. In one moment, he is seen strenuously pulling at his shoe, with his body contorting into an almost inhuman shape. It is the body of a man who has been beaten all his life. 

Joaquin absolutely nails the appearance of a man on the verge of an irrecoverable outburst, but he nails practically everything else too. The character has a condition in which he laughs uncontrollably in inconvenient situations, but as the film progresses we learn that laughter is essentially a substitute for crying. These scenes make for heartbreaking viewing, but when he's transformed into the Joker, the performance becomes even more complex. 

The make-up and costume of his new alter ego empower him, and he begins to walk and move in a very different manner. For the first time, Arthur feels comfortable, but we know the catastrophic repercussions this has. Honestly, Joaquin delivers a masterful performance, which may even be his very best. 

Heath Ledger's eternal performance

In 2008 we were all shocked by just how good Heath Ledger's performance was.

There's no denying that he had already proven himself to be a great actor, turning in exceptional work in the likes of Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain. However, this was truly something else. 

The character can go from intimidating and methodical, only to then suddenly burst out like a ravenous hyena. His laugh will forever be ingrained in the minds of audiences, and the way he delivered some of the film's lines is what made them iconic - not the lines themselves. 

He is a genuinely terrifying presence in much of the film but at times Heath's playful and unique take on the character - which we'd never seen attempted before - made him so fun and exhilarating to watch. The actor conveys such confidence and insanity that makes the Joker so dangerous and spontaneous. You never know what he's going to do, and that's all in the unhinged performance. 

We'd have to agree with the vast majority in expressing that Heath's performance is one of the most impressive and memorable in modern cinema.  

Which is the best portrayal?

It's almost impossible to say because both actors are trying to achieve something very different in their respective roles. 

As a Joker performance and not a performance more generally, on the other hand, we'd have to hand it to Heath. The character has a reputation across the comic books and in cinema, and it's safe to say that Heath captured the spirit of the character perfectly when reminiscing the character's origins in print, while also offering a modern, unique take which fit the film's tone. 

Joaquin's portrayal may be considered more impressive, but he's doing something so different because Arthur is essentialy on the cusp of becoming the Joker. The film's climactic moment presents us with the pivotal point in the villain's creation, whereas with The Dark Knight we're thrown straight into the Joker as we know him. 

Heath's is an image of insanity, but Joaquin's is more a portrait of fragility, torment and struggle. So, for the record, we'll conclude that both are their own beasts, but absolute masterclasses respectively. We've had plenty of time to soak in Heath's Joker, so with more time, who knows... 

In other news, how did the In the Tall Grass novella end?

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