WARNING: The following contains spoilers for director Todd Phillips' Joker, in theaters now.
When Christopher Nolan followed up Batman Begins with 2008's The Dark Knight, few could have anticipated the maelstrom that Heath Ledger would be on screen as the Clown Prince of Crime. Sadly, the actor died just before the film's release and was not able to see the success of what's widely regarded as one of the best comic book movies and films, in general, of all time.
With Todd Phillips' Joker, critics and fans were expecting Joaquin Phoenix's performance to be on par with, or perhaps even surpass Ledger's. However, as provocative as Joker is as a character study of Arthur Fleck's break down due to society's superficial ways, Phoenix's Joker still can't compare to Ledger's version.
Ledger truly helped set his film apart from contemporary superhero movies, garnering a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role while reminding us these movies can be deep works of art too. What made him pop so much was the chaos and anarchy he represented. Ledger's Mistah J didn't just terrorize society, he wanted "a better class of criminal" for Gotham. His Joker even understood how more criminals could create more vigilantes, people who also might be monsters and, overall, a part of the problem.
The way the character transitioned from wanting the Bat dead to feeling his presence made him complete, really brought a sense of intimidation and wonder straight from the comics. The performance even improved upon what Jack Nicholson did in Tim Burton's '89 movie.
Ledger's laugh, that of a true maniac, plus the mind games he played with the Caped Crusader -- hanging bodies off rooftops, parading with Rottweilers, making up fake origin stories about his scars and going after politicians and judges -- painted a cerebral picture. He was a terrorist, but he wasn't afraid of anything, even death, as shown when he gave Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent/Two-Face a gun to kill him. This Joker was an agent of chaos and embraced turmoil as a path to a bigger goal: to purge society. His look and sound was something out of this world and it's why Ledger's turn is considered one of the best performances ever in cinema.
Now, Phoenix does an amazing job as well, although it takes a while for the Joker we've read in books from Brian Azzarello, Lee Bermejo, Scott Snyder, Alan Moore and others to kick in. In fact, there isn't that much Joker in the role at all because Phillips doesn't focus on that aspect of the character. Instead, he deals with what caused the Clown's mental breakdown, and it's far removed from any iteration of the Joker from the comics, cartoons or past films, barring Arthur's creepy laugh, which are attributed to a medical condition.
It's tough to put him in the same category as Ledger because most of the film portrays Arthur as a meek entertainer looking for work, struggling romantically, failing as a comedian and not knowing who his true family is. So in essence, there's nothing to set him apart from any movie about someone close to a psychotic meltdown. Even his idiosyncrasies are those of a mentally deranged person, not of the DC villain.
It's not until Arthur takes out some bankers, kills his mom and murders a former colleague that the performance begins to invoke some sense of dread. Yet it still doesn't feel like someone who's unhinged. Admittedly, the scene where Arthur kills Murray (Robert DeNiro) live on air is a throw back to Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. However, other than that and the Joker riots at the end, where the character smears blood on as a smile like the true Batman nemesis, it's hard to call this a depiction of the Joker. And that's okay, because the movie was always meant to be "Joker Begins."
Sure, Phoenix has garnered Oscar buzz. He delivered a riveting performance as a lone wolf ready to lash out at society. Yet, his character's self-absorbed and preoccupied with his treatment by the world. Ledger's character was instead focused on effecting true change and exposing Gotham as a city of hypocrites, while armed with the iconic Joker accoutrements such as the suit, weapons and cards.
Arthur knows Gotham's society is degraded too, but his impact is accidental; Ledger's Joker is methodical and calculating, coming off like a madman who doesn't require or invoke sympathy like Arthur does. Instead, Ledger's version is humor combined with bloodshed while Phoenix's is self-pity combined with panic attacks. And that's why only Ledger's Clown Prince of Crime wants to watch the world burn. That's als0 why his Joker stands tall over Phoenix's Arthur -- he doesn't stumble upon the flames and admire them like Phoenix's character -- Ledger's Joker lights the match and sets out to cause the carnage. He's leading the pack, not following it.
Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Bill Camp, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Marc Maron, Josh Pais and Shea Whigham.