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The Joker: Who did it best?

October 10, 2019

Throughout the history of film, there have been many interpretations of DC Comics’ most memorable villain, the Joker. Each of these films was directed by very different directors and actors which makes them unique in their own way.

1989 marked the first cinematic portrayal of The Joker with the release of Tim Burton’s “Batman.” Burton directed and wrote films like “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Corpse Bride” which have allowed him to create a specific branding for all his films. A majority of Burton’s movies are dark and follow strange characters throughout the plot. “Batman” is no exception, and Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker accomplishes this beautifully. 

Before Nicholson, The Joker had been played by Cesar Romero in a live action play, so “Batman” is considered a revival for the DC villain. The public has claimed that Nicholson’s Joker is the most accurate to the comics, overshadows Michael Keaton’s Batman, and is the most comical, entertaining version of him.

When watching “Batman,” I definitely felt that Nicholson stole the spotlight from Keaton because, many years after watching the film, I recall Batman’s scenes vaguely while I remember the scenes with the Joker as iconic. Along with that, Nicholson’s Joker was psychotic, yet so comical that it made me like him more than Batman in the film. I found myself rooting for the Joker over Batman when he is meant to be the antagonist. 

Not only was Nicholson’s visual display of the Joker spot-on to the comics with his colorful suits and facial details, but his mannerisms and stunts are the most accurate version of the Joker we have seen on the big screen. Throughout “Batman,” the Joker uses dark humor, perfectly timed quips and one-liners. Even when he is dying, he gets the last laugh when he says “sometimes, I just kill myself!” Throughout the film, the Joker also uses gags as lethal weapons and his over-the-top stunts, including the parade scene, which is accurate to his actions in the comic books. 

Nicholson’s Joker is also one where they show his comic book origin story, but still slightly inaccurately. Although he does fall into a vat of acid which transforms him into the Joker, they initially show him as a mobster named Jack Napier which is an origin that Burton decided to create. “Batman” was a different direction for the Joker, but Todd Phillips’ upcoming Joker film with Joaquin Phoenix is meant to be a full origin story of the character which will hopefully be more accurate. As much as DC fans wanted to see an accurate representation of the Joker’s backstory in a different Batman film, Director Christopher Nolan did not make this a goal in “The Dark Knight.”

“The Dark Knight” received great praise after its release in 2008. Nolan, had previously directed “Batman Begins” and several other films unconnected to the comic book hero, such as “The Prestige” and “Insomnia.” Nolan’s directorial style previous to “The Dark Knight” was marked by a morbid tone, setting him up for success for his portrayal of the darkness of the city of Gotham. 

While Nolan’s directing certainly contributed to the excellence of the film, there was one reason for the movie’s critical acclaim. That one thing is the Joker. 

Portrayed by Heath Ledger, the Joker in “The Dark Knight” is the central antagonist of the film. Heath Ledger, having established his talent in acting with films like “Brokeback Mountain,” gives a great performance that makes the character as compelling as he is. The mannerisms and way of speaking that Ledger gives in his role make the character all the more true to his nature and more believable to the viewer. 

However, what makes the Joker in this particular film so great is not just Ledger’s performance, but the design of the character. In the “Dark Knight,” the Joker is a psychopath. He lacks empathy, remorse and reason. In one scene, the Joker has stolen millions of dollars and simply burns it all. He does not want money or fame or revenge. Paired with his cartoonish behavior, his violence only becomes more disturbing. 

In “The Dark Knight,” the Joker is as scary as he is because he has no motive. He has no backstory and in fact, mocks the trope of villain backstories by spouting cliche lies about his family life.

The Joker is powerful in “The Dark Knight” in a way that makes him seemingly untouchable. Batman is powerful through intimidation and his physicality, but the Joker takes away the power in that, unafraid of being hurt or killed, leaving Batman with nothing. The Joker is so compelling because he knows how to use fear–not fear of injuries or death but fear in choice and our own morality. Throughout the film, he seeks out chances for Batman to kill him, and his ultimate plan is having two ferries rigged with explosives that allowed each ferry to kill the people on the other to save themselves. The Joker’s biggest threats are not of what he will do to you but of what he will make you see within yourself. 

Even the setup of the film gives the power to the Joker. He is the centerpiece from the opening shot. The film highlights the Joker’s psychopathic tendencies by contrasting him to others that resort to evil in times of desperation or emotional distress. He is the only one who can make Batman’s morality a weakness. That is why he is powerful. As said in “The Dark Knight,” “this is a man you don’t truly understand.” Another thing we do not truly understand is Jared Leto’s performance in “Suicide Squad.”

In David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad,” one of the many issues with the potrayal of the Joker is the visual depiction of the villain itself. Makeup artist Alessandro Bertolazzi attempted to create a reimagined Joker that still paid homage to the original look. 

However, the public reacted poorly to the character design. The whole aura of the DC villain is meant to be frightening and disheveled, but Leto looks as if he is meant to look attractive as the Joker. The comic book Joker is meant to have a permanent, scarred smile and bleached skin. The Joker’s character is known for wearing a green and purple tuxedo. The tell-tale catchphrases of the Joker, including “Why so serious?” and “Do you know how I got these scars?” and his iconic, deranged laugh are a staple of the character.  

In Ayer’s film, the Joker does not have any of these elements. Leto’s appearance in the film is a contrast to the actual character as he has a regular smile with silver grills on his teeth; neat, slicked back hair; a leather purple, open front jacket; and tattoos. He does not achieve the unkempt appearance that the Joker is meant to have and looks like an edgier, playboy version of him.  Worst of all, Leto’s acting in the film seemed forced, unnatural, and nothing like the Joker. In an attempt to be menacing, Leto makes his voice raspy, the iconic Joker laugh strained and deep, and unnecessary growling noises. His acting choices do not accomplish the goal of making the audience fear the villain, like Ledger’s performance had done, and he definitely does not look the part. While Leto’s performance failed to live up to the character, Phoenix’s in “The Joker” is a stellar, unique interpretation of the long-standing favorite villain. 

When we finished watching Todd Phillips’ “The Joker,” we thought to ourselves, “oscar.” Joaquin Phoenix’s performance was phenomenal and captured the deranged essence of the Joker really well. Although we did not see a representation of the original Joker, Phoenix’s new take on the character was captivating. 

In this film, Phillips comments on modern issues through a retelling of the backstory of the Joker. The mistreatment of the mentally ill and lower classes were prominent themes in the story that heavily impacted the transformation of Arthur Fleck into the Joker. 

“The Joker” accomplished its aim to make the audience feel uncomfortable and anxious due to his experiences of violence and delusion. In the beginning of the film, we see Arthur as a victim because his lack of a support system and unnecessary maltreatment. At work, his coworkers outcast him. At home, he must take care of his delusional mother. On the streets, people see him as an easy target. 

As the movie progresses, the abuse against him accumulates until he snaps. The violence then turns against the people who have hurt him, and he stops being the victim, but instead becoming the villain. His violent acts attract a following of the mistreated lower classes in Gotham. As the Joker becomes a symbol and his violence progresses, riots break out in the city in opposition to the wealth disparity. 

In past films and in the comics, the Joker’s character has not participated in violence for any particular reason, but Phoenix’s Joker has more meaning and depth behind his madness. In one of the final scenes in “The Joker,” Fleck guests on a talk show and engages in a conversation with Host Bill Murray about the people he has killed. When Fleck opens up about how he hurts people because of his mistreatment and mental illness, Murray claims that he is using his mental illness as an “excuse” for harming the wealthy who have abused him. Fleck gets aggravated by Murray’s response and shoots him multiple times after telling a knock knock joke. After this event, the protest group proceeds to ensue mass chaos onto Gotham. During this scene, Phillips does an incredible job reconnecting his own film back to the original plot of the comic books with Batman and Joker. When the protestors are shown causing mass destruction to Gotham city, one of the men in a clown mask shoots Bruce Wayne’s parents which alludes to the origin of Batman. 

In conclusion, we believe that “Batman,” “The Dark Knight,” and “The Joker” all capture the essence of the original Joker in many different ways. While Nicholson’s Joker was primarily focused on humorous elements in the first film adaptation of the character, Ledger incorporated a much darker approach to the portrayal of the Joker and Phoenix brought a deeper interpretation of the villain and his backstory. And as for Leto in “Suicide Squad,” we have decided to completely block that out of our memories.

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