Joker is one of the greatest villains of the 20th century, but the same things that make Joker such a great villain also make him difficult to portray properly. It has often been thought, since Joker’s primary role in the DC universe is as Batman’s foil, it is impossible to even understand Joker in the absence of Batman. Yet 2019’s Joker does just that, exploring one of Joker’s possible origin stories in a narrative intertwined with Batman’s own. Joker was also the vehicle for Joaquin Phoenix’s interpretation of the character, an interpretation that is ranked the equal of Heath Ledger’s iconic 2008 turn as Joker. Yet it is also undeniable that, while both Phoenix’s and Ledger’s Jokers were — and are — iconic, they are quite different interpretations of Joker. They are also very different than his 20th century film interpretations (Jack Nicholson and Cesar Romero), and both are deeply influenced by Mark Hammill’s portrayal of the character in the 1990s Batman animated series, a portrayal that, like Ledger’s and Phoenix’s, is also considered iconic in its medium. To understand what’s going on here, we have to understand why Joker is a compelling character, and how the character can be explored in compelling — and uncompelling — ways.
Joker is, fundamentally, Batman’s foil. He is the opposite of Batman, and stands for everything Batman is opposed to. While some portrayals of Joker show him as a gangster with significant ties to organized crime (Jack Nicholson’s, in particular, comes to mind), it is worth noting that Batman’s rogues gallery already has a villain with a strong organized-crime shtick (Penguin), and that most portrayals of Joker show him as acting not as the head of a large organized-crime ring but rather as the head of a small and usually extremely loyal group. This is because, while Batman stands for the imposition of order, Joker stands for chaos, and organized crime is, well, a form of order imposed on the underworld by its leaders.
This sense of contrast, between order and chaos, also drives their characters and their backstories. Joker is, unquestionably, insane; the question is the nature of his insanity. Yet his insanity is also precisely of a nature that forces us to question Batman’s own sanity. In more camp portrayals of Batman, such as Romero’s and Nicholson’s (and, yes, in terms of portrayal, Jack Nicholson’s Joker is camp) this distinction is often one of flamboyance vs. somberness; in more serious portrayals of Batman, this contrast is developed through scenes of psychologically tense interaction between hero and villain. Key to this interaction is a sense of control, and one of the things that makes Joker scary is that he is a master of manipulating scenes to remain in control.
How to play Joker well: Heath Ledger
Heath Ledger’s Joker is a film legend. Although not quite true, the urban legend that this role led to his death certainly sounds true enough to be believable. But the key to understanding Heath Ledger’s Joker is through the fine details of his acting. His Joker has a clear goal in mind — although he is an agent of chaos, he, like Littlefinger, is even more a master of manipulating chaos to bring about his own ends. At the beginning of the movie, Joker is a bank robber focusing on mob banks, but as Batman, the Gotham P.D., and Gotham D.A. pull the noose around the city’s organized-crime scene ever tighter, he soon finds himself working to break the noose, in particular by breaking its three primary actors: Batman, Lieutenant (later Commissioner) Jim Gordon, and D.A. Harvey Dent.
Joker in The Dark Knight is a chess grandmaster constantly pulling the strings, and leaving the main characters one step behind. Very little in the movie is not planned beforehand by Ledger’s Joker, and his plans go off without a hitch. By sustaining this manipulation of events, Joker maintains control and gains confidence. We also see this change in his character across the arc of the movie, from a psychopathic but small-time thief at the beginning of the movie, to the Joker at the edge of losing his veneer of control when he first meets the mob — the small tics of insecurity giving away that this is the first time he’s playing with the big boys. By the middle of the movie, when he allows himself to get caught in order to set up his gambit forcing Batman to choose between Harvey and the girl, though, Joker has gained complete control over his interactions. Thus the iconic interrogation scene: no matter how badly Batman beats Joker, Batman will not kill him — and they both know it. Batman is never in control of this interrogation. Joker always is. This plays through to the end, the last significant scene between Batman and Joker, where Batman comes closest to allowing Joker to die.
This, however, is the point. Heath Ledger’s Joker wants to break men, and to break Batman and Harvey Dent in particular. He succeeds in breaking the latter. But the only way to break Batman is forcing Batman to kill. Joker, in The Dark Knight, is a death seeker, constantly trying to goad Batman into killing him. While others have pointed out Heath Ledger’s Joker’s utter control over the situations he finds himself in, his constantly being one step ahead of the Batman-Gordon-Dent triumvirate, his seeming omniscience, it is this — the fact that Joker’s success in his ultimate gambit demands his death, and his complete and utter disregard for human life, even his own, this implies — that makes Heath Ledger’s Joker so scary.
It also calls into question who in The Dark Knight is really sane. Is it Batman? But nearly every serious superhero portrayal points out that there is something fundamentally broken in a masked vigilante’s psyche, that they are, psychologically, closer to the villains they hunt than they admit to themselves, and Christian Bale’s Batman is no different. Is it Harvey Dent, someone who brings up the entirety of Gotham’s underworld on RICO charges in one fell swoop? who has a penchant making important decisions on a coin flip? Is it Jim Gordon, who fakes his own death in an attempt to bring down Joker, something Joker himself seems to have foreseen? There is something said for the suggestion that Joker, whose displays advanced planning capabilities, who never, ever loses control of a situation, who seems to be, from the heroes’ perspective, all but omniscient — is the sanest character in all of The Dark Knight, and it is this knife-edge balance between insanity and hyper-sanity that Ledger gives his Joker.
How to play Joker well: Joaquin Phoenix
If Heath Ledger offers a vision of a fully-realized Joker, one with no clear background (just the way he likes it) and a hyperawareness of control and chaos, then Joaquin Phoenix offers a Joker origin story. In Joker, we find Joker getting his start as the bumbling clown Arthur Fleck, a socially awkward loner on a dozen different medications, one who lives with his housebound mother. Arthur Fleck’s working-class life is despairingly brutal. Yet, as we immerse ourselves into Fleck’s world, we find ourselves believing, as Fleck comes to, that insanity is the only way out of it — and we find there is more to the story than meets the eye. Is Fleck indeed adopted? or is he Thomas Wayne’s natural son, one who he forced Patricia Fleck to sign false adoption papers in order to get out of caring for a bastard, as Patricia goes to her deathbed believing? Joker makes a compelling case, amidst subterfuge and misdirection, that Batman and Joker are, in fact, brothers, a wrinkle that definitely deserves inclusion in the Batman canon.
Joker is a movie of disassociation. One by one, Arthur Fleck’s links to the real world — his job, his social-worker appointments, his standup attempts, his girlfriend — get taken away from him, until he at last snaps and starts killing wantonly. We see, in the birth of Joker, the death of Arthur Fleck, and as Joker takes control, he destroys the last few anchors Fleck may have had to the world. Joker has no identity, no backstory, and in Joker we see him expend efforts to make it that way.
Unlike Heath Ledger, Joaquin Phoenix sought to emphasize the nature of Joker’s madness, a madness that comes across not so much as insanity but as hyper-sanity in The Dark Knight. He does so through brilliant acting — through the contrast between the contortions Fleck makes to fit into day-to-day society and the freedom Joker supplies. Yet this freedom comes with its own darkness. Not only does Fleck find himself increasingly willing to kill, but it is with the freedom that Joker lends him that Fleck falls for Sophie … and it is the realization that his entire relationship with her is a delusion, a figment of his imagination, that makes Fleck at last snap and become Joker.
For both Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix, there is more than one side to the Joker, more than one part of his character, and these parts of Joker’s character are at odds with one another. In The Dark Knight’s disappearing-pencil scene, we see Ledger relate the insecurities of someone who’s just been dropped into a very big pond and has to establish dominance over the other big fish there. In Joker, we see Phoenix relate the struggle between the down-on-his-luck clown Arthur Fleck and the chaos-agent Joker he would become. In particular, we see how Joker slowly but surely gains the upper hand by deceiving Arthur Fleck, until by the end of the movie he has abandoned the person he was and has fully committed to the role of Batman’s archnemesis. Both of these performances are masterful, but they are masterful precisely because of the subtleties and ambiguities Ledger and Phoenix bring out of the character. Just tattooing “Damaged” on one’s forehead is not enough to evoke the frightening insanity-that-may-not-even-be-insanity at the heart of Joker’s character.
Learning from Mark Hammill
Prior to Ledger’s breakout 2008 performance, the gold standard for Joker was Mark Hammill’s in the mid-90s Batman animated series. Hammill, whose other iconic role is Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker, In part due to the series’ length, Hammill was able to bring a depth and richness to Joker’s character that earlier filmic portrayals had lacked. Hammill’s Joker is a criminal mastermind, true, but he does not have the mob connections Jack Nicholson’s has. He is shown having to work harder, and be more daring, that most of Gotham’s underworld, a nexus which puts him well and truly in Batman’s crosshairs. (In fact, Hammill’s Joker is almost a workaholic.) It is Hammill’s Joker that most fully explores the character’s charisma, a charisma hinted at in Joker, one which results in his recruitment of psychiatrist and sometimes-girlfriend Harley Quinn. Both Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix took cues from Heath Ledger’s Joker, though in very different ways: as Phoenix’s Joker takes Fleck over, the expressiveness of character Hammill perfected shows through, as does Hammill’s Joker’s strong association with Arkham — indeed, Phoenix’s Joker may well perceive Arkham as his home.
The other major character role Hammill’s Joker perfected is his ability to manipulate, stay one step ahead of, and even control Batman — and it was this sense of manipulation and control that Heath Ledger brought to the table in his performance as Joker. Indeed, one can almost say that Joker’s character greatly matured in the animated Batman’s run, and that Phoenix takes as his inspiration the show’s early days, when Joker was less calculated but more psychotic, while Ledger took as his inspiration the show’s later days, as the character’s role as Batman’s foil led to him becoming involved in more and more intricate plots, and we see Joker’s planning and control abilities take center stage.
Joker is as important to the Batman mythos as Batman himself is. It speaks volumes that Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as Joker focuses on the character in and of himself. Joker’s character succeeds not because he is a gang ringleader or a psychotic nutjob, but because he exudes charisma and forces Batman to confront things about himself that are themselves overly simplistic. It is as this that we see Heath Ledger’s Joker. Yet Joker is a complex character in his own right, as much antihero as villain. In Joker, we find that Arthur Fleck’s descent into madness has sparked social unrest throughout Gotham, social unrest that seems prescient in an era when Americans — especially younger Americans — are finding out just how limited their access to the levers of power really are. Much can be said about the movie, and much more can be said about why Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix are such successful Jokers, how both have captured something of the dominant energies of the 21st century.
But I will sign off with something blunt: Dismissal of Joker is done at one’s own peril. It is easily the best film of its decade and hits the mark at capturing something in the water that is almost certainly going to define the next decade.