The Joker: Ledger versus Phoenix

One of film history’s biggest roles is the Joker, with his psychopathic yet oddly witty personality thriving in his dominance and absolute carelessness. He is not only unlike any other character on screen, but also unlike any villain, nor superheroes thereof. To portray a realistic, complex, and suitable character is an art in itself, but to create a villain on screen demands serious techniques beyond any other. Especially the Joker, since he above all is an established favourite amongst the comic book characters and is presented with such ludicrous manners parading in his suit of a clown. To make this character in a non animated film, that also thrive to be taken seriously, is therefore a project of great complexity; especially in casting the best suited actor for the role.

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Presented in I Am Heath Ledger (2017), the actor of which the documentary was created to praise was not highly respected or trusted to take on the role of the Joker. When Christopher Nolan released that he would cast Heath Ledger as the Joker in upcoming sequel to Batman people were not overly excited, not even his close friends by seen in the documentary. By this time Ledger was not an A-lister, only having done a few roles and even by mastering the role of Ennis del Mar in Brokeback Mountain (2006) he was not seen as an actor of value in the eyes of the public. However Ledger delivered and performed his part as the Joker with such depth that the success rate of Batman: The Dark Knight (2008) skyrocketed, landing on many best-movies-of-all-time lists. It also established Ledger as a force to be reckoned with, and being considered as one of the greatest actors and delivering one of the best performances of perhaps the century. Most importantly, he didn’t fall flat in comparison to Jack Nicholson and his interpretation of the Joker in Batman (1989), however Ledger stand beside him; even above in many eyes (including mine).

While the Joker has indeed been portrayed after Ledger by Jared Leto in Suicide Squad (2016), the performance and even simply the appearance of Leto easily can be compared by George Clooney’s lousy attempt at taking on Batman in Batman & Robin (1997), it would have been better never proceeded, here we stand again; letting the role of the Joker move forward to another actor with both anticipation and fear. This time to Joaquin Phoenix in the upcoming film Joker (2019).

Phoenix is formerly known for his performances in The Master (2012), Her (2013), Gladiator (2000), and Walk the Line (2005), also recognised for his activism including being cast as the narrator for the documentary Earthlings (2005). And while the anticipation of watching Phoenix playing the Joker is remarkably higher with him already being an established actor, it also allows for a higher downfall if he doesn’t succeed. It is not with distrust in Phoenix as an actor this is pointed out, but with the element of surprise. Previously mentioned Ledger was not thought of much before he wooed everyone with his performance, which while it was a disadvantage leading up to the release of the movie quickly turned to an advantage. Ledger could enter the role of the Joker completely and dominate everyone with his brilliance, partly because no one thought he would. However, in the case of Phoenix, its the opposite. He has the advantage leading up to the release of the origin story of the Joker being highly trusted and already dominating the discussion of upcoming films, but the question is if he can stand tall when the film is let into the world.

Also, the success of both the film and the character of the Joker is not simply based upon the performance of Phoenix. It also depends on the entirely of the movie, primarily based on the techniques of film making and adaptation of the story line. An in this, Batman: The Dark Knight had an advantage. A origin story is not for everyone’s consumption, since it usually is far less exhilarating and much more straight up geeky than a protagonist versus antagonist element to the narrative. If the latter appears in Joker, the character of the Joker is also determined by the portrayal of Batman, since the chemistry is crucial to the story. Another interesting aspect to this is the idea of protagonist and antagonist duos, in the theory of film making is set to being an absolute. The Joker performs best with a specific opponent, any form of good hearted fellow won’t do. A deeper analysis of this is presented by the Lessons from the Screenplay, which dives deeper into why Batman: The Dark Knight was the ultimate film for both Batman and the Joker. This a key point in the infrastructure of which the Joker has to exist in to be able to perform as a character, which is probably hugely missing in an origin story.

However, the origin story also has advantages to the classical good versus evil narration. The time frame of which the Joker will have in his own movie is much larger, focusing primarily on him as a character and allowing all elements to explore and develop the role further than what could be done in a film following another character. Every element of Joker can be used to benefit the story of the Joker, in his madness and insanity but also have time to gain understanding regarding other sides of the character such as his background and perhaps more vulnerable emotions. And this, hopefully, nuanced portrayal of the Joker will succeed gracefully if Phoenix step forward into the role as he previously has done, being nominated for three Academy Awards and a sea of other honorships.

All things considered, my personal view of the matter is that while Phoenix might perform with elegance and deliver a well rounded version of the Joker the premises of him conquering the leader of the role to both Nicholson and Ledger seems too unlikely for him to succeed. Especially with the shock factor of what was the work of Ledger’s acting combined with an less outstanding but still honorable performance of Christian Bale playing Batman and the directing by Nolan that created the masterpiece that is Batman: The Dark Knight. However, it will bring much interest and contemptment to follow the path to the release of the Joker and hopefully Phoenix, and the film, will not only amaze me, but also prove me wrong.



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