Reflections of a Hierophant: Why So Serious?

Join me while I reflect upon the ever-present debate on who was the better Joker: Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson?

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By TheHierophant - 1/24/2011
      I just finished watching "The Dark Knight" for the umpteenth time, and I thought that the time has come for me to properly weigh in on the on-going issue among many "Batman Film" fans: Which Joker was the best between Heath Ledger's dark, brilliantly manipulative, and psychotic Joker, or Jack Nicholson's comical, homicidal, and psychotic Joker? Now, let me be honest. If I was forced to pick a favorite between the two, I would have to choose Heath Ledgers darker take on the iconic villain. But, I will not let my biased interfere with my reasoning for both cases. So, here it is, my argument of who is the better Joker between Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson:

      So, we're going to start with Nicholson's (age before beauty). Jack Nicholson's take on Joker in Tim Burton's "Batman" from 1989 was largely inspired by Steve Englehart's recreation of the iconic villain à la "Detective Comics" #469-476 which was dubbed, at the time, "The Definitive Batman." And, again, reprinted as "Batman: Strange Apparitions." The character was comical, but with an equally maniacal tinge added to it. Particular scenes stick out in my mind, such as the murder of Bob. It really showed the cold-blooded nature of Joker. That he would kill ANYONE if it so suited Joker. Also, when Vicki Vale splashes water in his face, when he uncovers his face... Whoa, that was scary. The make-up that was used to make Jack Nicholson into Joker was some of the scariest effects I've seen. Even including films from today, the make-up was rather impressive. It still stands up as strong today as it did when it was released. There's not a whole lot about the wardrobe you can get wrong, when it comes to Joker. Essentially, it needs to be a purple suit, with bits of green in it. I thought the outfit he wore in the film blended a clown's uniform with that of a gangster's classy suit. Wonderfully pulled off and, again, still as impressive now as it was then. The only thing that I think drug down the character was giving him a face before his accident. I realize that the story told usually entails some sort of petty criminal having a terrible acid-bath, I just think if you shroud a villain in mystery, it makes them that much more threatening, and scarier. Again, I feel, an epic fail goes to Burton for making Joker the killer of Bruce's parents. I think it was a cheap way to give the final confrontation between Batman and Joker more "meaning." There was no need for that, Joker's maniacal tormenting of Gotham could have made him the living representation of what Batman fought against, making the battle personal as well. To me, it just seemed cheap.

      Now, we move on to Heath Ledger's, seemingly, smarter version of Joker. A lot of people were a bit shocked at the choice of Heath Ledger to portray Joker (myself included). I always knew that Ledger was an excellent actor, but wasn't entirely positive he could pull this off. But, we were all certainly surprised. It was Ledger who came up with the chaotic version of Joker seen in "The Dark Knight." Nolan agreed with Ledger that this was the best way to present Joker in his Batman films. Heath lived alone in a hotel room for a month, trying to get the posture, voice, and personality right for the role. He also kept a diary during this time, writing down the thoughts that went through Joker's mind. I thoroughly enjoyed the overall look of Ledger's Joker over Nicholson's. I felt the Glasgow Grin was the perfect touch to the character. The lack of a history is what I've always wanted with Joker. It, ironically, made me really curious to know how he actually received the scars. Much to the annoyance of my wife, I would walk around our house (or anywhere we were at) repeating, in my best Joker voice, the first story of how he got the scars. What a fantastic piece of cinema that was, and, easily, my favorite part of the movie. I've heard that Ledger also came up with these stories, but I can't find the source where I heard it. I do enjoy that the final battle between Joker and Batman was very personal. While some say it was because of the death of Rachael Dawes, I feel that it was because the Joker, easily, took everything that Gordon, Batman, and Dent worked for, and twisted it on itself (along with the death of Dawes, but not as much as some may think).



*SIDE NOTE*
Those who say that if Batman can't handle Joker and a couple of dogs, how could he possibly handle fighting Bane, have missed the point of Batman, essentially, losing that battle. The point was that he was so wrought-up with emotion, he failed to use his training. He fought with too much emotion, and only when he slowed his roll, and cleared his head, did he overtake Joker.




      So, that's it. In my opinion, you can't compare the two. They are two completely different takes on the same character. And both are excellent, in there own way. And, for those who say Ledger received an Oscar for his performance, while Nicholson fell short, I have an argument for that, too. Ledger did a magnificent job. Do I feel that he deserved that Oscar? No, that should have went to Josh Brolin that particular year. The nomination, on the other hand, he did deserve that. Sadly, if Ledger hadn't died, the role probably would have been overlooked by the Academy, and he definitely wouldn't have won without his tragic death. To be perfectly honest, I think "The Dark Knight" deserved far more nominations from the Academy than it received (Best Picture and Best Director were surely deserved). But, I feel that "Batman Begins" was equally great, and deserved just as much praise and attention (particularly Liam Neeson). But, after hearing my argument for both, you be the judge. Thank you for reading, and weigh-in in the usual place.




Until then, take care, and I'll see you in the future...
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GrandWrex - 1/24/2011, 2:14 AM
both were pretty good jokers, but heath ledgers joker actually frighted me a little but in an amazingly blow your mind kind of way.

great editorial by the way:)
MrMurdock - 1/24/2011, 3:17 AM
Different times. Can't compare. Although I like Ledger more as an actor so i'll have to say him :P
RorMachine - 1/24/2011, 3:27 AM
I thought Jack's performance was great but not Burton's take on The Joker. At the time I loved it as a kid but that was before I really got into Batman comics and realized how far off the mark he was. He nailed the clownish side, SOME of the nastiness. But the motivations were ridiculous! He boils Joker's beef with Batman down him wanting to [frick] Vicki Vale! And turns it into a simple kidnap/rescue plot. And as you say, making Joker the killer of Wayne's folks was a terrible idea. Not because it so drastically altered the source material as much as it basically took Batman's very reason for being Batman away! The whole point of having Chill be the killer and then die before Bruce could exact his revenge was to have him become Batman to punish all evildoers. They all became potential Joe Chills in his eyes.

Ledger was fantastic, and Nolan gave us a better interpretation of the character imo. The multiple choice past is something I always loved about Alan Moore's take on him. And he was a true nemesis to Batman in it. They were linked. There was drama. Not just "you killed my parents prepare to die"..."Oh ok but can't it wait until Miss Vale blows me?"
marvel72 - 1/24/2011, 4:19 AM
both have given great performances as the joker,i think heath ledger just beats him.

but saying that he wouldn't of won the oscar if he had lived,his death sway the vote if you ask me,not his acting ability.
SHO1138 - 1/24/2011, 4:26 AM
Godzillafart - 1/24/2011, 4:30 AM
It is a bit silly to compare the two. Ledger's performance simply would not have been allowed in a comic movie in 1989. Both performances were fantastic for the film they were created for.
Godzillafart - 1/24/2011, 4:31 AM
It is a bit silly to compare the two. Ledger's performance simply would not have been allowed in a comic movie in 1989. Both performances were fantastic for the film they were created for.
Fenlion - 1/24/2011, 4:35 AM
Nolan showed greater respect for the character's origins and motivations. And Heath's Joker was pure acting. Just look at him sitting across the desk from Gordon and Bats. Brilliant.

Nicholson's Joker was just Jack being Jack with a cackle; the same voice that he uses in most of his movies. The only time I've seen Jack really stretch himself was in "About Schmidt", where he really was someone else.

Heath FTW
comicbookjerk - 1/24/2011, 4:35 AM
Yeah watching Batman the Animated series right now and Mark Hamill makes them all look silly!
LEEE777 - 1/24/2011, 4:44 AM


There is no winner!



Oh and HAMILL too!
blvdnoise - 1/24/2011, 4:50 AM
@Leee777 Agreed.. Both GREAT in different ways in a different telling of a story. Very respectable performances by both actors.
KillerOfSaints - 1/24/2011, 4:57 AM
Its like comparing Ferraris to Lamborghinis...but just once I wanna see Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill dressed up as Bats and Joker, repectively. Oooh I wonder if they would consider dubbing Bale's voice with Conroy when he's being Batman??? Just think when he says "i'm not the one wearing hockey pads" or "Swear to ME!" and its Conroys voice instead of gravel
RorMachine - 1/24/2011, 4:59 AM
Godzillafart, Burton's Batman carries a 15 cert! If anything his version was more violent than Nolan's. Batman killed, Joker viciously killed. Pen in throat, burning alive. I'm really not sure I understand what you mean by "not allowed"? Back when Burton's film came out movies actually took more risks and got away with more. Nowadays the studios are much more concerned with getting that all important pg13 so that they can squeeze every penny they can from a movie.
Amazo - 1/24/2011, 4:59 AM
At last a balanced argument.I absolutely agree,they are both completely different animals and should both be enjoyed based on what they individually bring to the table.Same as the comics they're based on.Every incarnation of the Joker is different.If you don't like one version just pick up another book and check out the next :)
r1g0r - 1/24/2011, 5:00 AM
Godzillafart hit the major point here. heath's portrayal wouldn't have fit the tone of the 80's version or milleu.

i've not seen hamill's portrayal in quantity, but what i HAVE seen is good.

i think it's important to remember the tone of each movie when comparing the two men's work. one is tim burton's slightly screwy reality, the other is chris nolan's gritty view of bruce wayne's struggle.

don't compare apples and geese.

fenlion: try watching "the crossing guard". it's amazing to watch jack play a man unable to fulfill his own version of justice due to a lack of moral conviction. it's like watching clint eastwood in "bridges of madison county" in that both actors successfully portrayed characters VERY different from their usual stereotypical parts.
johan02 - 1/24/2011, 5:09 AM
THANK GOD!! Finally someone willing to look at MORE than just the fact that it was Ledger's last performance! I know so many people that dont even look at Nicholson because of Burton's twist on the character. Now I'll agree having Joker be the killer of Bruce Wayne's parents was the dumbest thing he could have done, it made the character a shell of what he really should be; that being said, to answer the question presented to us

NICHOLSON IS THE BETTER JOKER! P.E.R.I.O.D.

Now Im not saying Ledger's Joker was bad in any way shape or form, I really think he gave one of the best performance of his career(and I am a Heath Ledger fan), but was it THE Joker? NOT FOR A F*@KING SECOND!! I honestly dint understand how anyone that has ever read a Batman comic can say Ledger's is the definitive Joker, there were only 2 SLIGHTLY humorous scenes in the whole movie. Yes, I understand Nolan was going for a less comic booky, more realistic feel, witch is great, but he is still the JOKEr. The CLOWN prince of crime. In every Joker story I've ever read his dialog always cracked me up, his one liners are classic. Not to mention one of his trademarks, and where were they in Ledger's "definitive" Joker? I own the dvd(as Im sure most of you do)and have watched it several times, I can NOT remember a single one liner, or even a bad pun for that matter. No matter WHAT he did, when, where, or who he did it to The Joker was always laughing, cracking jokes and was ALWAYS smiling. Actually that brings to mind the only real problem I have with Nicholson's(more with Burton's vision really)Joker, and that was they made his constant smile a permanent side effect of his "accident".
Never once in the whole movie was there a real moment of levity to ANYTHING Ledger did. No jokes, no humorous themes to ANY of his crimes, not a SINGLE thing I would normally think of when I think of The Joker. Yes he was a psychopath but was he crazy? The real Joker would have had something witty and scathing to say at every turn, even in the most upsetting of set backs, all while being incarcerated and interrogated, beaten by Batman and locked in Arkham. Where was ANYTHING EVEN CLOSE to being witty? I really dont think I could say anything else if all this hasn't changed your mind, that would make you realize, it is for ALL the things I've said and more that are the reason why Nicholson's Joker is really the ONLY live action Joker there is to date.

Once again I have to say this dose not mean I didn't like Ledger's performance, I thought it was genius, it just wasn't The Joker, not even in an Elseworld.
Denn1s - 1/24/2011, 5:22 AM
oh not another joker vs joker article. both were great for their time. if ledger was in burton's the movie would be banned to kids, and if nicholson was in nolan's movie, everyone would laugh at him.
AC1 - 1/24/2011, 5:23 AM
Personally, I prefer Heath's portrayal in TDK, since it's more faithful, but the two are essentially different characters. I enjoyed Burton's Batman, but I feel some of the changes were uneccesary on the whole, and I do prefer Nolan's series.
I'd love to see a live action adaptation of Batman Beyond Return of the Joker with Mark Hamill as the old Joker before Tim killed him, characterised and stylized as a combination of Hamill's and Ledger's Jokers.

On whether Heath deserved his Oscar... He definitely deserved to win it, but if he was alive I don't think he'd have even been nominated
BeeMo - 1/24/2011, 5:31 AM
I'm very mixed about the portrayal of the Joker in TDK. On the one hand, Ledger's performance WAS legendary and I will give him props for that. For some reason, something about TDK always seemed a bit off for me, in comparison to Batman Begins. I wasn't crazy about the whole Joker "makeup" routine. Heath's Joker could have just been some mad albino who escaped from Arkham in BB, saw Batman during the Narrows fiasco and decided to take on this Joker persona, possibly as an after effect from Ra's gassing of the Narrows.
In addition, I have to agree with INTRUDER, Aaron Eckhart did shine the most in emotional performances and did beat out everyone else. The other thing I missed was Joker's famous killing methods such as his Smile gas and acid flower. This has been a staple of the character for MANY years in the comics, and could have easily been added into Nolan's Batman universe. This could be why I prefer Batman Begins over TDK. It felt like something was missing.

Concerning the comparison of Heath's Joker and Jack's Joker -- There is none. Two completely different takes to suit the times we live in. Society favors darker tales these days ever since 9/11, because we live in a darker age, filled with misconceptions, intrigue and danger lurking around every corner. Heath's Joker suits this world.
The missteps with Jack's Joker (making him the Waynes' killer) was a BIG letdown for me and while Jack's performance was great too - next to Heath's he looks kind of lethargic now.

Anyway, that's my take.
AiyalKilU - 1/24/2011, 5:34 AM
*Yawn, pointless debate

nobody wins

everyone has their own favorites

btw did you miss out the entire year of 2008??
Gunslinger - 1/24/2011, 6:04 AM
Ledger all the way. Nicholson's performance was more of a buffoon than anything else. Not to say Nicholson isn't talented cause he's amazing, but Burton's view of the character, along with Nicholson's ego, made him... A bit too much and a bit camp.

Ledger on the other hand, gave us the exact opposite of Batman, a personification of chaos brilliant in his madness. Manipulative, dangerous, violent and humourous (the magic trick with the pencil is dark and extremely funny). Obviously part of who the character became in the Dark Knight is due to Nolan's vision of the character.
spiderman620 - 1/24/2011, 6:08 AM
both actors played the character well in there respective universes but i would say Ledgers performance was just breathtakingly awesome, i remember sitting in the theater at the midnight showing and saying to my OH MY [frick]ING GOD!! it blew my mind where as Jacks protrayel was "ok cool". what really caught my attention(and you mention this in your editorial) was that the orgins of the character (in the film universe) was shrouded in mystery as it was in the comics. there have been many different versions of how the joker became "joker" ranging from falling into a vat of chemicals, to be being a former stand up comic who just wasnt funny. thats what makes Ledgers joker all more breathtaking, the fact that you never really find out how he got the scars. Jacks protrayal (to me) looks sorta fake and too clean. but nobody compars to MH voice of the joker
thedon786 - 1/24/2011, 6:11 AM
my fav is heath but they are both good in their own ways ;)
spiderman620 - 1/24/2011, 6:14 AM
bale's voice changing when he is batman is kinda nessesary bc everybody as distinct vocal patterns so if its the same it would be pretty esay to identify bruce as the bat
jerryblake - 1/24/2011, 6:16 AM
Ledger's Joker, I'm just feeling there is so much more about his attitude. You can't live in this word without any rules, the chaos will finally consume you. It will consume your mind, it will kill your empathy, any signs of human connections. Finally you will become a monster. And you will be alone. I think Joker knew how alone he really was, that's why he was trying to drag others with him. But, hey. Just a thought.
Sinza - 1/24/2011, 6:32 AM
Bleached Skin!

The Joker's face is white due to the chemical accident, it bleached his skin, rashed his lips red, scarred his face into a grin, and dyed his hair green.

Both of these guys are covered in white face make-up, and it bugs me! Would love to have seen Heath with a chemical burned skin the way IT SHOULD BE!

Jack was funny, but not scary...and he looked silly in my opinion.
Heath was scary, but not real funny...looked like a crackhead clown.

Myself, I can't even watch the old Batman movies. I just bought all four on DVD and I still haven't opened it yet, those movies are just too bad. I want to like them, but then I put them in and remember how painful it is to sit through.
jaybear - 1/24/2011, 6:33 AM
@Gaston: dude, I checked at IMDB and also I saw the Academy Wards last 2009 and I'm pretty sure Heath Ledger won an Oscar for best actor in a supporting role..
by the way, both Jack and Heath portrayed The Joker very well.. I enjoyed Jack's version because I was 1 when it was released in 1989 but I saw it when I was 7.. Then I was frightened of how realistic Heath's version was.. They both portrayed the character in a very memorable manner..
captquirk - 1/24/2011, 6:36 AM
What? No love for Caesar Romero?
SoulAllFlush - 1/24/2011, 6:42 AM
I love them all, Ledger, Nicholson, and Hamill
Gregobi - 1/24/2011, 7:02 AM
Cesar Romero, everytime!!
SymbioteJoker - 1/24/2011, 7:09 AM
Mark Hamill hands down
BeeMo - 1/24/2011, 7:12 AM
@captquirk and Gregobi
Cesar Romero was a GREAT actor, no question -- but as the Joker, he was more of a buffoon than Nicholson's. There was nothing about Romero's Joker that was threatening in ANY way. Plus, his adamant refusal to shave off his mustache, forcing the production to cover it up with white makeup, made him a JOKE! NOT the Joker!
SageMode - 1/24/2011, 7:23 AM
I think Jack Nicholson was the better Joker in the sense of how the Joker was more comically portrayed in the comics initially. Heath Ledger was the better Joker in the sense of being more realistically presented and how more ruthless and psychotic he become over the years.
I like both Jokers. And with all due respect, Caesar Romeros Joker was very annoying
Gregobi - 1/24/2011, 7:28 AM
@Beemo
Agreed but there was nothing threatening about anybody/anything in that series.
flyingbyhisseat - 1/24/2011, 7:30 AM
Both were go for their time.
WhiteDragon66 - 1/24/2011, 7:32 AM
I PERSONALLY THINK THAT LEDGER'S JOKER WAS AMAZING BUT.... MY PROBLEM WITH NOLANS JOKER WAS HIS LOOK HE WORE MAKEUP AND HIS SCARRING WAS DUE TO HAVING HIS FACE CUT,THATS NOT THE JOKER. EVERY JOKER ORIGIN IVE READ HAS THE JOKER BEEING HORRIBLY DISFIGURED BY A FALL INTO THE ACID, WHICH I THINK DAMAGED HIS BRAIN. NOLANS TAKE ON BATMAN IS GOOD BUT A LIL TO REALISTEC FOR MY TASTE AND JOKER HAD SOME REALLY COOL GADGETS LIKE BATMAN NOT KNIVES AND LINT LOL WELL... THERE U GO LEDGER BEATS NICHOLSONS ON THE ACTING PART BUT GOOD OLE JACK NAILED THE LOOK
HavocT - 1/24/2011, 7:40 AM
Either way, Mark Hamill will always have the better voice.
DaiRaion - 1/24/2011, 7:45 AM
I wholeheartedly agree with 'Superguy. Mark Hamill has done more to earn the words "the definitive Joker" with TWO series (Batman: The Animated series, Justice League/Unlimited), THREE films (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, The Batman/Superman Movie, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker), and now a wildly successful VIDEO GAME (Batman: Arkham Asylum), than both Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger put together, and deserves to be part of any discussion of whose portrayal of the character was best.
Octopussy - 1/24/2011, 7:51 AM
This is really a debate!? Heath Ledger-DUH!
Jack Nicolson was just Jack Nicolson in make-up acting like a jack-ass.
drewboyee - 1/24/2011, 7:51 AM
Cesar Romero
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