Joker- The Antagonist
DC Comics’ iconic antagonist Joker is the arch-nemesis of Batman, a homicidal artist and an agent of chaos who strikes a sense of fear and terror in the people of Gotham City. No one has done more harm to Batman than him. He is a vicious, psychotic sociopath often described as the “Clown Prince of Crime“. He is rated as the greatest villain comic character of all time. Joker is the living embodiment of a random turn of events. He shows how circumstances can make a demon out of someone. Joker, the character, is unpredictable, dark, twisted, and unhinged. Joker’s psychotic nature and appearance are what make him different from other villains, where nobody knows what he actually wants and what his next step would be.
The several portrayals of Joker
On the big screen, many actors have tried to play the dark character of Joker. However, there is only a handful of them who have justified his character -the dark and nuanced personality, the Joker laugh and persona. Everyone has taken a different approach and tried to portray Joker through their understanding of the character. The audience is divided in their preference of who played it in the best possible manner, where some may like Jack Nicholson’s snarl or Mark Hamill’s laugh, until the arrival of The Dark Knight. In it, the portrayal of Joker by Heath Ledger became a favorite for a majority of people, it gained so much critical acclamation and praise from the audience that for the first time in the history of Oscars, someone was awarded for the best supporting character as a villain.
After that, Jared Leto tried to portray this complex character in the movie Suicide Squad, but failed miserably and to such an extent that he became the butt of many jokes. With his context, Joaquin Phoenix had big boots to fill, because any performance will be straight up compared with Heath’s performance as Joker.
Joker 2019- The Movie
Todd Phillips’s movie Joker chronicles the origin story of Arthur Fleck and about what led him to come out as evil as Joker. A mentally ill, impoverished party clown who is suffering from Psuedobulbar Affect(PBA), Fleck is unable to continue his therapy sessions due to the cut in government funding. He works as a sign twirler. Fleck is often bullied and beaten by the people of Gotham City. Apart from the problems he faces, he lacks a social life. Moreover, he is tormented by how he is not being accepted by society. He is a failed stand-up comedian and unable to grasp where others are laughing at.
He is downtrodden and lives a shitty life where he gets confused between reality and fiction. However, we can see sympathy in his character. For instance, he often cares for his mother. He also tries his best to make a child laugh in the bus. Arthur’s mother’s betrayal of his trust leads to the birth of Joker, after a heap of setbacks and humiliations. We can see the emotional transformation from painfully trudging the stairs to his house to confidently heading on a wilful path of chaos
Joaquin Phoenix as Joker
One can feel the unnerving atmosphere in the theater which makes a person question whether they are a part of the system, too. The unchecked system and poverty are capable of turning a person into such a demon. Phoenix’s performance is mesmerizing and a masterclass in method acting: his grasp over the Joker laugh which is loud and painful at the same time, his body transformation for the role where you can actually see his ribcage. He treads the line between myth and reality.
Todd Phillips has done a great job behind the camera with his unusual camera angles inspired by Taxi Driver. This makes Joker even more unpredictable. The movie faced criticism for glorifying violence. However, what the movie does is the exact opposite. To this criticism, Joaquin Phoenix responded, “I don’t think it the responsibility of a filmmaker to teach the audience morality”.
Finding a basis for comparison
The performances of Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix, both breathtaking, often find a comparison. To make a comparison, one needs to know the scenarios in which they manifested their respective portrayals. The Dark Knight provides the setting in which Heath appears as wild, expressive and dynamic. He is an unscrupulous force of nature, terrorizing the people of Gotham city from the get-go. He makes it darker, tougher for Batman to live a peaceful life. The presence of Batman in the movie compliments his role.
On the other hand, in the latest film, we can see the softer and mannered side of Joker. He has a sense of humility and sympathy in his eyes. It shows how an unchecked system can originate a homicidal narcissist person. In this manner, there is no mammoth personality complementing Phoenix’s character. He carries the movie solely on his shoulders.
Laughter and attire
One of the most distinctive features of Joker is the dreadful laughter, which often becomes the yardstick to judge the performance. Heath’s laugh shows how he is self-aware about his laughter and how beautifully he uses it as a weapon. It is distinct with the change in every scene. It makes one feel uncomfortable. Phoenix’s laughter is a full-body laugh, where one can simultaneously feel the pain in his throat. His low and high pitch brings distinctiveness to his character. Both of the characters take a departure from Mark Hamill’s iconic laugh in Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995).
The costume of Heath has taken greater liberties than the comics’ character. He wears smudged makeup with a twisted smile and has scars on his face. Phoenix’s is more of a classic clown attire with triangular paint around his eyes.
Heath’s character shows the least interest in the material world. He is a person for whom order is a social construct. He wants to make the world unpredictable. Ruthless and telling fake stories every time someone asks him about the scars, he is erratic and lucid. Phoenix’s character is detached from reality and is driven to insanity by the system. He is on a path of willful chaos.
Heath is manipulative and hard to condemn. He is sometimes empathetic, whereas animalistic at other times. Phoenix is soft-spoken and light-mannered. His transformation is horrific and scarier. From the perspective of the audience, Heath is more terrific because he instills fear from the get-go of the movie. Phoenix, however, is treading the line between myth and reality. There are certain signs of sympathy in his character with which the audience can sometimes relate to.
The painstaking portrayals
Both have taken hard measures to portray the iconic character on the screen. Heath locked himself up in a room with just a journal (which contained certain dark and twisted ideas). Christopher Nolan has said that he did his own makeup and studied ventriloquist’s dummies. Phoenix lost 52 pounds for the role, studied personality disorders and videos of pathological laughter. In his interviews, he has described the process. The line between the actor and his character often becomes blurred.
Both have given a jaw-dropping performance in their portrayal of Joker. They have given a certain distinctiveness and uniqueness to the comic villain. They gross and creep one out, and are capable of making one uncomfortable. Comparison becomes tougher because of the different settings of the characters. The Dark Knight tells us what a person can do to a city, whereas Joker tells us what a city can do to a person. Heath’s portrayal is widely accepted as the best and it sets the bar high for someone to reach. Phoenix has been successful in doing so, if not better, at least at par with Heath Ledger.