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HomeCulture & ArtsThe Making of the Joker: Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix 

The Making of the Joker: Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix 

Overview:  

The Joker is a notorious and repeatable role to play in a film. The portrayal of the Joker had been set at a new precedent when Heath Ledger took the role in the 2008 The Dark Night. Audiences and critics alike commended Ledger’s performance of the role for ages after his death. The Dark Night soon became a cult classic after Ledger’s death on January 22, 2008, shortly after the filming of the movie.

The Role of the Joker became an unchallenged role until Joaquin Phoenix played him in the 2019 standalone film, The Joker. The film sparked controversy among loyal Ledger fans regarding the performance of Phoenix as the Joker. During the following year in 2020, Joaquin Phoenix won his first Oscar and many other awards that year for his performance. In just a little over a decade, Ledger’s Joker had been matched with a worthy performance. So how did Joaquin Phoenix rise to become the only successor after Heath Ledger, and what does this mean in relation to Ledger’s iconic role? 

The Joker as a Character 

The Joker is a character that was originally developed in the 1940s by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson. The original character was initially portrayed as a sinister criminal mastermind and psychopath that became more comical in nature than a prankster. Since this character’s birth, there have been countless renditions of the character that have changed over time in the animation, film and comic industry. 

Joaquin Phoenix and Heath Ledger as the Joker 

Christopher Nolan, the director of The Dark Knight sought out to portray the Joker as a man who causes malicious crimes based on his own psychotic amusement. Nolan and Ledger emphasized the Jokers’ external battles through society and Batman as their enemy. The audience is only led on to see how the joker became this persona through passing dialogue. This provided more room for malicious actions to create a sense of entertaining and sadistic havoc, rather than a personal origin story like we see in the 2019 Joker film with Joaquin Phoenix. The Joker in The Dark Night tells a different origin story to manipulate his subjects, leaving his real origin story a mystery with the truth scattered throughout every exaggeration.  

Description: Ledger describes the origin of his scars with how his wife left him 

Description: Ledger describes the origin of his scars through parental abuse from his father.  

On the other side of the Joker’s portrayal, Joaquin Phoenix and Phillips highlight the internal battle the Joker faces between society and himself. Todd Philips, the director, and Scott Phillips, the co-writer, strayed from the original origin of the character itself. This version of the Joker started with a troubled character named Alex Fleck who was diagnosed with the Pseudobulbar affect (PBA), which is a condition that causes uncontrollable laughing/crying. This condition quickly made Fleck a target of discrimination and maltreatment, as he was cast from society, leaving him with a series of undisclosed mental health issues. The film follows Phoenix’s struggle through society to be accepted by it as well as to be broken by it. The audience sees the gradual downfall of the Joker, by highlighting the Joker as a man before the villain, while in Heath Ledger’s portrayal, the villain within the man is highlighted. This allowed Phoenix’s role to take on a more emotional meaning because it allowed the viewer to personify and sympathize with the Joker, since the audience saw the moment that he became the villain.  

Description: Arthur Fleck is coming home from his job working as a clown. As he is on the train, he sees a woman getting harassed which triggers his PBA. His laughing draws attention to the assaulters, and we see Fleck become the victim then the villain. 

Both renditions from these actors are notorious because they captured aspects of realism and raw human expression. This ultimately made both movies more disturbing since it allowed the viewer to humanize the characters. Both Leger and Phoenix played amazing renditions of the joker that served different purposes in each film. Phoenix created history and completed the characters’ subtext that was left a mystery in The Dark Knight by playing an alternate origin of the man behind the makeup.  

“I’m standing here on the shoulders of my favorite actor, Heath Ledger,”

-Joaquin Phoenix

Cinematic Parallels Between Joker and The Dark Night

Description: The Interrogation room is an on running theme between films with the Joker in it.

Description: The Jokers both express their disdain for society and social hierarchy

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