The Joker is more than just your typical comic book character. He is an icon. For some, he’s a distant allegory representing the ire and consequence of society. For others, he’s the embodiment of villainy and pure wickedness, which explains why he’s called The Clown Prince of Crime.
And of course, with the recent release of the new movie, Joker, DC fans and moviegoers alike are going nuts with fanfare. Nevertheless, when comes one spectacular performance of such a widely known role, a comparison is never too far behind it.
Heath Ledger’s 2008 performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight, was revolutionary- not just because of his unique, contorted take on the role- but also due to his inherent critique on morality and societal values. Health Ledger quite literally started a revolution through his interpretation of the Joker, by making the audience for once really question, ‘Who is the bad guy here?’
Whenever actors and actresses make attempts at being political or adding a controversial layer to their roles, they are immediately faced with a tirade of criticism. I, for one, have been guilty of this from time to time. However, both Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix had such captivating performances that transcended such norms. Ledger taught us about the blurred lines of morality and justice, whereas Phoenix amplified such lessons in a more targeted manner.
Nevertheless, we as filmgoers find ourselves at a crossroads of which actor truly embodied the Clown Prince of Crime. To which, the only answer I can give is both, because both actors’ interpretation of the Joker was intertwined into a larger arc, a more profound meaning of work that we, the popular media, have yet to truly grasp. Obviously, such a blanket statement is hard to justify, so I will take the time to first revisit the two movies and crystalize the core message of both.
First, let’s start with Joker. Joker follows the story of a mentally ill man named Arthur Fleck, who lives with his mom in a crummy apartment and works as a part-time clown. Through melancholic coloring, sudden lack, and inserting of music, as well as distinct parallels between the rich and poor- the film makes the audience sympathize with Fleck. Rather than viewing Gotham as a crime-ridden void, the audience is given a glimpse of urban decay and wealth inequality similar to our current plights.
While Joker, on the surface, advertises itself to be about mental health and ambivalent morality, the film itself offers something much different. Throughout the first hour, we’re given a glimpse into Arthur’s life, how he confuses his imagination for his actual surroundings, to the point where he creates a fantasy relationship with his neighbor. Moreover, as we learn more about his multiple conditions, the movie becomes less about wavering morality, and more about how politically, society is okay with brushing Fleck under the rug.
The first hint at this comes at the middle point before Fleck’s character peak, where he has his final appointment with his designated social worker. She informs him that he will no longer be receiving treatment or medication because of the program being shut down. Arthur is devastated, not just because the program is shutting down, but because the program itself has barely had an effect due to its lack of funding and proper management. Arthur was being let go from the very beginning, the ending of the program was just the final nail in the coffin.
As Arthur begins to discover the history of his mother and Thomas Wayne, the movie starts to assert it’s shift towards the true meaning of work. One night, Arthur finds a letter revealing Thomas Wayne to be his father. When Arthur questions his mother about this, she claims she was told to sign papers she “ didn’t even recognize.” At first glance, it can be assumed she was forced to sign a hush agreement, a common tactic of the rich.
However, as Arthur uncovers all the pieces of the mystery from the Wayne family’s blatant fear of the Flecks, the adoption papers, to the asylum reports- we are told that Arthur was simply adopted. That his mother’s testimony was a figment of her imagination.
On the other hand, notice how I said: “ We are told.”
I don’t buy for a second that Arthur was adopted.
Instead, I believe, based on the fact that Ms.Fleck was coerced to sign multiple papers (not a single adoption file) and wasn’t even made aware of said papers’ contents…
It is safe to assume the following.
Ms.Fleck was sexually abused by Thomas Wayne, who took advantage of her deteriorating mental health. He leads her on for decades-why else would he keep around someone he referred to as ‘troubled’ and ‘dangerous’ for nearly 30 years? Eventually, Ms.Fleck got pregnant, and Mr.Wayne was most likely engaged. To save his reputation and marriage, he forced Ms.Fleck to sign a hush agreement and forged adoption papers claiming Arthur was a stray orphan. She gave birth somewhere secluded, and after bribing some officials, got the whole story set straight as well as Ms.Fleck locked away in Arkham Asylum.
If such a narrative sounds misleading, take for account how the majority of sexual abuse cases involve gaslighting and emotional manipulation. For instance, our current President has been accused left and right for forcing women he had affairs with to sign hush agreements. In fact, when Christine Blasey Ford went to testify about Kavanaugh assaulting her, critics claimed she wasn’t credible due to her mental health. To say that Ms.Fleck’s story was an allegory of such a trend is not far off the track.
It’s not fiction, it’s our reality.
That’s the core message of Joker. How we, as middle-lower income society, get played with by the top 1%. The film starts with a narrative about mental health awareness, but by the end, it’s no coincidence that Arthur starts a political movement. Phoenix made the character embody the angry, disgruntled American public and how easily we have morphed into savages. Mental health is an asset to this message, not the message itself.
This makes things interesting, considering how Heath Ledger’s performance is the exact opposite.
At the start of The Dark Knight, we are made to believe that this will be a story about corruption and political malice. However, Ledger’s performance as the Joker twists this narrative entirely. At the beginning of the film, when Joker is ‘negotiating’ with the mobsters, he comments on how the Mob is perceived to be weak on a sociologic level and how its partner in Hong Kong will betray them if caught because it’s ‘all in human nature.’
To be honest, while watching The Dark Knight, the Joker made me feel like I was watching live-action psychoanalysis rather than a superhero film. If you pay close attention, all of the Joker’s “schemes” are mini sociologic experiments. For instance, when he takes over the Mafia, he doesn’t outright kill the remaining henchmen, but instead, he tests their loyalty to each other. He does this by handing them ends of a broken poker stick and having them kill each other to be apart of his new gang.
Another test is found within his double kidnapping of Harvey Dent and Batman’s love interest. He not only makes Batman play into a real-life simulation of the trolly scenario, but he also adds a hidden layer of malice by switching the locations of the two lovebirds.
Worst of all, the whole ordeal was only a starting point for Joker’s main plan. When Joker visits Harvey Dent in the hospital, he laments how he’s a mechanism for chaos and doesn’t believe in the so-called, ‘moral code’ of society. He seeks to not only break such a moral code but to expose it and de-sensitize Gotham to it in the process. It’s later on revealed that by turning Harvey, Gothams “White Knight,” into Two-Face, he’s done just that. Using the Gotham political system, he conclusively proves that morality is ambiguous and puts into question what defines insanity.
Heath Ledger’s performance as a villain who craves chaos yet has his schemes intricately planned out is marvelous. We, the audience, sit in our seats and anticipate each of his next moves. The moment he makes an appearance, you can’t pull your eyes away from the screen- he’s just that captivating.
Ledger’s performance serves as the foil to Phoenix’s. It misleads audiences to think it’s a story of politics and corruption, yet uses such elements to tell a more in-depth story about mental health and morality.
Hence why, whenever I see comparison articles or videos arguing, ‘which Joker did it better?’, I simply shake my head.
They are like Gemini, two parts of the same coin. How could one be better than the other when they both complete such a deep, intriguing character?
The idea is utterly preposterous.
Which begs the question, with Ledger and Phoenix’s performances combined, what is the real purpose of the Joker?
The answer isn’t clear- such a character could never be defined by a sentence, article, essay, or even a full movie. The Joker is a symbol of consequences and revolution. He is what you want him to be. Call him a dark angel or total sociopath; he is the match that lights the spark of controversy.
That is why we love to hate him so.