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Who’s the Best Joker?


Among our growing throng of Bat-fans, there is a question we all have posed each other at one point or another. Who’s the better Joker? I mean, really?! Can you truly compare these performances? I set out to do just that, kids. I watched both films, having seen them numerous times, and paid attention to only Jack and Heath. Though, I should point out that in order to appreciate either of their performances you must also be looking at the performance of their respective Batman. Obviously, I started with Tim Burton’s Batman. Heath was sure to have at least watched it himself for just a bit of inspiration.

 

Though, I seem to remember him saying in an interview that he wanted to respect what Jack had done while breaking new ground on the character. I will agree with all of you, that he did indeed break new ground. Though it is unfair to say that Heath’s is better right from the get-go. We must be objective, boys and girls. Each performance is a different adaptation and take on the Batman mythos. However, for those true Bat-fans, there are several criteria that we follow as far as what we expect to see the Joker do in each interpretation. Here follows is a list of neutral ground criteria we will adhere to compare them:

 

1) Overall appearance: how close to the comic version of Joker each character got in physical description alone.
2) Jokerization: Leaving people with the classic Joker grin on their face after killing them. Through either Smilex gas, or the painting on the face in Dark Knight (and yes that totally counts. Pointed that out to someone and it blew their mind!) This is his trademark killing style. An essential part of the Joker.
3) The Joker's personality allows him to find things funny that no one sane would normally.
4) Willingness to sacrifice his own men for the pursuance of his own plans, whatever they may be. He is also prone to whims of a homicidal nature, as death is even funny to him.
5) The Clown Prince of Crime: The Joker commits crimes of incredible daring and calculation that baffle both the Police and Batman. He usually finds himself to be at the top of the criminal food chain.
6) Pre-set gags done for his own amusement. Examples: Acid-shooting flower, fake hand in his sleeve, throwing cards, etc.

 

I found it difficult coming up with more, but I felt that these represent the Joker very well. Also, these are things which we all enjoy about the character and are the most familiar things we associate with the Joker in a given performance. Let us commence then. We’ll start with Jack.

 

Jack Nicholson Joker

1) Overall appearance
-Nicholson sports the classic look. The most familiar look of the Joker. The silk tie tied in a large bow. The purple suit and coat. Jack’s black hat which he wears throughout the film is actually worn by Hamill’s cartoon Joker in Batman: The Animated Series. Impressive that this has actually been added into what we sometimes expect from the Joker. Though, it’s safe to say this is most familiar with Jack. Jack’s Joker is properly chemically covered, unlike Heath’s, and his skin is white, and hair is green as a result. Also, due to the gunshot that hit his face before, his face is now stuck in a smile. He can only smile. This is unique to Jack’s Joker. He cannot emote anything beyond a smile. So white skin, green hair, purple suit. This meets this criteria.

 

2) Jokerization
– Jack’s Joker uses the classic Smilex gas Joker has used on countless victims to leave them as horrifically grinning as he is, even in death. “As my plastic surgeon always said, if you gotta go, go with a smile!” He even leaves the city in a scare for personal hygiene products as they start dying with the same result as the gas. Easily meets the criteria.

 

3) The Joker’s personality allows him to find things funny that no sane person would.
– I will name one of the many examples from the film. When asked by one of the smaller crime bosses if he can leave the Joker’s employ, Joker offers his hand in peace. The man shakes his hand, only to find a hand buzzer. With a few thousand volts behind it. Upon viewing the smoking corpse of this man, Joker can’t help but laugh and makes the joke, “Antoine got a little hot under the collar.” He even goes so far as to mock the dead man by continuing to talk to him and reveals his further plans for his expansion as the crown prince of crime in Gotham. And then laughs after joking, “I’m glad you’re dead!” The scene ends with his maniacal laughter still ringing and laughing about the fact that he’s dead and he was talking to him. He’s amused by his own madness. Criteria met in spades.

 

4) Willingness to sacrifice his own men to meet his own needs or advance his plans, or simply from his own crazy whims.
– Jack definitely meets this one as well. One example is when he kills his most loyal henchman throughout the movie, Bob. You almost feel sorry for Bob. He’s always had Jack/Joker’s back. Then Joker just blows him away, after Batman flies away with his Smilex gas-filled balloons. This a whim killing. Also, several henchmen are seen meeting a bad ending, usually through a large fall, during the film.

 

5) The Clown Prince of Crime: The Joker commits crimes of incredible daring and calculation that baffle both the Police and Batman. He usually finds himself to be at the top of the criminal food chain.
– Throughout Batman, Jack’s Joker makes it clear to all of the criminals and the Police that he is in charge of crime in Gotham City. He blows away a mob boss in front of the courthouse. Thus ensuring his place as head of the Grissom crime family, and its legitimate holdings. He kills his boss, played by Jack Palance, setting in motion the chain of events that begins his reign. Meets the criteria.

 

6) Pre-set gags done for his own amusement.
– Let’s see, we have a few of these from Jack. (And a brave choice on the part of Tim Burton to keep that aspect of his character.) Fake hand in his sleeve when he offers to lend Vicki Vale a hand. Used the buzzer to electrocute the mob boss. Pulled the extended barrel on a handgun to take down the Batwing. Also did the classic BANG! Flag gag that Joker occasionally likes to do, just to keep himself guessing. Used his acid-spitting flower on his girlfriend Alicia, though we didn’t see it, and used it to scare Vicki Vale. Used a small flamethrower lighter to light the candles for himself and Vicki Vale at the museum. There may be others, but we won’t list them all. Meets the criteria.

 

So Jack meets all of these neutral criteria. Whew! Probably the reason it was so memorable. And because Jack Nicholson was the first and only choice for that film. Executive Producer Michael Uslan pitched him as the Joker before it was ever completely off the ground and stuck by it. Jack loved Tim Burton’s work, having been a fan of Beetlejuice, and signed on without hesitation. We are lucky to have such a great actor to have portrayed the Crown Prince of Crime in a truly chilling, and over-the-top performance. Feel lucky Bat-fans. Now, on to Heath.

 

Heath Ledger Joker1) Overall Appearance
– Heath’s Joker is a break from the traditional in a few ways. First, he paints his face on. He doesn’t have white skin. We’re not giving points for being exact, however. This is a different interpretation, and the classic look is still referenced. Dyed green hair, Joker’s classic face of white and red for his smile. Instead, it is simply drawn on. This is similar to Jack’s Joker in that the smile is meant to always be on his face, which makes the presence of it constantly even creepier. Meets the criteria.

 

2) Jokerization
– As Heath’s Joker is grounded more in reality than Jack’s, Heath’s Joker paints his face on his victims, much as the Smilex gas leaves people with the same Joker grin as Jack. He does it to the Batman wannabe whom he hangs from City Hall, to all of the city personnel that he leaves for Batman to find, and others. Meets the criteria.

 

3) The Joker's personality allows him to find things funny that no one sane would normally.
– Ok, let’s name some good ones. When one of his henchmen touches Batman’s cowl and gets electrocuted. He finds it so funny that he kicks him and taunts him about it and laughs even harder. Taunting the detective in the holding room, he laughs about the cops he’s killed that died “cowards.” In one of his videos, he does his “starting tonight” speech about people being killed following the Batman wannabe he’s left at City Hall. After he says, “I’m a man of my word,” which he is saying mockingly he bursts into laughter. He’s taking the very nature of his actions lightly, and comically. Heath’s Joker is slightly more sadistic than Jack’s, probably the reason why so many of us enjoyed it so much. Meets the criteria.

 

4) Willingness to sacrifice his own men for the pursuance of his own plans, whatever they may be. He is also prone to whims of a homicidal nature, as death is even funny to him.
– First seven minutes of the film! Kills every single man on his team. MEETS THE CRITERIA!

 

5) The Clown Prince of Crime
– Heath’s Joker sets up elaborate plots to entangle the Police and Batman, throughout The Dark Knight. From the very beginning, he kills his whole team in order to secure every dollar he’s stolen, in order to fund his small operation. He slowly but surely does almost exactly what Jack’s Joker did by midway through Batman: taking control of all crime in Gotham. By the end of the film, he has double-crossed even the Russian and Moroni and tells him that his men work for him now. “This town deserves a better class of criminal. […] This is my city.” And let’s not forget, that going after Harvey Dent was merely a distraction so that he could have an excuse to get locked up and then break out of the Police headquarters. Meets the criteria.

 

6) Pre-set gags done for his own amusement.
– This one’s just a bit of a stretch. But we’ll allow a few things regardless. At the beginning, he has a bit of string from his coat attached to the pin of the smoke grenade in the bank manager’s mouth. He then drives off in the school bus releasing the pin. Hilarious, and twisted. Counts. Killing the policeman while dressed as a nurse. Counts. Failing to trigger the bomb in the hospital and then repeatedly clicking it until it does. Counts. There may be a few others that escaped my notice. But this Joker was more sadistic, and far less playful than Jack’s Joker. Both are psychotic, homicidal, maniacs who thrive on the chaos that their actions cause. But Heath’s Joker relishes the chaos far more. Jack’s simply wants to be top dog at all times. Meets the criteria.

 

So we have a problem, Bat-boys and Bat-girls. Each of them met the criteria. Hence the problem with this argument. I had planned to elaborate on the nature of each performance, but came to a conclusion halfway through writing them. After watching and comparing the movies so closely, I noticed that the madness of the character is different for Jack than for Heath. Heath is the Joker the entire film. Jack becomes the Joker and becomes progressively crazier as the film advances. So the final criteria comes down to this: who was the Joker on screen longer? We have a winner. The late Mr. Ledger.

 

Though I will point out one last thing. Heath clearly broke new ground, mainly due to Christopher Nolan’s incredible script with his brother Jonathan Nolan. Also, Heath chose to change the pitch of his voice for the role. Jack chose to keep his normal voice. Subtle differences, but the end result for me is that these performances are far too difficult to compare. They are both incredible actors and making this decision was incredibly challenging. However, we needed to squash this argument once and for all. And we have. We respect that Jack came first, and paved the way. But Heath hit the ground running in this case. And he achieved the Oscar for it, regardless of the fact that he died and they wished to honor him. His performance is chilling and sadistic and brilliant. No one could have played it better.

 

Posted by Chris Gering

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