A battle for the ages…where only one Clown Prince of Crime can emerge victorious!
Anytime there is a remake, reboot or redesign of something, you’ll inevitably be left with two camps of people. The divide will come amongst those who love the new vs. those who hate it and prefer the old. Batman is no different. Since Christopher Nolan first relaunched the franchise with Begins, people have debated on the merits of his vision vs. that of Burton’s (Schumacher gets no representation in this article). While you can make arguments for which Bruce Wayne, which Batmobile and which Bat Suit are ultimately the best, that is surprisingly not the usual subject of argument.
For most people, the conversation almost always turns to one question: who was the better Joker?
While there have been many permutations of the character from the comics over the years, we have but a small pool of onscreen performances to choose from. In fact, there have only been about four of note in the last 50 years! That SHOULD make the contest fairly easy to decide right? Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. The latest debate focuses in on the two most recent: Nicholson and Ledger. Problem is, with such a huge gap in time between these two performances, the context of pop culture is completely different for both (thus leaving people with very different perspectives on the matter).
But this is not an unknowable mystery of the universe. I’m going to break down these characters and score on a few key areas, in my attempt to finally answer this long standing question of exactly who is the better Joker. Time to find out if it’s Jack or Heath once and for all!
Pre-Fight Honorable Mentions:
Before we get started, I would be remise if I didn’t give credit where credit is due. First is Cesar Romero. Most remember him as the campiest rendition of the character on the ‘60s TV show (with his porn star mustache he refused to shave off, requiring the makeup team to just paint over it). While he probably isn’t a shining example of what the Joker should be, I always enjoyed him. However, no one can argue that Mark Hamill gave the best performance we are likely to ever witness. He breathed life into this character in a way that set the standard for all others who would follow (most of whom will NEVER even come close). Mr. Hamill …you’re tombstone will no doubt include a squirting toxic flower.
MAIN EVENT…Nicholson vs. Ledger ROUND #1 – The Look:
The designs of these two iterations are like night and day. While Burton did a heavy revamp on Michael Keaton’s Batsuit for his vision, he did the opposite with Nicholson. Leaning on influences from the comics that came before, the ’89 Joker certainly looks familiar. In many ways he appears to have jumped right off the page. However, Nicholson himself is often criticized as being too fat for the role. Even though Ledger’s smaller frame and stature make him a better fit for the character’s physicality, there is something to be said for his scars (insert infamous line here). Nolan wanted a more psychotic take, which was in keeping with the “real world” approach. While his look was impressive, I found him a little too far removed from the Joker we all know and love. Being so ground in reality loses some of the fun and magic of the comics in my opinion (this is a story of a man who dresses like a giant bat after all). I give the nod to the original.
Nicholson vs. Ledger ROUND #2 – The Performance:
Here is where we truly get into the nitty gritty. People typically have strong opinions on exactly why Leger’s performance was heralded as such a brilliant work (mostly due to his untimely death just before the film’s release). Some even suggest that, had it not been for this tragedy, his rendition would have been panned as goofy or mediocre at best. For me, I truly enjoyed every scene. He was very much like watching a train wreck…but a beautiful one. When he’s not onscreen, I’m waiting for the moment when he will return. The scenes which feature him just sitting and talking with people (like the interrogation with Batman or the hospital bed with Harvey Dent) are where he really shines. Regarding Nicholson, you get his usual one note performance. He’s just Jack being Jack…but in white makeup.
Nicholson vs. Ledger ROUND #3 – Entertainment Value:
You can make all the arguments you want about this x-factor or that, but at the end of the day it all comes down to fun. That’s why we go to the movies or read comic books in the first place--to be entertained. So this debate really comes down to which actor entertained you more. For me, the directors factor into this pick greatly. While I admire what Nolan has done overall, he simply can’t touch Burton’s gothic vision. The eccentric director (who had just come off Beetlejuice at the time) crafted a world that was so perfect for a Batman film, it’s still considered one of the best superhero films of all time. Nicholson’s Joker just seems right at home here and is the perfect counterpart to Keaton. I never get tired of the ’89 version, so by extension, that would mean the ’89 Joker is still my favorite.
There you have it. Nicholson wins on two out of the three most important factors to consider in this debate. While some might accuse that I prefer the Joker I grew up with simply on nostalgic factor alone, I assure you that’s not the case. I truly came at this from an objective stand point and still have an appreciation for what Ledger accomplished. It’s just that I feel history will remember things a bit differently (ultimately crediting Nicholson as the definitive choice of this era).
Do you disagree with my pick? Normally this is where I’d give you my “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH” line. Instead, let’s go a softer route. Let me know why you feel Ledger is a better choice in the comments section below.
In the meantime…Happy Batman Day everyone!