Joker Actors Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix Balked at Superhero Movies, Then Won Oscars

Throughout comic book history, few supervillains are as iconic as the Joker. Perhaps the Clown Prince of Crime’s playfully devious nature made him fan favorite. Or maybe it’s the complex dynamic he shares with Batman himself. Both characters, after all, share a flair for the theatrical, as Batman Begins acknowledges.

And while the Joker is a perpetual thorn in Batman’s side, his sadistic glee makes the character a blast to play. Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, and Mark Hamill have all relished the opportunity to deliver their own versions of the Joker. But the character’s portrayal has evolved into something darker in recent years, thanks to actors Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix.

Heath Ledger at the Toronto International Film Festival
Heath Ledger at the Toronto International Film Festival | Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

Joaquin Phoenix was hesitant to appear in a comic book movie

In the 2019 film Joker, Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, an aspiring comedian grappling with mental illness. Director Todd Phillips tapped into a number of harrowing themes in the film. And audiences turned out for Joker in droves. The film even earned more than $1 billion at the worldwide box office.

But Phoenix wasn’t so keen to join a comic book movie at first. Despite nearly playing Marvel’s Doctor Strange, the actor is very particular about which projects he takes on. Rarely has he appeared in such seemingly mainstream fare as a movie based on comic books. Then again, as Phoenix discovered, Joker is far from just another superhero film.

After all, the movie doesn’t even feature any superheroes. Instead, the film hews much closer to the early works of Martin Scorsese than anything featuring Batman. A character piece determined to steer clear of the genre’s tropes, Joker presented Phoenix with a challenge. And he, Phillips, and composer Hildur Guðnadóttir developed a new way of telling the story.

Likewise, Heath Ledger turned down the lead in ‘Batman Begins’

Much like Phoenix ultimately rejected Doctor Strange, Ledger rejected a superhero offer before playing the Joker in The Dark Knight. In fact, director Christopher Nolan offered the actor the opportunity to take on the titular hero in 2005’s Batman Begins. According to Nolan, Ledger graciously declined, saying he “would never take a part in a superhero film.”

Given the state of superhero cinema in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ledger’s decision makes sense. For the most part, the genre had fallen into something of a rut. The previous DC Comics adaptation before Nolan’s trilogy started was 2004’s disastrous Catwoman. After seeing what Nolan accomplished, Ledger accepted the chance to join The Dark Knight.

For fans, Nolan’s Batman trilogy certainly worked out for the best. Of course, Christian Bale would go on to star in Batman Begins. And many consider him one of the best versions of the character to date. Plus, Ledger delivered the performance of a lifetime with his chilling turn as the Joker.

Then both actors won Academy Awards for playing the Joker

Ironically, Ledger and Phoenix each hesitated to star in a superhero movie. Yet, when they did agree to take on such a project, they turned in career-defining performances. Both actors went on to win the Academy Award for playing the Joker, though Ledger’s win was posthumous. As a result, fans are locked into an eternal debate over whose Joker is the best one ever.

Perhaps there’s something to be gleaned from the fact both actors initially balked at the material. Because they brought very different perspectives to the Joker, they were able to tap into something more terrifying and elemental. Superhero cinema is certainly much better off with the risk-taking work Ledger and Phoenix brought to the screen.