What ‘Joker’ Fans Are Saying About Heath Ledger After Seeing Joaquin Phoenix’s Performance

Love it or hate it, director Todd Phillips’ Joker is definitely getting a strong reaction from fans and critics alike. The film presents an overwhelmingly bleak, grounded origin story for the Clown Prince of Crime, one that is anchored by Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. The actor’s unsettling turn already has people speculating about his chances during awards season.

Of course, if Phoenix does walk away with Oscar gold, he’ll be the second actor to do so for playing Gotham City’s most infamous supervillain. Heath Ledger previously won a posthumous Academy Award for his role as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. No wonder Phoenix was reportedly hesitant to sign on for Phillips’ film in the first place.

Given how iconic Ledger’s role is, the arrival of Joker has people comparing the performances of Ledger and Phoenix.

Joaquin Phoenix at the New York Film Festival | Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Film at Lincoln Center
Joaquin Phoenix at the New York Film Festival | Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Film at Lincoln Center

What fans are saying about Heath Ledger versus Joaquin Phoenix

While it may seem blasphemous in some circles, the physical and emotional depths Phoenix goes to in Joker has left some fans to declare his performance superior. “You know what? I’m just gonna go ahead and say it. Joaquin Phoenix did as good if not a better job than Heath Ledger,” one fan said on Twitter, while others maintain that Ledger’s Joker is still superior.

Many fans are choosing to split the difference between the two performances. Since The Dark Knight doesn’t even attempt to explore what made the Joker who he is, Nolan’s film and Joker do provide vastly different stories and versions of the character.

“It’s not entirely fair to compare Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix’s Jokers considering we got an entire movie to see the Arthur Fleck character, and not enough Heath’s Joker In TDK,” another fan tweeted. “Both did a brilliant job.”

The Joker is wild, open to interpretation

What makes the Joker such a compelling character is how he can be molded to comment on a wide variety of societal ills. Since his debut in 1940, the Joker has been depicted as cartoonish, sinister and everything in between. Such history may, in fact, render these comparisons all but pointless.

“The Joker always reflects his era,” one fan tweeted. “Heath Ledger’s depiction represented fear of pure, nameless chaos and shifting justification. Joaquin Pheonix’s (sic) depiction reflects anxiety of radicalization and descent into violence.” 

Just as Ledger’s Joker proudly declared himself an “agent of chaos,” the character has no inherent definable meaning but is a blank slate for storytellers to graft their own messages onto. So, while DC Comics fans may prefer one take or another, the Joker is tailor-made for reinvention.

Who will be the DCEU’s new Joker?

The question of whether Phoenix’s performance sets a new standard for big-screen Jokers ultimately begs another one: will his version of the character live on in the DC Extended Universe? Prior to Joker, Jared Leto played the role in 2016’s Suicide Squad but was met with a mostly negative reaction from fans, casting doubt on his eventual return.

With Margot Robbie’s imminent return in next year’s Birds of Prey, the absence of any update regarding Leto’s Joker may mean that he is out of the role. Joker could still remain a standalone film, though its box office success means that some kind of follow-up may be in the cards. As time goes by, the chances that Leto will headline his own Joker film are likely slimming.

In any case, director Matt Reeves is moving forward with a fresh take on Gotham City with The Batman. Robert Pattinson’s Dark Knight will face a number of foes — including Zoë Kravitz’s Catwoman — in the new film. If the Joker does make an appearance, Warner Bros. will have to choose between Phoenix and Leto or cast a new actor in the role yet again.