Is It Just Me... Or Did Jack Make A Better Joker Than Heath?

Nicholson's Joker is the benchmark by which all comic-book villainy must be judged

Now before Heath Ledger’s fanboys get in touch, we’re not suggesting for a moment that posthumous Oscar wasn’t heartily deserved.

Nor are we saying that the late star didn’t bring fascinating shadings to a character that became truly scary in his talented hands.

In essence, though, Heath’s Joker was a reaction rather than an interpretation – an act of revisionist reclamation that implicitly paid lip-service to Nicholson’s portrayal two decades earlier.

Without Jack’s Joker, Heath’s couldn’t have existed, simply because he’d have had nothing to change.

The notion that the first take on a character is necessarily the best doesn’t always hold true.

No one remembers Ricardo Cortez’ Sam Spade in the original Maltese Falcon, for example, simply because Bogart made the role his own 10 years later in a far superior film.

Indeed, it’s not as if Jack himself didn’t have antecedents to draw on – the Caped Crusader’s cackling nemesis had already been brought to memorable life by Cesar Romero.

Nicholson, though, knew it wasn’t enough to play the Joker big. He needed to be the craziest, kookiest, mentalist bad guy ever seen – a force of nature larger than life, bigger than the film, greater even than the actor playing him. A comic-book villain.

Jack, though, had a secret weapon: his own bad-boy persona and history of portraying unhinged nutjobs.

His Joker could therefore be an extension of his real-life attributes, inviting the audience to make delicious comparisons between fact and fiction.

Ledger, a far more unassuming individual, could only presume the characteristics that came to Nicholson automatically.

His performance is a work of stunning transformation, but it lacks the fabulous collision of fantasy and reality that makes Jack’s, in his own words, “a piece of pop art.”

The other thing The Dark Knight’s villain lacks is any sense of journey or progression.

Ledger’s Joker arrives fully-formed – a hunched, growling freak with clownish slap and ghastly grin already in place.

InBatman, though, we see how Jack Napier becomes the Joker – a cliché perhaps, but still one that makes the character feel more complete and satisfying.

Nicholson also has much better lines – the likes of “Never rub another man’s rhubarb!”, “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” and, of course, “You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” knock the best of Ledger’s aphorisms into a jauntily cocked purple hat.

OK, so there are parts of Burton’s film that now make one shudder – Kim Basinger, Prince’s songs, that cheesy moment when the Batplane poses on the moon.

For good or ill, though, it will always be the daddy of the current superhero boom and, thanks to Nicholson, the benchmark by which all comic-book villainy must be judged, Heath included. Or is it just me?

Matthew Leyland

Jack’s turn is pure pantomime; plus he was too paunchy and old to pose a physical threat to the Bat-bloke. And that bit where he dad-dances to Prince... In short, not scary. Best Joker ever? Mark Hamill. Best Joker who never was? Crispin Glover.

Jamie Graham
Great as he is, Nicholson’s Joker is Jack Torrance with greasepaint. Ledger gets beneath the mask and under the skin.

Rosie Fletcher
Thing is, you never really believe that Nicholson’s Joker is insane. But Ledger’s Joker feels utterly unhinged, which makes him terrifying and unpredictable rather than cartoon villain-ish. For me ‘crazy’ beats ‘big’ every time.

Which Joker do you prefer? Tell us below


    • deedeedragons

      Dec 9th 2012, 9:04

      Yep. Mark Hamill. The best.

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    • Punchbowl

      Dec 9th 2012, 9:15

      Jack went for comic book crazy, Heath went for outright Terrorist!

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    • dangoodfellow

      Dec 9th 2012, 10:24

      heath Ledgers joker is drawn from Alan Moores killing joke more than anything else, something that Nicholsons portrayl ignored, even though it was this interpretation that had made the character popular again. the 1989 joker was a washed out jack nicholson on automatic, a missed oppurtunity for the man who starred in One flew over the cuckoos nest and the shining to give a masterclass in 'crazy psycho'. When i swas dark knight in the cinema, the reaction of the audience was one of genuine unease everytime heath ledger was on screen, something i've never felt in a cinema before or will again soon i'll bet. to paraphrase Jim gordon from Killing Joke " everytime he gets out i just pray he doesn't do something awful before we catch him again". so, in other words, f*** no.

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    • Wozboz

      Dec 9th 2012, 11:08

      Wow. What a question! They were both brilliant Jokers, but were the perfect Jokers for the films they were in. Imagine Jack Nicholson's Joker in The Dark Knight!! Would be a Veryy different film. And what the hell would Michael Keaton do if Heath Ledger's Joker turned up dancing to Prince. He wouldn't have clue! Although it would be pretty scary hearing him say the line “You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?”

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    • McSerious

      Dec 9th 2012, 13:02

      I'm thoroughly undecided on the matter... But I disagree that Nicholson had the best lines. I think they have a pretty even share of great lines. "Why so serious?" "You wanna know where I got these scars?" and (just for its delivery) "LOOK AT ME!" are all pretty quoteable. I actually disagree that Heath's Joker was scary though. He was too charismatic and enjoyable to watch on screen. His actions are frightening, but as a viewer its impossible not to be smiling while he's on screen.

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    • FBSHampton

      Dec 9th 2012, 13:05

      It's just you surely,heath ledgers joker was a million miles ahead of jacks,heaths joker was much more believable and you could really see the madness within him. The oscar was totally justified.

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    • ethanrodgers

      Dec 9th 2012, 13:11

      As much as I like Jack, he did "JACK NICHOLSON as The Joker!" whereas Heath disappeared into the role.

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    • parkerwest5179

      Dec 9th 2012, 13:34

      I know it is the same character, but I don't think that the two compare; Nicholson's Joker is of its time, and is essentially Jack turned up to 11- Jack was the obvious choice at the time for a reason. Does anyone else remember how often Robin Williams was linked to the role of the Riddler? Its kind of easy to see these people in the role because there are similar, albeit exaggerated, aspects of their 'act' or persona that translate into the character, which is exactly what we get with Jack. Part of the impact with Ledger's Joker is that nobody really saw it coming, and obviously its foundations are built on something that is pitched very differently as something that is a lot closer to the real world and less steeped in fantasy as the original films are. Two very different performances of what is essentially a different character... having said that, I wonder what the popular opinion is on the subject of the best Batman? For me, it is hands down Keaton....unless we are including Mr West of course...

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    • FBSChandler

      Dec 9th 2012, 13:49

      The films are too different to really compare their performances and characterizations. Both of them fit the film that they were in, and neither would fit in the opposite film.

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    • jem0013

      Dec 9th 2012, 15:42

      Both great in their respective films, both delivered the goods. If I want tongue in cheek craziness then Nicholson wins and if I want the more realistic and deeply disturbing version then go no further than Ledger. How about Two Face - who is better? Tommy Lee Jones or Aaron Eckhart? Now there is a real conundrum!

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    • kassjawaid

      Dec 9th 2012, 16:05

      Hey guys, I think it depends on the director and their input to the film. E.g. As we all know, Tim Burton enjoys the theatrical, horror and comedy and so Nicholson's Joker is like that. Another e.g. is that Nolan likes to be realistic with his films especially the Dark Knight Trilogy, so having a Joker that fell into chemicals, and was reborn into an evil maniac seems a bit fantastical and unrealistic. I also admire Hamill's Joker as he was cartoonish and crazy. For me personally, as a modern-day audience member, I prefer Ledger's Joker because his interpretation of the madman represents pure chaos. But I like all interpretations of the Joker because each actor brought something new to the famous comic-book villain of all time - Nicholson brought theatricality to the Joker, Hamill made the Joker laugh more menacing, and Ledger expanded and re-introduced the Joker as psychotic, manic, genius, and sometimes, funny (in a weird way)!

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    • kassjawaid

      Dec 9th 2012, 16:07

      Would be interesting if TF did something about who is the better Batman? Or the better Catwoman? Or the better Alfred? Or who is the better Batman director - Burton or Nolan?

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    • danielowen

      Dec 9th 2012, 16:13

      I think this is a very hard question when trying to give a cogent argument. Fans that grew up with the Batman Animated Series have this vision of Joker as maniacal and bi-polar with a big a dash of awful kid humor (which made the fans want Mark Hamill even though he's only a voice and lacks everything else). I think this makes it easier to love the Heath-Joker because he really gets into the mind of a sadistic psychotic freak and pulls it off so eerily well. He's the pinnacle Joker, he had the best laugh and delivered the lines like a champ that he is. The Tim Burton Batman on the other hand, pales in complete comparison with The Dark Knight, and I blame it on Jack. Here comes Mr. Big Shot Actor doing whatever he feels like because he feels he's making a s****y movie so who gives a hoot what people will say. He didn't embody the character at all. He was a mob guy in clown makeup without any cleverness or anarchy behind those droopy eyes. Thank god Danny Devito and Michelle Pffeifer actually got into their roles and did superb job. Maybe more people like him and that Batman because of their history with the campy Adam West Batman and silly cartoons, or that Jack is sacred. But let's get our heads out of our asses and stop comparing, we all know who the better Joker is, there's a reason he won an Oscar for it, because he was that darn good. Also, can we get over this 'Crispin Glover would have made a great joker' cause he wouldn't have, that's just asinine and absurd.

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    • Indianabones

      Dec 9th 2012, 20:01

      I would say hands down Heath Ledger, reason being I and mostly we, all liked Jack Nicholson, and it was well done for that Batman. I have to say when I heard that Heath Ledger was cast for the Joker in TDK I felt let down, I had seen two films of his and hated them! so went in this film completely against him! I was completely bowled over! its true, I can not take my eyes off him when he was on Screen! How he got in to the role, his improvisation on the blowing up the hospital when the explosions delayed! the clapping! I came out of that film with a complete and utter respect for Heath Ledger and will always wonder what his role in the TDKR would have been! RIP Mr Ledger! you won a new fan

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    • Ali1748

      Dec 9th 2012, 20:03

      HeathLedger mopped the floor with Jack Nicholson.

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    • Andy85

      Dec 9th 2012, 21:39

      Oooohhh a controversial one this one. For me it is the joker which had the most impact (bearing in mind I was only 5 when JN graced us with his performance) and I have to be honest Heath Ledger blew me away. Jack Nicholson was expected to be a good joker having already provided a turn as an out and out nutter in The Shining and he did not fail to deliver no doubt securing his place historically on the silver screen. Heath Ledgers performance was unfortunately over-shadowed by his extremely unfortunate demise however, I feel that had his fate not been met prior to the release of TDK I truly believe that his performance would have still been reveared and praised to equal extent. The performance was flawless and the character was completely unrecognisable of the actor. Each film re-inventing the Bat franchise in its own unique style and each antagonist gleaming above and beyond their respective protagonist, Heath to me making that impact that is remembered long after the credits have rolled and the curtains have dropped. As for the comment regarding lines, I have to completely disagree 'I will make this pencil disappear' 'If you're good at something, never do it for free' 'Let's not blow this out of proportion' these are just from his introduction and it just gets better and better!

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    • sce04

      Dec 9th 2012, 23:32

      When I read comics involving the joker I always hear Mark Hamill's voice in my head so I think of him as the greatest Joker, especially after Arkham Asylum and Arkham City.

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    • StevePotter

      Dec 10th 2012, 2:52

      I'm not a huge fan of Tim Burton's "Batman", but I do agree that the Joker was the best part of it. THAT SAID, I simply don't think he was the best Joker. First of all, I simply don't WANT to know the Joker's origins. It's a personal preference, but I think it's a lot BETTER when the Joker comes fully formed. He's an enigma, a true and utter psychopath, not some crazy gangster in a suit. That's also what bugged me- he remembers his past! Perfectly! I just don't like that at all. And honestly, I just didn't think he was crazy ENOUGH. He was never the Joker for me, just a super crazy Jack Napier. And he's good, I just personally don't think him as great. And finally, I just felt he was too gimmicky. And I know, I know, that's really hypocritical of me to demand that the Joker be a mysterious amnesiac like the comics, and then hate the fact that he's all gadgety, like in the comics. But again, just a matter of personal preference. Still, there's no doubt that the Joker is the best pre-Nolan Batman film villain, but I just feel that he doesn't hold a candle to any of the Nolan villains. Just my opinion

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    • CHopkins217

      Dec 10th 2012, 4:09

      Jack Nicholson is one of the greatest actors of all time, but I think Heaths Joker was better. Jack did a phenomenal job with his Joker, but when I saw Heath's Joker, I felt legitimate fear. Jack's was more The Clown Prince of Crime, Heath's was psychotic s**t f****r-upper insane im gonna eat your children and burn everything you love.

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    • Senver

      Dec 10th 2012, 9:44

      What?! You work for Total Film and as you well know, your contract states that you must always refer to anything the Great Nolan has done, as the Greatest Thing Ever. I'm relieved Matthew Leyland, Rosie Fletcher and Jamie Graham have put you in your place, you rebellious knave. As punishment you should be forced to watch The Dark Knight again and do a 50 best moments list for every actor in the film especially the '50 best Coleman Reese and 50 best Sal Maroni' moments until you attone for this act of blasphemy.

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    • Jeffbiscuits

      Dec 10th 2012, 10:04

      Mark Hamill definitely. Tim Burton's are my favourite live action Batman films though. Heath is my favourite live action Joker.

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    • CaptainCrazy

      Dec 10th 2012, 10:41

      This is not even an argument - this is pure chalk and cheese. Nicholson and Heath were both mind-blowing in the worlds they inhabited. If you put Nicholson’s Joker in Nolan’s universe it just wouldn’t fit and vice versa. What is even more laughable is the argument that Mark Hamill is the definitive Joker. He might be the definitive voice actor of the Joker but as a screen Joker he is woefully at the back of the pack. Just watch the old Flash TV series for his take on a superhero villain. He makes his c**k-Knocker character come off like Shakespeare.

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    • neilgray

      Dec 10th 2012, 11:03

      Two completely different peformances in two very different types of film. What Jack Nicholson brought to the role of the Joker in Tim Burton's gothic comic movie was perfectly in keepig with the style of the movie. The same with Heath Ledger's Joker. A film which has grounded itself in a real world would have a less cartoonish villain. And he brought a sociopathic Joker to the screen. There is no fair way of judging the two against each other because they are two completely different styles. It would be like comparing Adam West's Batman to Christian Bale's. They are worlds apart. But not because of the performances, because of the film thy are in. Plus Cesar Romero was a truly memorable Joker. Deserves his own mention for bringing the character to life on the screen first.

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    • athyrolltide7

      Dec 10th 2012, 11:57

      Both we great, but I like Ledgers the best

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    • jared3710

      Dec 10th 2012, 14:06

      I think it depends on which interpretation of Batman you prefer. Tim Burton's Batman and, by extension, Jack Nicholson's Joker were grounded very much in original Batman comic strips and as a result a little more pantomime...esque and larger than life. Whilst Chris Nolan's Dark Knight films are very heavily influenced by Frank Miller's 80's graphic novel Batman reboot The Dark Knight Returns and Batman:Year One, and a grounded alot more in...for want of a better word...reality. I personally prefer Heath Ledger's Joker, mainly because I'm a huge fan of Frank Miller's Batman. But I have to disagree with the comment about Heath Ledger's Joker not being a fully rounded character, complete with back story. I thought lack of identity beyond just being the Joker was one of the best things about it. It gave credence to his agent of chaos persona. Is our opinion of characters like Darth Vader or Hannibal Lecter improved or deminished by knowing the details of their earlier lives? . Good movie naratives and characters my leave you wanting to know more... but not ,necessarily, needing to know more.

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    • Jeffbiscuits

      Dec 10th 2012, 14:32

      The Joker as a character is supposed to be grounded in theatricality, so saying that Mark Hamil's turns as the Joker are like Shakespeare is probably a compliment. Nicholson's Joker was the borderline between theatricality and psychotic menace. Ledger's was just pure menace. All three are aspects of The Joker's personality that have been utilised in Batman comics.

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    • simster82

      Dec 10th 2012, 15:05

      Saying Ledgers Joker couldnt exist without Nicholsons is trash because there was already an established Joker in the camp TV series which is closer to the Burton Joker than Nolans. Plus both fit the tones of each film perfectly, Nicholson would have been too camp and quirky for Nolan and Ledger too dark and 'serious' for Burtons comicbook take. both are awesome in their own right regardless.

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    • Hadouken76

      Dec 11th 2012, 10:07

      Ledgers Joker would have still existed even if there wasn't an 80s version. Ledger plays him like a complete psychopath, no morals, no conscience, who just lives to create chais. Where as Nicholson is a merry (still murderous) prankster with a sideline in gimmicks and japes.

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    • ash333

      Dec 11th 2012, 12:13

      Ledger's Joker is a psychopath. The idea I think is that he is 'just evil', pure and simple. Any back story would have attempted to give reason or an excuse for his behaviour and that's what the film makers were trying to avoid.. In another's hands it may not have worked and left a very two dimensional character on screen but in The Dark Knight I think this lack of back story allows the viewer's mind to wander and come up with it's own conclusions.

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    • Wanqqu

      Dec 11th 2012, 13:35

      Jack Nicholson is The Joker, he is more funnier more psycho he got "Joker grin" uses Smylex gas and even Bob Kane told Jack is Joker, what say Jack is Best! The Joker: "Winged freak terrorizes"? Wait till they get a load of me!

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    • FBASamble

      Dec 11th 2012, 18:14

      I don't agree with this, NOT ONE BIT!

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    • hawleygriffin

      Dec 11th 2012, 19:37

      Why so serious ? In burtons version Jack was Bats**** crazy , played Jack napier , gotham mobster gone mental and looking to take down the batman who made him, . Legder's Joker is a different kettle of fish mainly because its a different batman a different time a different version . Burton went for dark comic , And of its time , it worked , ' Ever dance with the Devil in the pale moon light ?' Great kiss off . If we're doing a reflective piece which we are then Yes Jack could have pushed it further ( in comparrison to ledger but it would have lost the black comedy element) therefor it wouldnt have worked in burtons version. Likewise Ledgers sociopath with a colourful family history and no actual origin story within the movie , would no way have worked in Burtons version . Nolan was going for realistic , who would the joker be if he really exisited and well he was just that, dark twisted against everyone , to quote alfred , " Some men just want to watch the world burn." They are both playing different versions of the same character, but in different directorial visions of Bob kanes creation . So the argument is kinda moot whose better ?

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    • dojj singh

      Dec 11th 2012, 20:58

      Totally ignoring everything that's been written above (thus making every point again in all likelihood) each Joker was perfect for each film. Jack though, has an altogether better performance simply because he looked like he was having so much fun with it AND we could see Jack N in Jack N (see what I did there? Nicholson/Napier? No? OK, forget it) but Heath is SO Joker we don't see what lies underneath so we can never realize what drove someone to this level of madness. Plus Jack's Joker had more toys and henchmen :)

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    • TheShamrock

      Dec 12th 2012, 13:06

      You simply can not compare the 2 in a battle of who is best. Although you have the template of the Joker being 'crazy', it is the films surroundings which interprit the way the character is performed. You have 2 very different films in which if you swapped the portrayls of the Joker in each, they would just not fit. You've got the love the line 'Never run another man's rhubarb!' whoever delivers it - brilliant!

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    • LarsN

      Dec 14th 2012, 13:44

      I liked Jack's Joker untill I went see TDK, ofcourse 2 different genre of films with the same characters. But Heath's Joker was top of the line. TDK would not be the same without the Heath as the Joker. He did not act as the Joker, he became the Joker.

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    • jonathanreiter

      Dec 14th 2012, 16:24

      I like Mark Hamill for the animated Joker, and Heath Ledger for the Live Action Joker.... Jack Nicholson, while trying hard, didn't exactly make it.... Sorry, Jack.

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    • paulmitchell

      Jan 4th 2013, 11:50

      Heath's wasn't really my idea of the Joker, although his take on it was very well done. Nicholson was too overweight for the Joker and his performance was ok but predictable. Mark Hamill's voice for the Joker is spot on.

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    • joshuahurdle

      Jul 12th 2013, 18:25

      While I do agree that they both did great jokers I have to say that I think Heath did the better job. Nicholson's and Romero's jokers were cartooney jokesters while Leadgers was true to the real joker in the comics. With Heaths like Alfred said some men just want to watch the world burn where Nicholson's was pretty much getting his revenge on the crime family for betraying him and Batman for dropping him into that vat of chemicals. They both were great jokers for their time period and movie...had they been switched it would be a different story. Could Jack have played Heaths joker? Yes! Could Heath have played Jack's joker? Yes! Would they have been any good? Im not sure but im guessing they wouldn't have been as memorable. I wish Heath would have taken Jacks warning to heart 1. because of his death and 2. I think his story is incomplete cause at the end of the movie we don't know what happened to him. Did the police kill him? Did they arrest him? Did he some how escape? That is one thing that we will probably never know. I would have loved to have seen the joker in the dark knight rises but it just wouldn't have been the same without Heath.

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    • BenTramer

      Jul 12th 2013, 20:17

      I like both performances but Jack played to the gallery whereas Ledger brought a punky edge to his Joker. I do think Ledger's performance is hugely overrated though and certainly not Oscar-worthy. It was different and it was interesting but no more. He got the sympathy vote.

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    • kennylai

      May 5th 2014, 2:40

      I understand how many adults/older people grew up watching Nicholson as the Joker, but as a teenager, i prefer Heath Ledger and the dark knight trilogy because of how applicable it can be in our society. when you get tied in with the comic books, you lose that sense of reality and in a way you know its fake because it is. No one just falls into chemicals and just turns into the Joker...the person just drowns. But with Ledger's Joker, he has no origin. He exists only because he wants to "watch the world burn" and not because he's a love sick puppy like Nicholson.

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    • rodgonzalez

      Jun 24th 2014, 19:30

      Of course Jack Nicholson did a much better Joker than Heath Ledger. Ledger was Joker in Name Only (JINO), a punk wearing badly apllied makeup. Nicholson's Joker was more in tune with the actual comics, funloving one minute, murderous the next.

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    • stewpidmonkey

      Aug 29th 2014, 18:30

      Jack Nicholson Hands down. Here's why. From a clinical stand point of view. Heaths joker was methodical and cynical but did leave out a darker side. Really one of the only parts where the madness of joker came through was when bats was whipping his but in the interrogation room. Vs. The random craziness of Jack Nicholsons Joker. The joker is supposed to be big and flamboyant. He is supposed to stick out like a sore thumb. People remember Heaths interactions with other characters, but jacks joker gave you madeness even when he was alone. Example. JN Joker reading the Newspaper: "wing freak terrorizes Gotham. Wait'll they get a load of me. Ohhhhhhhhh. oop. oop oop. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! This is a character of pure madness. The joker character, no matter what rendition is a chaos character. There is not rhym or reason. Heaths joker was great but lacked the extra umph. If you got rid of the clothes and brought JN's joker into Nolans image of the suit, you would indeed have a very terrifying image. Heath didn't smile enough. And like my plastic surgeon used to say. If you gotta go...go with a smile. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!

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