Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo

Ledger, Nicholson, & Phoenix: Golden Boys

The Joker is the notoriously beloved, complex supervillan who continuously proves to be the most easily recognizable character in comic book royalty. The character has adopted many different identities: a stand-up comedian driven to insanity by society, a vengeful gangster out for blood, a mobster psychopath. With this, the character has seen many origin stories, good and bad. Emerging as one of the first supervillains, audiences have been obsessed with the question: how is a psychopath killer clown created? Enter, Joker.  

After being declared the highest-grossing R-rated film of all-time, and now proclaimed the most profitable comic book movie ever, it is no secret Todd Philip’s Joker has made a lasting cut on cinema. The story is set in 1981 Gotham, following Arthur Fleck, recently-fired-party-clown and aspiring stand-up comedian. In a time of rising crime, Arthur suffers from a disorder causing inappropriate laugher, depends heavily on social services for medication, and struggles to take care of his mother. But this is so much more than a supervillain origin story. Joker is a revelation, a tool to better understand mental illness. 

Without surprise, The Joker has remained the King of Controversy. Opening-night screenings of the film were shut down due to credible threats, and security was heightened in movie theatres across the nation. Many believed the film would suggest a strong link between mental-health issues and violence, as well as glorify and incite acts of violence. As those suffering from mental-illness should not be stigmatized as dangerous, it is known that mental illness proves as a significant liability to violence, and society must learn to recognize these illnesses to enable treatment to those who require it. And of course, you cannot blame people for feeling anxious in a country where mass shooting happen weeklyJoker proves not to be a violence glorification, but a tool to educate about mental-illness and its effects on individuals and overall society. 

It’s worth considering what the implications this film holds for the future of the Joker franchise, and it’s impact on pop-cutlure. This time, it’s different- and maybe to understand his future, we must understand his past. 

Jack Nicholson – The Narcissist; Batman (1989) 

“Jack is dead…call me Joker.” 

The Joker’s reign over cinema began with Jack Nicholson’s performance in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), who gave us an authentic, flamboyant, sadistic, public icon of a Joker, closely in-line with the comics. Nicholson’s Joker was driven by narcissism and ego, a clear example of the bona fide mobster Joker. Though this wasn’t the first big portrayal of The Joker (may pay respect to Cesar Romeo’s portrayal in the 1966 Batman TV show), it was the beginning of the extreme darkness we would encounter with The Joker character for the decades to come. 

Nicholson set down the blueprints for a believable Joker. Notably, and similarly to Phoenix, Nicholson’s Joker is unique in the sense he provided the audience with a credible origin story. Jack Napier was a thug who rose with his desire for revenge, power, and money. Nicholson’s Joker solves his problems with violence, driven to insanity after falling into a vat of chemicals. 

Heath Ledger –  The Anarchist; The Dark Knight (2008) 

“Introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos.”

Christopher Nolan may have presented us with the most impactful yet vague Joker of our time. The Dark Knight gave a deeper, more unique insight to the villain as a mere member of humanity. What may have made this Joker particularly eerie, in fact, is the refusal to disclose any sort of origin story…this man oozing of terror simply exists. Unlike Nicholson’s Joker, who received his skin discoloration and notorious smile from an acid accident and botched plastic surgery, Ledger’s Joker claims to have won his smile from an array of ever-changing stories- carving his own face to cheer up his wife, abuse from his father, and another unfinished story be began to tell. Aside from the smile, Ledger’s Joker can take off his villain identity- the green hair washes out, and he take off the make-up with a couple of Neutrogena Makeup Wipes. He makes a choice every time he takes on his deviant persona, and could potentially return to being a functioning member of society at any time. 

Ledger’s Joker is, deservingly, Oscar-winning and what many remember Ledger’s legacy by. Ledger’s Joker saw a corrupt humanity, which only would receive salvation through destruction and chaos, and push-back to societal norms. This Joker cooked up more intricate, symbolic acts of destruction, rather than merely holding a gun to someone’s head. We saw the smart, complex villain rise, a Joker so good the next one didn’t’ even have a chance (yeah, no, the only comment I’m making on Jared on Leto’s 10-minute screen-time in Suicide Squad is “Yikes”.)

Joaquin Phoenix – A Lesson; Joker (2019)

For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do, and people are starting to notice.” 

Phillips’ and Phoenix’s revival is possibly the most controversial rendition of The Joker to date, and not because he dropped “The” from his name. 

When we first meet Arthur, he is withdrawn, odd, but still average middle-age man in a crime-struck Gotham. Seemingly innocent, Arthur has positive intentions to others, especially children. Even in his lack of key communication skills, he believes his purpose is to bring happiness to others, as he strives for acceptance and praise within society. 

Suffering from Involuntary Emotional Expression Disorder (IEED), a real disorder associated with traumatic brain injury, Arthur soon can’t receive medication due to health cutbacks. Feeling abandoned by his father and strangers, experiencing the loss of identity and free-will, the path of psychological destruction begins. Alongside Gotham’s descent into criminal anarchy, Arthur is pushed towards crime and violence- was it the genetics, childhood trauma, abuse, untreated mental-illness, or a broken society? As Joker’s downfall lies within many risk-factors, as no one is born into violence, the audience is left asking themselves how far empathy goes. 

Philip’s intended to create a world that mirrors our own, chopping the supernatural or less-believable origin stories (no vats of acid in sight). This film emphasizes the character as a symbol, and many cite the Joker has been misinterpreted as hero, not a terrorist as intended. Phillips has continuously rejected any notion the film will be the basis to incite violence acts, and went on to say he thought the film was “very responsible….to take away the cartoon element of violence that we’ve become so immune to.” In addition, Phoenix allegedly walked out of an interview when asked similar questions. 

Whether you loved it or hated it, Joker- with its record breaking $93.5 million opening weekend- has ensured it’s spot in cinematic history and effect on pop culture for years to come, gaining Phoenix a spot next to The Joker’s golden boys, Ledger and Nicholson. 


Image Sources: 1, 2,



Erin is a senior at University of Utah currently pursuing strategic communications major with writing and rhethoric minor. She's passionate about all things creative, and hopes one day to work in the film industry. 
Similar Reads👯‍♀️