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Which Joker Was Better - Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's Batman Movie or Heath Ledger in Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight?

Updated on March 31, 2012

There's no doubt that one of greatest villains ever created in the world of comics is the clown prince of crime - the Joker! His crazy and sadistic antics have tested Batman's metal time and time again. Without a great villain, you can't have a great hero.

Which brings me to this hub and why I'm asking which was the better Joker - Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson?

I know it's a strange comparison, because Tim Burton's Joker in the 1989 Batman movie is a whole different beast than the Joker in Christopher Nolan's 2008 The Dark Knight. Yes, and both Jack Nicholson's and Heath Ledger's takes on the Joker were both phenomenal in their own unique ways.

Nevertheless, who says you cannot compare the two? That's like saying you can't compare KFC's original chicken to their "crispy" chicken. After all, everyone has favorites, right?

Now, don't get me wrong here. This comparison has nothing to do with the "acting." I think we all can agree that both performances were astounding, as I mentioned early. This comparison can range from how the Joker was written in both Batman movies and how "realistic" the character was captured on screen.

There's no doubt that if a character is written completely wrong, he just wont translate on screen well no matter who you get to play him or her. Ghost Rider, Catwoman, Elektra just to name a few comic movies that ruined really cool comic characters.

Was the way the Joker was written convincing? Which Joker was scarier?

Tim Burton's Joker

After all the rigorous hours of putting all that make up on to play the part, Jack Nicholson actually looked like the older Joker from the silver age comics. I'm sure we can all agree that Jack Nicholson did capture all the bombastic, crazy, evil silliness that makes up the Joker in the comic books.

Tim Burton's Joker was written and modeled off of the older Batman comics, and the character was more true to the Joker in those silver and early bronze age comics. However, here's the thing:

The Joker in Tim Burton's Batman was just silly. Sure, he was crazy as well, but he was just written silly. I'll make my points to back up my reasoning here.

The one thing I liked in Tim Burton's Batman was that it did depict one of the Joker's many origins in which he falls into a tank of chemical waste. That was cool to some extent. However, there are just some things within comic books that shouldn't be translated on screen.

Now, the character was written pretty dead on to how the Joker is in the comic book. He uses comedic weapons like his infamous flower squirter that squirts acid. It is his trade mark weapon, as well as his lethally charged electric joy buzzer, but realistically, those didn't have to be in the movie.

There's one word for that and it's campy! It wasn't really believable. I know they were trying to stay genuine to the character in the comic, but there's something's that work on screen and something's that are okay to leave out.

It would've been fine to leave out those silly weapons and have him use more realistic ones to cause mischief and mayhem. The aim for anyone writing the Joker is to have him appear truly frightening in an insane way. The Joker portrayed by Jack Nicholson didn't capture that. It captured totally insane in a goofy, silly way.

Another thing troubling about the way the Joker was written in the 1989 Batman film is that the Joker was surrounding by goofy henchmen. They didn't look real or convincing and were seen as incompetent. How can you have a frightening villain if he surrounds himself with incompetent henchmen? It just doesn't give off the right menacing air of plausibility.

Here's the big problem I had with the way the character was written in the 1989 Batman movie that ruined the Joker's character was the plot line about being smitten for Vicki Vale, played by Kim Basinger. It was quite silly to see the Joker try to woo her. Yes, his approach in wooing Vicki Vale was crazy and nutty but it was comical.

The Joker is anarchy incarnate, a homicidal maniac with no rules. The only thing he loves is causing complete and utter mayhem and destruction. I didn't get the whole deal with the Joker falling for Vicki Vale. That seemed to ruin the essence of the character's villainy.

Although there's no doubt that Jack Nicholson did an amazing job acting wise, the Joker in Tim Burton's Batman didn't frighten me. I wasn't laughing with him. I was laughing at him. I blame that on bad writing.

Christopher Nolan's Joker

Like most comic book geeks, I have to admit that I scratched my head when it announced that Heath Ledger was going to play the Joker in Christopher Nolan's follow up sequel The Dark Knight. I was a bit concerned.

However, after watching the movie, I was astonished at the fresh take on the Joker. The spin on the character was not all that strict to the comic book, and for once, I thought this was a good thing.

I was pretty shocked that Christopher Nolan's Joker was physically far off from the characters appearance in the comic book, and I thought this intriguing. I wasn't disappointed. The long straggly hair gave him a crazed sloppy look. I liked the fact that he wore make up, instead of being physically deformed by toxic waste. This added even more of scary, crazy kind of mentality to the character.

Another thing that was great was that his purple suit was darker and more moodier, unlike the overly bright purple Joker suit and colors Jack Nicholson wore. The suit in Tim Burton's Batman was a little too bombastic and over-the-top in terms of overly bright, annoying colors.

Although, I loved watching the origin of the Joker in Tim Burton's film, I thought it was brilliant that Chris Nolan didn't go through the Joker's origin. This gave the character total mystery. There was no previous profile to fall back on. That particular spin added even more unpredictability to the character and made him even more frightening.

Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker was unbelievably realistic and frightening. Here was a Joker that was just menacing. I loved how they kept his back ground shrouded in complete mystery, and the different stories he would tell about how he got his scars really left you wondering just how did he get those scars and if they had a hand in his psychosis.

Christopher and Johnathan Nolan definitely grounded the Joker in the real world, making him use real everyday weapons to add to the character being believable. Yes, they did stray from a lot of the character's comic book nuances, but that worked in their favor.

This Joker is definitely more frightening, and it's his believability that makes him just that more frightening. He also wasn't surrounded by idiotic henchmen, and would rather hinder Bruce Wayne's love interest than try to court her.

Heath Ledger gave the character an almost child-like quirk that made the Joker even more creepy. The part where he's walking down the street in that nurses uniform was brilliant. His walk was like a kid that was just so pleased with himself. Then he pushes the button on the controller continuously until the hospital finally blows up.

Another thing was great about this Joker was that his dialogue was smart. He bordered the line between intelligent and insane. There was a definite reasoning to his madness, which made him a scarier version of crazy, and the things that he said that were funny were done in a completely twisted and evil way.

One scene that captured this dark humor was when he walked in on the meeting of Gotham's mob bosses and did his magic trick of making the pencil disappear by ramming it through the skull of a goon that tried to restrain him. That's the sick humor that the Joker is suppose to have.

I have to hand it to Chris Nolan and Heath Ledger's Joker. Although not totally genuine to the comic book character, their Joker, in my opinion, definitely captured a more realistic, scarier, and truly frightening Joker.

In Conclusion

Now, I know which Joker is better is all subjective. I personally like how the Joker was portrayed in The Dark Knight better than in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman. I do love both movies for completely different reasons, but I think Chris Nolan nailed how the Joker is suppose to be - menacing, insane but intelligent, and just plain damn frightening.

Now, some fans may like how Tim Burton's Joker was more authentic to the actual character in the comic book. They may prefer that over realism or the character being believable in the real world. The character is a comic book character after all, right?

That's cool. No answer is right. It's all about what you prefer and like. Either way, vote for which Joker you liked better or thought was better for whatever reasoning you may have.

Which Joker Did You LIke Better?

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    • rabbit75 profile image
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      rabbit75 4 years ago

      Heya Clik...thanks for the comment and your thoughts...Though I do agree that Burton and Nolan's Jokers are two different beasts, I don't agree that they're not comparable even if they based their Jokers off of different comic eras or wrote for different audiences.

      The old saying that it's like "comparing apples and oranges" doesn't fly with me. I personally like oranges better, and some may like apples in the fruit realm. Some may not like either.

      With Nolan's Joker, I think the Joker is written much better and believable. Burton's Joker is clownish. Actually, I remember reading an interview during the day that Burton thought Batman wearing a cape was lame and was going to have a scene in which the Dark Knight suffers for having a lame cape - His cape was going to somehow get caught during a train scene and the train was going to drag him by it.

      Burton's Joker is definitely based on the Silver Age of comics when the comics code made DC tone down the Joker from his original persona, which is that of a psychopathic killer. No matter what people say, Nolan did bring the Joker back to his original roots.

      I do like Burton's Batman, but compared to Nolan's I think Nolan refined it and made it better. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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      Cilk 5 years ago

      I too believe they are incomparable only because they were wrote for different audiences at different times. If Tim Burton had written the script now I think somethings would have been different. The interests of today is different then it was 30 some odd years ago, which is another reason we weren't affected by Chris taking liberties with the character. But that's the way it always is. With that being said...I love them both! Jack was great as - and his take on it wasn't supposed to make you fear him it was supposed to make you shake your head and say huh? Then ran because you didn't expect what was gonna happen. His Joker was disarming and sadistic. Heath was great as well - his Joker was psychopathing and supposed to strike fear.

    • profile image

      U suck 5 years ago

      Jokerjokerjoker

    • profile image

      ICUP 5 years ago

      I LOVE THE JOKER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • rabbit75 profile image
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      rabbit75 5 years ago

      AaronHubb89, you make a very good point there. It was astounding how Heath Ledger completely transformed himself into his version of the Joker. While with Jack, you could catch a lot of "Jack Nicholson" mannerisms and facial expressions, and his usual ticks that define him as well...Jack Nicholson.

      With Ledger, it was the exact opposite. You could barely even tell it was Heath Ledger behind the make up and that went far beyond his appearance. Everything about him was different from his voice, speech, facial expressions, mannerisms, movement, etc. Ledger completely morphed himself into a different person with his take on the Joker.

      Thank you for bringing this up!

    • profile image

      AaronHubb89 5 years ago

      I understand that their are a lot of hipsters out there who would argue that Jack Nicholson's Joker was the best. Well, not to say that Jack Nicholson as the Joker wasn't good but that's all he was "Jack Nicholson as the Joker". Heath Ledger didn't make the character fit his persona, instead, he created a character almost from scratch. Sure he had the same name and calling card as the comics but the personality, aura, and overall likeness of the character was completely his own. I did a review for the Dark Knight. You should check it out, I talk about Heath Ledger's role as the Joker almost throughout the whole thing.

      http://aaronhubb89.hubpages.com/hub/MOVIE-REVIEW-T...

    • rabbit75 profile image
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      rabbit75 5 years ago

      Heya AghoriShaivite, thanks for joining in the conversation. I do believe both Joker's are two completely different beasts. Burton's Joker was truer to how most remember the Joker in silver age and early bronze age comics, as well as the T.V. series. Nolan did bring the Joker back to his original psychopathic roots, but had to update his version in order to make it more believable for these times.

      Both are great in their own ways, but I don't think that one still can't have a favorite. It's like that old classic arguments with songs...do you like the original or the updated cover version by so and so? It's the same concept, and I think it's great that people do choose one version over the over.

      If we don't, we'll just keep getting the same thing all over again. In the next Batman reboot, I expect those who helm the reboot to try to out do Nolan's version, or why bother, right?

      Thanks for your input and hope you like The Dark Knight Rises coming soon. I'm excited to see how they end this trilogy.

    • AghoriShaivite profile image

      AghoriShaivite 5 years ago from www.aghoriverse.com

      I like both for different reasons, although I will always be a bigger fan of Jack Nicholson's Joker. His darker elements were hinted at, although not fully shown, with his treatment of his girlfriend Alicia Hunt and some of his plans with Vicki Vale. He comes off as silly and strange but also as someone who's lived on the deep end and has finally gone off after trying to stay in check...

      Now, Heath impressed me big time because he remade the Joker in an entirely new way. I've watched both movies numerous times but I don't really like ranking one Joker against the other. Each Joker fit the times, too. Burton's Batman came out when commercial comics in America were slowly becoming more dark. The comics code in the 50s screwed up comic creativity here in the states, in my opinion.

    • rabbit75 profile image
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      rabbit75 5 years ago

      Heya DS Duby, glad you joined the conversation. I do have to admit that I like Nolan's Joker better than Burton's Joker. Both Nicholson and Ledger did amazing performances, but Nolan's Joker was just written better.

      I really didn't care for the Silver Age Joker in the comics, and the reason why he was so campy is because of the Comics Code then. The Joker started off as a homicidal maniac, and I think Nolan went back to those roots. Even if he did veer a bit from the physical aspects, the original Joker's mentality was captured.

      A lot of fans believed Nolan veered way too much from the comics, but in truth, the Comics Code made Silver Age comic writers stray from the Joker's true character, which is why he is more portrayed as a clown.

      I think Burton went that path, and well, it just didn't fly well with me. Thanks for dropping by and adding your 2 cents...always appreciated!

    • DS Duby profile image

      DS Duby 5 years ago from United States, Illinois

      Heath Ledger's version by far, the Jack Nicholson version was just a clown running a gang. Heath was an psychopath with no care for permanent alliance, even his facial expressions made him the more deviant and terrifying criminal. Just my 2 cents. Great article, I truly enjoyed your comparisons, Thanks.

    • rabbit75 profile image
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      rabbit75 5 years ago

      Hi vmartinezwilson, thanks for the comment and vote up. Who didn't love Cesar Romero from the Batman T.V. series. Many fond memories of his performance when I was a kid.

    • vmartinezwilson profile image

      Vanessa Martinez Wilson 5 years ago from Vancouver, WA

      I'm going to go off the beaten path and say Cesar Romero from the original TV series. There was something so amusing, yet harrowing about his portrayal that I always looked forward to watching his episodes, even though they were all reruns.

      Great hub and voted up!

    • rabbit75 profile image
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      rabbit75 5 years ago

      hi grandmapearl, thanks for adding to the discussion and reading my hub here. I agree Nolan's Joker was the creepier and better of the two.

    • rabbit75 profile image
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      rabbit75 5 years ago

      gmaoli, thanks for your insights and detailed comment, and I completely agree with them 100%. Glad you enjoyed the hub and glad you elaborated on my points as well, especially with the interrogation scene when the Joker said, "You have nothing to threaten me with!" Perfect example of just how much more menacing Nolan's Joker truly was.

    • rabbit75 profile image
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      rabbit75 5 years ago

      heya TheRealJohnMiller. Thanks for your comment and input. It's all subjective, and the more I talk about the topic with fellow comic geeks, the more I do find that they do favor one over the other.

      Some like Tim Burton and Jack Nicholson's take because it's more genuine to the comic book character, especially comics in the 60s and 70s.

      Some like Nolan's better because it was a take that wasn't expected. Nolan knew he could not produce another Joker like what Burton and Nicholson had done. Ledger even said trying to go that route would be a crime.

      Although acting and performance wise can't really be compared accurately, you can compare the two different takes on the Joker and favor one over the other.

    • rabbit75 profile image
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      rabbit75 5 years ago

      Hi chelseacharleston, his take on the Joker was truly a "fresh" one and it was amazing to watch. Thank you for your comment, and voting.

    • grandmapearl profile image

      Connie Smith 5 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Heath Ledger all the way. He so totally creeped me out with his psycho version that he has to be the better of the two!

    • rabbit75 profile image
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      rabbit75 5 years ago

      Thanks rahul0324. Glad you found this topic interesting. I agree that the realism of The Dark Knight did tend to win me over. Thanks for the comment and for voting.

    • rabbit75 profile image
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      rabbit75 5 years ago

      Hiya, laurathegentleman, thank you for the kind words and the comment and for voting. I'm glad you enjoyed the hub. It's truly a difficult decision because both actors are incredible.

      I do have to admit that I knew Jack Nicholson would put out an amazing performance when I learned he would play the Joker. I had no concerns about that.

      However, I greatly underestimated Heath Ledger, and I wasn't so sure he could pull it off. He greatly surprised me with his performance.

    • gmaoli profile image

      Gianandrea Maoli 5 years ago from South Carolina

      I have to agree with you on your take of Heath Ledger's Joker. I have actually heard that Chris Nolan's inspiration for his works on the Batman franchise, including the Joker, was heavily derived from the works of Frank Miller. I've read one of them, Batman: Year One, and yeah, it's not at all a happy tale, so I'm sure Miller's version of the Joker is certainly no version of a happy clown. Joker's happy silly antics may have worked pretty well for the comic book era of it's time like you said, but it does get too annoying to watch on the big screen. Heath's was just a real heartless psycho that could easily make you think about the horror stories of the criminally insane that we read about in the news today...and that's really scary! I also like the fact that Joker's origins are mysterious here because of how much more dangerous that made him to Batman. When Batman kept beating down the Joker in the interrogation room, the Joker would just laugh and just said: "You have nothing to threaten me with!" And how could he? If you know nothing about a villain's past or about his personal connections to anyone, how can you control him at all?

      Wonderful piece! I'm sharing this on my FB page!

    • TheRealJohnMiller profile image

      TheRealJohnMiller 5 years ago from Orlando, FL

      The two Jokers are incomparable, due to the different plots.

      If Christopher Nolan and Tim Burton were both given the exact same script, and told to produce a film, then a grand comparison could be made.

      It's difficult to find a person alive today, especially in the 18-25 age bracket, by my estimate, that doesn't like The Dark Knight. Audiences today love stories whose log line starts with, "In a dystopian world..." There is a sense of intentional camp in the Tim Burton depictions. You can feel it. If Tim Burton intended to make a serious, dark and poignant Batman movie, he could do so. Think, the antithesis of Big Fish.

      Your arguments are sound, however, and I revel in imagining - how would each actor have interpreted the other Joker. Different scripts, different character development...it would've been magical either way.

    • chelseacharleston profile image

      chelseacharleston 5 years ago

      "Fresh take" is really the best way to describe it. Heath was a much more villainous villain!

    • rahul0324 profile image

      Jessee R 5 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      very interesting topic for discussion! Your reviews about both Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger are very fine on details and trust me, they make making one decision difficult.

      Personally I have seen both the films and I being more realistic found the Joker in the Dark Knight more appealing. Nice hub!

    • laurathegentleman profile image

      laurathegentleman 5 years ago from Chapel Hill, NC

      This is wonderful! I thought that both interpretations were wonderfully done! Personally, I think that Heath Ledger's character was slightly MORE terrifying, because he was very realistic and more like a mentally insane person - whereas Jack Nicholson's Joker was more of a character, and over-the-top... But this was AWESOME! Thanks for sharing!