In 1989, the superhero genre took a giant leap forward with Tim Burton’s Batman. As one of the first truly memorable comic book adaptations of the big screen, Michael Keaton’s portrayal of the suave, yet haunted Bruce Wayne was the moviegoing audience’s first real taste of the hero after the release of some of the protagonist’s more gritty comics like The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: The Killing Joke. Still, his memorable performance was unable to top the zany exploits of Jack Nicholson's Joker.
Making drastic changes to the Batman mythos, Nicholson's gangster-turned-lunatic has persevered thanks largely to the actor’s penchant for playing mad men on screen. With his fiendish smile and unnerving stare, Nicholson became the perfect on-screen visage of the character, gleefully killing his prey with a deadly gag and a witty one-liner. But in all his twisted euphoria, Nicholson's performance still stands in the shadow of Heath Ledger, the late actor who became so consumed with the role that he became reclusive in order to capture every abhorrent mannerism of the character.
Although both sides capture different sides to Batman’s ultimate foil, only one can be crowned the true Crown Prince of Crime. While Nicholson's Joker isn't the popular choice, he paved the way for what Ledger’s version would become, leaving an indelible mark on the character. So with admiration for both performances, we list our 18 Reasons Why Jack Nicholson Was A Better Joker Than Heath Ledger.
18 He Has Class
Early in Tim Burton’s film, there's a scene in which Jack Napier (the gangster who will soon become the Joker) is called vain after glancing at himself in the mirror. Later on, Vicki Vale makes a similar joke about a large mirror inside Bruce Wayne’s mansion. In contrast to the self-absorbed Napier, it's later revealed that Wayne's mirror is nothing more than an entrance meant to conceal one of Batman's many hidden rooms inside the building.
From the start of the film, Napier is painted as a conceited narcissist with a taste for the finer things in life. After he becomes the Joker, he retains his classy ways, opting to spread his colorful demeanor to everything he touches. When he horribly disfigures his mistress Alicia Hunt with sulfuric acid, he calls her a work of art. Likewise, he spreads his influence through a local art museum, re-painting the exhibits with green and orange paints. As a lunatic, Nicholson’s Joker remains a villain of sophistication, livening up the city with his sinister touch.
17 He Has a Better Smile
As part of the realistic, gritty style of The Dark Knight, the Joker’s fixated smile was replaced with a set of scars on either side of his face, giving Heath Ledger his iconic grin. Changing his traumatic backstory about how he received his scars, the actor didn't have to do much to make audiences squirm at his horrendous appearance. On the other hand, Jack Nicholson’s classic smile, complete with his high-raised eyebrows, didn't just add to the air of the character, but actually served as inspiration for makeup artist Nick Dudman.
Before shooting commenced on Batman, Dudman flew to Burbank to get a lifecast of Nicholson’s mischievous grin. Working off additional photos of the actor's smile, Dudman sculpted five versions of the Joker’s iconic look. In the end, Nicholson had the final say. The deep depressions in the face gave the Joker an appearance of extreme menace which only became more chaotic when Nicholson added his own touches to the character, making his smile one that remains unique to his personality.
16 He’s the Only Villain of His Movie
As superhero movies continue to up the ante, studios continue to put an emphasis on adding a superfluous amount of bad guys to the screen. Finding flaws in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight seems like nitpicking with the insane amount of acclaim the film has received, but if we had to choose one thing we could change, it would be the lack of justice given to Harvey Dent.
The White Knight to Bruce Wayne’s Batman, Dent was coaxed into turning to a life of crime by the Joker after the death of his fiancé Rachel Dawes, which transformed the brutally scarred district attorney into the savage Two-Face. The pacing of his development is well-handled, but his story sadly plays second fiddle to the Joker, a fact only made worse when the character is killed off all too soon. While it isn't exactly Ledger’s fault, the character does steal the spotlight from Two-Face, showing that the Joker is a villain who needs to stand alone when going up against Gotham's Bat.
15 He Wears Better Outfits
As the Joker, Jack Napier becomes an acid-born wild card, but he's also a man with style. Before he became the Joker, Napier already had an affinity for purple suits. After his drastic change, Napier steps his suit game up, changing his look to fit his handsome new face.
With his new features came a whole new wardrobe for the Clown Prince. Most famous is his signature look, complete with an effervescent purple suit jacket, plaid purple and green pants and either a purple or green vest, but he's also shown switching up his style on occasion. On one particular outing, the Joker can be seen departing from from his usual purple attire in exchange for a full black tuxedo in a striking pantomime look. Nicholson's Joker mixes up his look on more than one occasion, showing he’s all about making his new appearance the next fashion craze of Gotham.
14 He Has Better Henchmen
When you're a madman with a penchant for terrorizing city streets, it can be a chore finding good help. The Joker’s thugs have done little more on film than serve as target practice for Batman. Still, if you're going to have followers, it’s best to set a foundation so that your goons are subservient.
First shown wearing clown masks in the opening bank heist, the henchmen from The Dark Knight are immediately depicted as wildly unpredictable, methodically killing each other at the behest of the Joker. They seemingly continue to follow him out of fear, but rarely are they shown speaking with the villain. In Batman, the connection is much clearer. Jack Napier takes over Carl Grissom’s mafia empire after killing him in his office. Napier, Grissom's second in command, already had an established trust with his goons. Although they prove to be barely serviceable, they certainly seem to be having a good time with him during his raid on the art museum, making his group an improvement over the random selection of criminals depicted in The Dark Knight.
13 He’s Uncompromisingly Outlandish
Few actors can say they've perfected the art of the villainous laugh, but for the Joker, it's an essential part of the character. Nicholson's laugh was on point with the best of them. It was maniacal and cathartic, but it also had a sinister charm which only comes from an actor having fun with the role.
With the Joker, there’s always been a childlike manner in which he goes about things. Supplied with a bundle of gadgets to keep him entertained, Nicholson's Joker continually presents a series of deadly gags to his victims, laughing at their demise. While Ledger’s iteration admits to being a man of simple means who gets kicks out of a few bullets and drums of gasoline, Nicholson finds his pleasures through practical joke novelty items such as a joy buzzer which electrocutes everyone it touches and a squirting flower that contains toxic acid. His version of the Joker stays uncompromisingly over-the-top until the end, dying with his signature smile still on his face.
12 He Knows How To Put On a Show
Rarely is a villain so charismatic that he actually cares about his public perception, but Tim Burton’s version of the Joker was unlike any other. When he struck fear into the denizens of Gotham, he did it with dedication to his craft. Not only did his methods help him achieve his goal of luring Batman out of hiding, it also made Gotham aware that no hero was going to single-handedly clean the streets of Gotham.
Taking aim at the paranoia of an already sullen city, Joker takes over the airwaves of Gotham's news station, broadcasting his own advertisement for Smilex. Complete with smiling, red-lipped models touting Joker’s every word, he informs the public about his plan to poison the town with random cosmetic products. Continuing with his sunny disposition, he later throws a parade for the very same citizens he poisoned, showering them with money as he drives by, showing that even the worst villains are capable of having a good time when they're given a moment in the spotlight.
11 He’s a Romantic
In the squalid dystopia of Tim Burton’s Gotham, it can be hard finding anything to get excited about beyond the morose corruption of the streets. Before Jack Napier became the Joker, he had little care about the often sighted Batman. Instead, the gangster's interests lied in taking over Carl Grissom's criminal empire and sleeping with his mistress Alicia Hunt behind his back.
As it turned out, Napier’s affair would ultimately lead to Grissom double-crossing his second in command, transforming Jack into the Joker. Of course, even in his lunacy, Napier never loses his interest in unavailable women. The clownish criminal dines with Batman's love interest Vicki Vale during an intimate scene at an art museum after showing admiration for her work as a photographer, and later expresses remorse for the loss of Alicia when she jumps out a window to escape him. At a time before Harley Quinn existed, we got a look into the Joker’s more romantic side, which is a part of him that is nonexistent in Christopher Nolan’s adaptation.
10 He Dances to Prince (Twice)
When producer Jon Peters first approached Tim Burton with the idea that Prince would write many of the original songs for Batman, the director met the idea with skepticism, believing the artist would be too well known for the project. Instead, Batman would become one of the first films to spawn two soundtracks, one completely consisting of Danny Elfman’s original compositions and the other featuring songs written and performed by the pop icon.
For Prince, the Batman album could have easily been reputed as an embarrassment. Instead, the songs implemented Prince’s synth-pop, funky style, mixing the imagery of Gotham with a darker side of the musician. The Joker shows his appreciation for the cool new sounds when he dances to the rhythm of “Partyman” after trashing an art museum with graffiti. Again, he shows his infatuation for the music when he moves through the streets of Gotham, bolstering “Trust” as he throws money to the crowds during a highly publicized parade, showing he's a man who knows good music when he hears it.
9 He Has A Long-Standing History With Bruce Wayne
After the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in 1985, Warner Bros. enlisted the help of Tim Burton to bring Batman to the big screen. Admitting to not being a very big comic book fan, Burton asked Sam Hamm to pen the script. Hamm, wishing to depart from the traditional origin story of Bruce Wayne, decided to make the hero’s history known through flashbacks, leading to a shocking reveal in the film’s second half.
After almost murdering a defenseless Bruce Wayne in cold blood, the Joker is depicted in one of Bruce’s flashbacks as a young man on the night of his parents' murders. The memory is triggered by one of the Joker’s sayings, “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?”, a question which Wayne remembers Napier asking his parents shortly before shooting them. The moment would become a critical point of Wayne’s life, one that would lead to him becoming Gotham’s Dark Knight and would make his vendetta against the Joker one which began when he was just a child.
8 He Has a Better Origin and Motive
Created specifically for the movie, the Joker's alter ego Jack Napier was a hood who turned to a life of crime after moving to Gotham at an early age. Working his way through the ranks of Carl Grissom’s mafia, he became the mob boss’ right-hand man before being set up by his employer.
Entrusted with the task of retrieving some sensitive documents from an Axis Chemicals plant, a suspicious Napier entered the toxic facility with his goons just before Grissom called the police to detain Napier and put him permanently behind bars. A gunfight ensued, and in time, Batman interfered. When he attempted to kill the masked vigilante, Napier was hit with a ricochet bullet which left his face scarred. In the process, he lost his footing on a catwalk suspended above a vat of chemicals. When Batman tried to help him back up, he lost his grip, causing Napier to fall into the vat below. Returning as the Joker, he vowed revenge on the man who left him in his mentally unstable state.
As for Ledger's take on the Clown Prince of Crime? Due to his unreliable retellings of his origins, we really have no idea where he comes from.
7 He’s Mentally Unstable, Not Just Psychotic
When asked about the unaddressed origins of the Joker in The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan said he wanted Heath Ledger’s character to appear as an absolute incarnation of evil, a psychopath whose origins aren't rooted in a tragic backstory. In a pivotal scene in the film, Alfred would describe men of the same magnitude as people who want to watch the world burn. Although the premise of an absolute, unexplainable evil shrouded Ledger’s Joker in mystery, it also took away a critical element of the character that's instantly recognizable in Tim Burton's film.
As part of the side effects of being dropped into a vat of toxic chemicals, Jack Napier returns with an altered mental state, showing symptoms closer to a paranoid schizophrenic or mental health patient rather than just a person whose inherently evil. Because of the drastic mood changes, extreme hostility, and compulsive behavior, Nicholson's madness isn't only strikingly familiar, but appears as a more likely scenario which could happen to anyone suffering from a brain injury or illness.
6 He’s Actually Funny
For all his sinister plots and terrorizing schemes, the relationship between the Joker and Batman has always been unconventional. For a character whose arsenal of weapons includes exploding whoopee cushions and razor sharp playing cards, the Clown Prince’s gadgets are a downgrade from Batman's tactical suit and Batmobile. Still, the mad man keeps the Bat on his toes thanks to his lunacy and his knack for taking on each task as if it were all a game.
In Batman, Jack Nicholson doesn't just recognize the ridiculousness of his character, he embraces it. Given a script full of one-liners to work with, he delivers up memorable quotes about giving the city of Gotham an enema and never rubbing another man's rhubarb. The semi-cheesy dialogue lightens the mood of Burton’s movie, bringing laughter in unexpected places. While Ledger would have his funnier moments on screen, he never fully commits to the Joker’s comical side, giving Nicholson's version another dimension that has yet to be duplicated.
5 He’s A Closer Adaptation of the Joker from the Comics
Making his first appearance in Batman #1 in 1940, the Clown Prince of Crime was a chaotic anarchist from day one, pulling off a series of heists and leaving his first victim, the wealthy socialite Henry Claridge, with a smile on his face. Appearing with chalky white makeup, crimson red lips, and neon green hair, the earliest iteration of the character remains the classic look of Batman’s arch-nemesis, and it’s the same look that Nicholson’s cartoonish take on the character shows off while wreaking havoc on Gotham.
For Christopher Nolan’s adaptation of the Joker, makeup artist John Caglione Jr. wanted to adhere strictly to the director’s wishes that the character’s origin remain a mystery. For that to happen, Ledger’s look had to appear dirty and realistic, as though it had been done in a mirror by the Clown Prince himself. Although the pseudo-realistic portrayal is certifiably top-notch, it's a departure from the clean cut, clownish appearance which first appeared in Bob Kane’s comics.
4 He’s More Unpredictable
In one particularly revealing scene in Batman, Bruce Wayne shows up at the Vicki Vale’s apartment to tell her about his secret alter-ego. Instead, his moment of intimacy is shrewdly interrupted when the Joker comes over unannounced to flirtatiously greet Vicki with a gift. Unperturbed by Wayne’s presence, he shoots the suavely dressed billionaire in the chest before making his grand departure. Although Wayne had the wherewithal to slip a metal tray underneath his jacket, effectively stopping the bullet, it was an alarming and wildly unpredictable move from the Joker that took audiences by surprise.
Compared to Ledger's version of the Joker, Jack Nicholson had no boundaries. Although Ledger had no problem killing a stranger, he admitted to never wanting to kill Batman. Nicholson’s Joker had no such shortcomings and was even driven by his urge to kill the hero. Add on the fact that Nicholson racked up a higher kill count during his time on screen, and the actor walks away with a slightly higher level of unpredictably over his successor.
3 He Has Better Chemistry With Batman
In the late '80s, the moviegoing audience’s fondest memories of Batman consisted of a tights-wearing Adam West strolling the campy, upbeat streets of Gotham. Tim Burton’s atmospheric tone changed all of that. The dilapidated architecture of the city alongside the deep voice of Michael Keaton’s Batman made for a somber feeling. Set designer Anton Furst imagined the metropolis as New York City without a planning commission and without a police force to protect it, and Burton’s Gotham was an unwelcoming sight to behold.
Enter Jack Nicholson's Joker, the pale-faced, green-haired lunatic looking to inject life into the city. From the beginning, he was the perfect complement to Keaton's Batman. If not for the Joker killing Wayne’s parents, Batman would never have existed. Likewise, Batman was responsible for creating his arch-nemesis. The on-screen chemistry was undeniable. Compare the duo’s time on-screen to the growling voice of Christian Bale’s Dark Knight when he speaks to the lively, anarchic persona of Ledger’s Joker, and that leads us to our next point…
2 He Never Steals the Show
Compare Heath Ledger’s screen time to Jack Nicholson's and it's easy to see why both films could equally be criticized for spending more time on the Joker than Batman. Still, even though Nicholson's performance was praised at the time, it wasn't heralded as one of the greatest show-stealers in cinematic history.
At the center of Burton and Nolan’s adaptations is still the story’s central protagonist, Bruce Wayne. In Batman, Keaton benefits from the fact that he's the star of the first major Batman film in years, which gives viewers good reason to watch his performance closely. With The Dark Knight, not only did Christian Bale admit that Ledger stole the spotlight, but audiences had already gotten their fair share of Wayne’s story in Batman Begins, giving Nolan time to shift his energy towards creating one of cinema’s most captivating villains. In every scene, Ledger is in control, toying with a vulnerable Batman, and in the end, we’re left with a film that could be criticized for placing all its eggs in one basket.
1 He Has Fun With The Role
Prior to the filming of The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger approached Jack Nicholson for information about the role of Gotham’s most iconic villain. After his passing, Nicholson admitted to having warned Ledger about the part. In preparation, Ledger locked himself in a room for over a month, keeping a personal diary from the Joker’s perspective and depriving himself of sleep. The final result was an uncompromisingly gritty portrayal that left viewers in awe.
Although Ledger’s time on screen was unquestionably astounding to watch, his performance did little to counterbalance the already sullen point of view of Christopher Nolan's Gotham. While Jack Nicholson's journey to discovering the character is much less bleak (he was reportedly given time off to frequently attend Lakers games), his performance remains iconic. Still, in all his time spent tapping into the madness of the character, Nicholson was given the opportunity to let his own personality shine, cutting loose with running gags and witty one-liners, making his role one that was as fun to perform as it was to watch.
Which of these two iconic performances is your favorite? Will their iterations of the Joker ever be topped? Sound off in the comments.