After viewing the 1989 Batman starring Michael Keaton last night (which was a trial by the way–Amazon Instant Video and I are seeing other people) I started to compare Jack Nicholson’s take on the Joker to Heath Ledger’s.
Perhaps I am simply biased towards Nolan’s trilogy, which is, in my humble opinion, one of the best super-hero movie franchises ever created—but the character Nicholson portrays, while certainly deranged, leaves something to be desired. Take the creation of the Joker for example. I find it difficult to believe that a run-of-the-mill gangster can become ten times as psychotic—not to mention pasty— as a result of falling into a vat of mysterious green liquid. Ledger’s character, though he never gives a precise account of where exactly his scars came from, leaves viewers completely convinced of his psychological instability. Whether this Joker’s tortured psyche stems from parental abuse or a failed marriage, Ledger’s character always leaves me wanting to put my hands in the air and say, “Okay, buddy. I got it. Just don’t kill me.”
Another reason I find myself favoring Nolan’s Joker is the rivalry that the director develops between Batman and the classic villain. There are two almost identical scenes in both the 80s Batman and The Dark Knight. In Batman, the Joker stands with his arms wide, willing the “flying bastard,” to come closer. In this scene, Batman flies directly at his enemy, fully prepared to kill him. Similarly, the only reason the Joker wants to engage the caped crusader is to pull out a ridiculously huge gun and deal a fatal blow. In The Dark Knight, a similar scene takes on an entirely different dynamic. In this scene, the Joker stumbles down the street, randomly shooting a machine gun muttering, “Come on, come on I want you to do it. Hit me. Hit me!” This scene functions so differently due to the backstory of both characters—Bale’s Batman, with his “one rule” against taking life, cannot bring himself to hit the Joker, however much he might want to. The Joker knows this, and continually challenges Batman to break his moral code. It seems, particularly in this scene, that he wants to be the first casualty of Batman’s war against organized crime in Gotham. The surface enmity of Nicholson and Keaton simply cannot compete with the ethical, “battle for Gotham’s soul,” of The Dark Knight .