Will Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker Be Any Better Than Jared Leto?

Matthew Loffhagen
Warner Bros
(Photo: Warner Bros)

Well, it’s officially happening. Joaquin Phoenix is going to be playing The Joker in his upcoming origin movie.

Personally I’d forgotten that this wasn’t already an official piece of casting – presumably we’d all been assuming that a rumor was fact.

Considering how fast and loose Warner Bros is playing things with the DCEU at the moment, it’s hard not to get a little confused. There’s no solid way of telling which films are actually in pre-production, and which are mere fantasy.

For example, if Joaquin Phoenix is taking on the role of The Joker, does this mean that the Jared Leto Joker solo movie has been cancelled, just a few weeks after it was announced? Or is Warner Bros planning to make both of these movies back to back?

With Phoenix’s take on the character apparently coming first, it’s hard not to wonder: will this be any better than what Jared Leto did with The Joker?

A Big Challenge

In fairness to Leto, he had an impossible task before him when taking on the mantle of the Clown Prince of Crime.

Heath Ledger’s version of the character, which was so good that it won him a posthumous Oscar, has gone down in recent history as one of the best performances not just in video game movies, but in cinema as a whole.

Source: Warner Bros

To try to take over after this was always going to be a challenge. Leto did his best, using his particular (somewhat ludicrous) version of “method acting” as best he could.

He ended up doing a bad Jim Carrey impression.

I don’t know how this is what he felt like he should be doing with the character, but he’s basically Crime Boss Riddler. It’s no wonder the majority of his footage got cut from the final film – even the stuff that made it into the theatrical release is painful to watch.

So, all things considered, Phoenix should have a really easy time of improving on this version of the Joker, right?

Well, except, of course, that Heath Ledger still casts a long shadow.

No Winning

Now that the Joker has been seen in “The Dark Knight”, I get the feeling that fans are always going to hate whatever comes next.

This is kind of like “Star Wars”, as a certain group of fans hate the childish, cartoonish prequels, while another group hate the more gritty Disney movies. There’s just no winning.

Similarly, I get the feeling that Phoenix will face just as much of a struggle as Jared Leto in creating a version of the iconic character. It also won’t help that Warner Bros will be watching in the wings, ready to bring back Leto’s Joker if Phoenix doesn’t meet their expectations.

Joker Jared Leto
Source: Warner Bros

I feel like part of the problem with The Joker is that there’s a big mythos surrounding the character and his portrayal on screen.

When Jack Nicholson played the role, he was simply showing up for a paycheck.

With both Ledger and Leto, though, their performances were carefully crafted after weeks of practice and experimentation. The story behind their roles in their respective movies have become a big part of the metanarrative surrounding the films.


Can Phoenix simply turn up on set, put in a day’s work, then go home? Probably not. People are going to want to hear about the weird stuff that he does to get into character.

Even if an actually competent actor in Hollywood can deliver a fantastic performance without needing to resort of a series of cheap stunts.

(Now I’m just thinking about how amazing Sir Ian McKellen would be at playing The Joker, but I digress.)

I get the feeling we might need to cycle through a few more Jokers before audience expectations reach a normal level again. I really hope that Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t end up getting caught in a battle of escalating absurdity with Jared Leto as he attempts to make the role his own.

This isn’t an enviable position to be in. We now have two competing Jokers, and the world will judge them just as much for their antics off-screen as for their actual respective performances.

There’s no way this is going to end well.