The Joker: What the critics said in 1989 and 2008

Suicide Squad“s Jared Leto took on a daunting task: filling the shoes of Heath Ledger, who earned heaps of praise, a posthumous Oscar, and an indelible mark on pop culture with his turn as the Joker.

But Ledger, too, had the unenviable job of following in the footsteps of another celebrated Joker, Jack Nicholson, who portrayed the iconic villain in the 1989 Batman. At the time of Ledger”s casting, Tim Burton”s star was the reigning Joker. You might remember that many comic book fans reacted to the teen icon”s casting similarly to how they responded to Ben Affleck”s casting as Batman.

Leto will be the third actor to embody the Joker in a live-action theatrical feature, though a handful of actors – including Mark Hamill and Brent Spiner – have voiced the character in animated interpretations. Cesar Romero was the first actor to play the Joker onscreen, in the original Batman TV series in 1966.

Batman and The Dark Knight. Two starkly different films. One campy. One grounded in the gritty, real world. Both delivered memorable Jokers.

It”s difficult to find a negative review of the Joker portrayal in The Dark Knight, which was released six months after Ledger died of an accidental prescription drug overdose. What criticism there is out there is for the writing, not the performance, of the character.

Nicholson”s Joker, meanwhile, was largely lauded, but there were some critics who complained he grew irksome after he was onscreen for too long. I doubt that”s a complaint that would ever be said of Ledger”s Joker – for one, no one would dare to say that of a man whose onscreen career and life were cut short, but I also don”t think anyone tired of watching the man who just wants to watch the world burn in Christopher Nolan”s popular 2008 take on the Caped Crusader”s tale.

Soon enough, we”ll all be able to assess Leto”s Joker, when Suicide Squad opens this Friday. Until then, we”re looking back at how critics reviewed Nicholson”s and Ledger”s takes on the Clown Prince of Crime.

Jack Nicholson in Batman

“It comes as no surprise that Jack Nicholson steals every scene in a sizable role as the hideoulsy disfigured Joker. Nicholson embellishes fascinatingly baroque designs with his twisted features, lavish verbal pirouettes, and inspired excursions into the outer limits of psychosis. It”s a masterpiece of sinister comic acting.”

New York Times:
“Mr. Nicholson pops his eyes, sneers, laughs maniacally and, in the film's liveliest sequence, sings and dances his way through the Gotham City museum of art, happily defacing the paintings. He also has the film's only funny lines (‘I”m the world's first fully functional homicidal artist”) and often sounds more than a little like Liberace.”

Los Angeles Times:
“It”s performance of such draining intensity and so few really quotable lines, most of which have been packed into the trailer, that it has us on the ropes begging for mercy long before the Joker waltzes into his climax. To a die-hard Nicholson fan, it”s unthinkable that a day would come when you wished Jack Nicholson would get off the screen, just so this headache would let up for a minute. But Batman has managed it. Talk about a toxic waste.”

Roger Ebert:
“Nicholson”s Joker is really the most important character in the movie – in impact and screen time – and Keaton”s Batman and Bruce Wayne characters are so monosyllabic and impenetrable that we have to remind ourselves to cheer for them…. Nicholson has one or two of his patented moments of inspiration, although not as many as I would have expected.”

“The master craftsman in this deck is Nicholson. He gets lots of screen time and good lines…. [but] Nicholson does a turn or two too many boogying to Prince”s music on the soundtrack.”

South Florida Sun-Sentinel:
“A sure sign of the filmmaker”s uncertainty is the fact that he blunts the effectiveness of the Joker by keeping him on-screen too long. The antic Nicholson becomes a drag while he defaces famous paintings in a museum…. But Nicholson, dressed in garish purple and orange, is the most reliable actor in this big, bold, empty Batman. He is given the best lines and plays perversity as if he had a twisted grin in his mother”s womb.”

The Hollywood Reporter:
“It is difficult to imagine any other actor performing this character as well. And Nicholson, in white makeup with his face frozen into a menacing grimace, plays it to the hilt. The actor goes over the edge as only he can do and his performance works perfectly.”

Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight

“According to a Russian proverb, God makes the priests. Jesters come from the devil. You won't have any trouble believing that aphorism when you see Heath Ledger's mesmerizing performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight.”

New York Times:
“Mr. Nolan has turned Batman (again played by the sturdy, stoic Mr. Bale) into a villain”s sidekick. That would be the Joker, of course, a demonic creation and three-ring circus of one wholly inhabited by Heath Ledger…. His Joker is a creature of such ghastly life, and the performance is so visceral, creepy and insistently present that the characterization pulls you in almost at once.”

Los Angeles Times:
Always a consummate professional, Ledger threw himself into a role he clearly relished, giving a transfixing performance as a whiny-voiced god of chaos whose hard-core nihilism is bone-chilling.”

A.V. Club:
“It”s an unnervingly thorough performance, from the character's serpentine habit of licking his lips to the hitch Ledger throws into his stride that makes him like a wounded, angry animal. It's nightmare stuff with real-world roots, both in the randomness of his destructive acts of terror, and the imperfect systems designed to stand in his way.”

Leonard Maltin:
“The centerpiece of the film is Heath Ledger”s extraordinary performance as The Joker. While I appreciated his work as an actor, the character he portrays is so thoroughly sick and twisted that I could derive no pleasure from watching him. (I”m sure the awareness of his untimely death hovered in my consciousness, as well.) When this famous character”s antics cease to be portrayed in comic-book terms and become tangibly, frighteningly real, the playing field has clearly changed.”

The Daily Mail:
“Ledger is subtler and scarier than Jack Nicholson's Joker was in Tim Burton's first Batman film, but his character has nowhere to go except madder and madder. And his success makes little sense. When a villain kills his own associates as readily as this one murders the forces of law and order, it's difficult to see how he ever attracts the multitude of helpers he would need.”

The Independent:
“The film's real energies circulate around Batman's nemesis the Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger, and it's mainly Ledger's cranky and unsettling performance that makes the film worth seeing.” 

“While Bale again astounds, The Dark Knight“s real star is the late Ledger. Many thought that Jack Nicholson's turn as the Joker in 1989″s Batman would never be topped, but Ledger manages to do just that.”