Biggest Difference Between Joaquin Phoenix and Heath Ledger’s Jokers Explained by Todd Phillips

Joker director Todd Phillips explains the biggest separation between failed comedian-turned-symbol Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) and The Dark Knight’s makeup-wearing agent of chaos (Heath Ledger).

“I don’t think it was this Joker’s goal to watch the world burn. This Joker had an entirely different goal in mind,” Phillips said at a press conference Saturday following Joker’s lauded premiere at the Venice Film Festival. “In the beginning of the movie he’s sitting here doing this [forcing himself to smile and frown] in the very first scene, and it’s a guy searching for identity.”

“I think he becomes, mistakenly, a symbol, and really what he was looking for was adulation. He was never looking for the world to burn, this Joker,” Phillips continued. “As for the past ones, that’s a different thing. But our guy, that wasn’t his goal.”

Though the mentally disturbed Arthur sparks a revolution in the powder keg that is Gotham City, his goal was “to genuinely make people laugh.”

“He thought he was put here on this Earth to make people laugh and bring joy to the world, and he made a few bad decisions along the way, but no, his goal was not that,” Phillips said. “I think he became a mistaken leader, so to speak, or a symbol. Even [Robert] De Niro, [who plays] Murray [Franklin], says it to him. And Arthur says, ‘No, I’m not political.’ He just didn’t get what he was creating.”

Phoenix explained he wanted his spin on the character to be unidentifiable by real-world psychiatrists after noting he didn’t consult past portrayals of the Joker, including Ledger’s Academy Award-winning performance.

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“The attraction to make this film and this character was that we were going to approach it in our own way, so, for me, I didn’t refer to any past iterations of the character,” Ledger said. “It was just something that felt like it was our creation in some ways, and I think that’s what was really important for me and key to it.”

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy and Robert De Niro, Joker opens October 4.