Spotlights on one corner of the ring: Pennywise the Dancing Clown. An extra-dimensional and extraterrestrial entity that feeds on fear, causes chaos and hunts for flesh. In the other corner is The Joker, possibly the most iconic villain of all time. The half anarchist, half gangster and 100% psychopath has brought Gotham and its Dark Knight to their knees time and time again.
What do these figures of evil have in common besides terrifying the living hell out of audiences? They are both clowns.
In light of their recent big screen appearances in It: Chapter 2 (2019) and Joker (2019) respectively – just in time for Halloween – we thought it would be fun to pit them against each other in order to see which of them would claim the mantle of King of the Clowns.
Let’s start this contest by taking a look at the powers of our contenders. On the one hand, Pennywise displays a whole array of powers throughout both It films. He can shapeshift, mentally manipulate and warp reality – all the way down to being extraordinarily athletic – not to mention his charisma and intelligence. These skills and abilities make Pennywise a formidable antagonist to the Losers’ Club and solidify his position as one of Stephen King’s greatest and most powerful creations. With this in mind – whilst The Joker boasts a genius-level intellect and the ability to suppress pain in pretty much all of his incarnations – there is no real competition between him and Pennywise when it comes to who is more powerful.
Score: Pennywise 1 – The Joker 0
There is a comic in which The Joker states that if he is going to have a past he would “prefer it to be multiple choice.” This plants the idea that we can only partially – if at all – trust his explanation of events. Heath Ledger’s turn as The Joker recounts his origin twice in 2008’s The Dark Knight, and both of them play out quite differently. In this year’s standalone Joker, Jaoquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck presents us with the downfall of a mentally ill loner. He finds his very foundations challenged and broken down until finally he snaps and becomes the figurehead of an anarchist revolution. Interestingly, this film also posits the idea that the events that take place aren’t real at all or are an unreliable recount at best. Yes, Pennywise’s origin as a Lovecraftian being that fell to Earth millions of years ago is certaintly interesting and so is his existence being the antithesis to another higher being called Maturin the Turtle. However, it lacks the uncomfortable mystery surrounding The Joker’s often nihilistic and painful formative experiences that make him so iconic.
Score: Pennywise 1 – The Joker 1
What I think is most interesting about these characters is that, despite the fantastical methods they employ, the scariest parts about them are the real-world parallels they draw. Pennywise is infinitely more terrifying when he impersonates Beverly’s abusive father and when he incites the homophobic violence seen in the second film’s opening than when he reverts to his demonic natural form at the end of the film. The Joker – in Phoenix’s incarnation- is most unsettling when we have to stop ourselves from feeling sorry for him as society beats him both emotionally and physically to a pulp. In hindsight, we know the monstrous evil he is fated to embody. Whilst the question of who is scarier is a close call…the point has to go to The Joker. His lasting effect on audiences is undeniable. While Pennywise stages some good jump-scares and visceral violence to shock audiences, it existed solely during the film. Alas, I think the twisted and challenging feelings that The Joker invokes will continue to haunt us for a little while to come.
Score: Pennywise 1 – The Joker 2
Finally, we must take a look at how successful each character is. Pennywise has terrorised Derry for centuries, so by the time the Losers finally defeat him, the damage to the community has already largely been dealt. The scale of Pennywise’s misdeeds are almost enough alone to win this round, but one can’t help but question whether The Joker has ever truly lost a battle. Even in defeat he finds some way of claiming victory. In The Dark Knight, the torment he has inflicted on Gotham’s protectors continues to impact them after his arrest. While in Joker the movement he has inspired continues his malice despite him being confined in Arkham. Ultimately The Joker’s perpetual success is made possible by his philosophy of not wanting anything but “to watch the world burn” – how does one compete with that?
Final score: Pennywise 1 – The Joker 3