After A New Hope, the 1980s were suspiciously swamped with fantastical space adventures featuring operatic villains with dramatic headwear. Cut to the mid-'90s, where Silence Of The Lambs inspired a handful of dark detective films about smooth-talking serial killers and newbie FBI agents. Yup, Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader, two of the best movie villains of all time, spawned a legion of imitators. That is, until this guy showed up:
Heath Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight is more disconcerting than a cold blood shower with your father. And like Vader and Lecter, The Joker caused a chain reaction of copycats, which has now looped around ouroboros-style to Jared Leto's upcoming portrayal of The Joker in Suicide Squad. The only problem here? Ledger's Joker has become the go-to blueprint for every goddamn villain out there. And how so?
#6. Everyone Is Doing A Wacky Goddamn Voice
Back in 1989, creating a perfect Joker was as simple as painting Jack Nicholson white and letting him whiskey-jackal that shit up. Heath Ledger had the disadvantage of not naturally sounding like a strangle monster -- and as a result gave The Joker a crazy-ass voice to compensate. It made sense for the specific character, but until that moment, creepy voices weren't exactly the style for actors playing supervillains:
Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Columbia Pictures, Marvel Studios
Arnold just always sounds that way.
Out of all the famous comic villains leading up to 2008, the only one even close to attempting a bizarre delivery is Green Goblin -- and even that is partially Willem Dafoe's routinely terrifying inflections. Everyone else just used their regular speaking voice, and we were fine with that.
Then the late Ledger nabbed an Oscar and all of Hollywood bought a one-way ticket to cackle-town.
Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Columbia Pictures, Marvel Studios
In case you're not one of the three people who actually sat all the way through Fantastic Four,
that second one on the bottom row is Doctor Doom. (Yeah, really.)
Suddenly, every bad guy growled, squawked, boomed, reverberated -- lines were overly enunciated, garbled, muffled, foreign. Scenery was chewed to shreds as if by the fucking Langoliers. And while a lot of these choices were justified (if not pretty genius) at times (see: The Mandarin), I've yet to figure out why Lex Luthor is suddenly channeling The Mad Hatter. Equally am I baffled that Tony Stark designs A.I. to sound like James Spader snarling through an echo mic, or why Zod always seems to have a mouth full of wheat paste.
While not every character is doing this -- see: Loki, Red Skull, Killian, Yellowjacket -- the ones that do almost come across as pandering since this technique shot up 300 percent after The Joker -- as if every audition now has a "Can you sound like the dude from Korn?" quiz. And if you haven't noticed, almost every throaty instance comes from the grittied-up versions of these stories. And that's no coincidence ...
#5. There's A Grittiness Arms Race
The obvious irony is that these characters' cadence is often the only silly part of the otherwise gloomy film they're in. Because gritty movies aren't supposed to be silly anymore, despite the trend starting with a film about a ninja lord trying to blow up goth Bronx with an insanity-powered steam bomb. It's as if everyone forgot The Dark Knight is bookended by ticking bomb plotlines worthy of Joel Schumacher.
Needs more neon though.
See, what directors like Zack Snyder and Josh Trank don't understand is that "gritty" never meant "dark" or even "grounded" -- but rather a fantastical world being seen through the lens of the real one. By doing that, the goal would be to make the characters, funny and serious alike, seem like actual three-dimensional people making realistic choices.
But when that filter was applied to The Joker, something amazingly dark did happen -- especially since the actor playing the role died shortly after. Suddenly, we were swarmed with rumors that Heath Ledger's destructive obsession with "becoming" the Clown Prince caused his demise -- something that's 100 percent not true at all.
Despite the hearsay, there are quite literally no accounts or evidence that Heath Ledger was negatively affected by playing The Joker. The rumor came solely from the fans and not his friends or family ... because it turns out that an actor's job is to act like something they are not. And while a lot of method actors will go to extreme lengths to embody a role, even Daniel Day-Lewis will break every now and then. They're just movies, and movies are supposed to be fun.
Only, somewhere in the translation the death of Heath Ledger got mixed into what made Dark Knight a hit, and "gritty" became "dark and depressing without exception." Suddenly, directors like Josh Trank were instructing The Fantastic Four to deliver lines with as little passion or expression as possible while completely failing to make them relatable or pragmatic, and the mantle of The Joker was judged by how much it drove actors into the abyss of madness ...
Suicide Squad's marketing wants more than anything to tell us how brooding and method Jared Leto's Joker is, as if being an insufferable wad to your friends and mail carriers guarantees a good performance. They made sure to have multiple actors tell the press about how they never really met the "real" Jared Leto, like he's some kind of acting magician. It became so transparent that the internet turned it into a meme. Eventually the folks at WB did a complete 180 on this brooding tone -- realizing that either no one cared or that Leto probably wasn't going to die tragically to boost their ticket sales.
And speaking of dying tragically ...
#4. Every Bad Guy Is A (Motivationless) Terrorist Now
The most secretly influential scene in The Dark Knight is when Batman is forced to choose between love interest Rachel and crime-stopping ally Harvey Dent. For a film desperately distinguished from the Schumacher films -- it's surprisingly similar to the end of Batman Forever ...
... with one subtle difference ...
Someone fucking dies. And not Elektra-dies; I mean actually rots in the ground like the beloved childhood pet I'm now forcing you to remember. Unlike the films before and after it, The Dark Knight introduces the concept of an Adam West-style ticking bomb that actually goes off. Terrorists win!
Cut to Batman V Superman, and Lex Luthor is (SPOILERS) blowing up Congress by hiding a bomb in an unknowing henchman's wheelchair. Sound slightly familiar?
Side bar: Wouldn't it have just been easier to shove it in his ass?
Why the fuck is business-savvy Lex Luthor pulling plays from The Joker rulebook of terrorism? And while I totally get that it's a topical subject, my issue isn't that Lex Luthor is invoking Al Qaeda to get his way ... but rather that he has no way to get. He's not framing Superman by setting off the bomb -- Superman is absolved of suspicion almost immediately -- nor is he pushing along any master plan to get LexCorp to dominate the computing and aerospace industries. Besides the script making Lex an asshole, why the hell does he do it?
And this is a question I'm asking across the board. What does the villain have to gain by causing a big terrorism threat beyond maniacal presence or some batshit truther motivation where an already-stupid rich person wants to puppet a terrorist?
Marvel Studios, Paramount Pictures
Some writers just want to see the idea of having to craft actual character motivations burn.
Remember before The Dark Knight, when the villain actually wanted something specific? Sometimes it was revenge; other times it was power. Spacey Lex Luthor wants real estate. Even Tim Burton's Joker is partially motivated by retribution -- and the closest version of "terrorists" we get is Magneto's clearly incentivized mutant brotherhood.
"But it's not just about gaining something," said every new villain ever ...