A Dark Knight's Tale: How Heath Ledger Created A 21st Century Joker

The first Oscar-winning murder clown performance.
A Dark Knight's Tale: How Heath Ledger Created A 21st Century Joker

Over the past 80 years, Batman's archnemesis The Joker has become one of the most recognizable fictional villains worldwide. It's not totally obvious why our civilization is obsessed with, of all things, a gangster clown, so this week Cracked's exploring the character's enduring popularity and what The Joker's many iterations reveal about us, the audience. Catch up withpart onepart two, and part three.

"Why the hell would anyone cast the guy from 10 Things I Hate About You as The Joker?" Two years before The Dark Knight hit theatres, that's the question everybody was asking; Warner Bros. executives, fans, even the film's own co-writer. Of course, a widespread backlash against a new Batman movie's casting decisions was nothing new (and, come to think of it, might be as endemic to the franchise as black rubber codpieces). But in 2006, the burgeoning cottage industry of toxic internet fandom ratcheted the whole thing up a notch. Since Heath Ledger had previously garnered acclaim for his role in Brokeback Mountain, there was an added layer of homophobia to many of the complaints (also nothing new for Batman). "I'll keep expecting him to have sex with Batman," one jerk posted.

Fans may have preferred one of the other actors that had been rumored for the role, such as Robin Williams or Steve Carrell (?!) but instead, they got Heath Ledger, the guy famous for jousting to the anachronistic sounds of "We Will Rock You" in A Knight's Tale. Of course, everyone changed their tune as soon as they saw what Ledger was up to. 

First, it was just a photo, part of The Dark Knight's elaborate viral marketing campaign. The lone, close-up image still managed to convey just how radically different Ledger's take would be. While the previous screen Joker's face was contorted into a suspiciously-perfect harlequin grin thanks to toxic chemicals and a back alley surgeon, this iteration had purposefully embraced the grotesque, slathering his face with white pancake make-up and a blood-red scarred smile. To the surprise of many, it was actually "scary."

The melting pot of influences on this Joker went beyond the comics; seemingly pulling from the punk fashions of Vivienne Westwood and the boozy swagger of pop-culture icons like Iggy Pop, Keith Richards and Terrance Stamp (and according to one likely erroneous internet theory, a 1979 Australian TV interview with a particularly narcotized Tom Waits). For Ledger's make-up, director Christopher Nolan took inspiration from painter Francis Bacon -- fittingly the only artist whose work wasn't defaced in the museum sequence from 1989's Batman. Nolan appreciated Bacon's "distortions" and "the way the paint would run together," incorporating both elements in the Joker's make-up design. 

But perhaps the starkest difference between this movie Joker and the last is his lack of context. Batman spends nearly 35 minutes chronicling how Jack Napier, mobster and playing card enthusiast, becomes a clown-faced maniac. Its follow-up, Batman Returns, doubles down on that approach with two prolonged supervillain origin stories. The Dark Knight, though, plops Joker smack into the opening scene of the movie fully-formed. Famously, he is never given a backstory, a controversial creative decision that "worried" the studio. 

This narrative vacuum has subsequently led to more ridiculous fan theories than you can shake a bloody crowbar at; everything from The Joker was a Russian spy to The Joker is Danny Torrence from The Shining. But the most widely-discussed theory is that Joker is a former U.S. soldier. That premise still feels fairly convincing; Joker is proficient with military-grade weaponry, able to plan intricate attacks, and waxes to Harvey Dent about America's indifference to the violence of war.

The movie even hints at this right from the start; before we even meet The Joker, his henchmen refer to his make-up as "war paint."

Comedian Patton Oswalt expanded on this theory in recent years, speculating that Joker was actually "ex-military intelligence," which is how he's able to capably manipulate his adversaries and critique Batman's torture techniques.

This theory isn't just random cinematic navel-gazing, like, say, suggesting that the briefcase in Pulp Fiction contained a chunk of Kryptonite that was used as a Horcrux. No, this line of thinking actually makes the movie better (which is probably why it was referenced in a 2012 tie-in book). Why? Well, the politics of the film are murky at best. You could fill Wayne Manor with all the essays and think pieces about how The Dark Knight reflected post-9/11 America ... but The Dark Knight reflected post-9/11 America, dammit. From the Ground Zero-like imagery of Batman brooding in the rubble of police headquarters --

To Batman's Patriot Act-like plan to bug every cell phone in Gotham --

To the fact that he uses torture to extract information from suspects multiple times throughout the movie. This led to conservatives heralding the film as an affirmation of the U.S. government's War on Terror. The Wall Street Journal claimed that The Dark Knight is a "paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush." Co-writer David S. Goyer seemed positively giddy that both the right and the left saw the film as validating. 

But simply wading into hefty political themes shouldn't itself be commendable. The filmmakers behind the Dark Knight movies seemed content to merely wield relevant allegories without drawing any moral conclusions, leaving it up to audiences to decide for themselves -- which is a problem only because the examples audiences were given to draw those conclusions were so fundamentally flawed.

Take Batman's fancy-pants sonar eavesdropping machine. Lucius Fox calls it "unethical" but Batman's privacy-violating supercomputer is ultimately successful and saves hundreds of lives. Its real-life counterpart, Section 215 of the Patriot Act, allowed the U.S government to "conduct mass surveillance of billions of Americans' domestic" phone calls. But even putting aside our whopping ethical objections, unlike Batman's contraption, it didn't actually do anything. According to a 2014 government review, there is no known "instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack." It most just duplicated existing investigative techniques. 

To a certain extent, this Joker theory salvages the allegorical throughline of The Dark Knight. The movie is literally about a war on terror; the characters refer to The Joker as a "terrorist" multiple times. He even releases videos of himself killing hostages, recalling real-life taped executions. 

So there may be a tendency to simply write Joker off a generic stand-in for America's foreign adversaries -- which is an oversimplification and kind of lets the U.S. government off the hook. To this point, President Obama reportedly compared ISIS to Ledger's Joker while speaking with advisors. The ex-soldier theory, even just the mere suggestion of it, alters the way we interpret all of these themes. Instead of some phantom threat that we can morally uncouple ourselves from, the ultimate danger to humanity is the act of war itself; society's institutionalized ability to brush aside all respect for human life, even the lives of its own citizens, in the service of a craven political agenda. The first time we see The Joker's face, he clues us into the idea that he has survived something that has made him ... "stranger" than before.

Remarkably, somehow in the midst of all this, Ledger is actually able to make his Joker not only terrifying but genuinely funny. Whether it's in his playful pantomime (emptying a champagne glass before taking a drink) or in his darkly comedic delivery. While Nicholson was able to pull off some pre-written gags, Ledger's Joker is able to turn inert, one-word sentences into full-on laugh lines.

We tend to think of the Nolan Batman movies as more "realistic" -- but that's not totally the case. The first movie is about Batman fighting Illuminati Ninjas, for crying out loud. And many of Joker's schemes (bank robberies with purple knock-out gas, ferries rigged with bombs) wouldn't seem out of place in the old Adam West show, of which Nolan was a fan (Joker's bank robbery mask is a direct shout-out). Despite the occasionally ludicrous plot machinations, the feel of the films is always grounded and tangible, forever leading DC down the rabbit hole of trying to recapture the lightning in a bottle grittiness of The Dark Knight -- which incidentally, opened in 2008, the same summer as Iron Man the movie that would launch the Marvel Cinematic Universe and propel them in the opposite, otherworldly direction. 

In the ensuing years, it seemed like nearly every franchise blockbuster Jokerfied their antagonists into anarchic mystery men who allowed themselves to be caught. There was Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, Silva in Skyfall, even Loki in The Avengers. Ledger's performance didn't just upend that early skepticism, it javelined the yardstick we use to measure movie villains.

It wasn't long before fans began propagating rumors that Ledger's work as the Joker somehow contributed to his tragic death. One eager moviegoer told reporters that Ledger "died for the role." Which ... isn't true. Ledger wasn't even working on The Dark Knight when he died of an accidental prescription drug overdose; he was filming a Terry Gilliam movie -- which, to be fair, is probably soul-draining in its own way. According to Ledger's sister, he was excited about his Joker work and was even "doing the voice" for his family over Christmas.

Somehow this bullshit narrative continues to this day. We hear stories about how he "locked himself in a motel room for 43 days" until isolation brought him to the brink of madness. But according to Ledger himself, he just "sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month" wrote in a diary and "experimented with voices" while also reading "relevant" graphic novels and "meditating." Yeah, he worked on his character and read comic books. Not exactly the stuff of Sid & Nancy. As for that supposedly "creepy" diary? It was seemingly full of lines from the movie photos of Alex from A Clockwork Orange and cut-outs from Batman comics -- more like a mood board than a crazed serial killer's manifesto.

And you probably remember seeing articles about how Jack Nicholson warned Heath Ledger about the risks of taking on the Joker role?

Yeah, that too was a complete fabrication. Nicholson did say something about "warning" Ledger upon hearing of his passing, but: A) Jack later admitted he didn't actually know Heath Ledger, and B) he was referring to the dangers of goddamn Ambien because he "almost drove off a cliff" one time. In truth, Ledger repeatedly referred to his time on The Dark Knight as "The most fun I've had playing a character, hands down." 

Ascribing his death to the inescapable life-destroying madness of an old-timey comic character invented by a literal teenager may seem darkly romantic to a certain subset of fans -- but that's not only ghoulish, it also robs Ledger of the legacy he deserves as an actor. He showed up, did his job incredibly well, and elevated the public perception of comic-based movies in the process, eventually winning a posthumous Oscar for a role that previously wasn't even worthy of shaving your mustache for. Heath's Joker did put a smile on our face ... and we never got to thank him for it.

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Top Image: Warner Bros.



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