6 Reasons Heath Ledger's Joker Ruined Comic Book Movies
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?
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:
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.
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 ...
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 ...
Also, I'm not totally sure Jared Leto has read a Joker comic before.
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 ...
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?
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 ...
It's Not Enough To Just Kill The Good Guy; You Have To "Break His Spirit"
Along with hilarious chaos, The Joker's primary motivation is to show Batman that the people of Gotham are inherently garbage when put under the gun. He doesn't just want to destroy the city like Ra's al Ghul; he wants to antagonize Bruce Wayne's ideals -- ultimately giving him no desire to kill his enemy.
It is the most perfect motivation ever to be hijacked by lazy screenwriters unable to logically keep their heroes alive. And so the standard villain handbook now includes forgoing execution in order to prove some sort of vague point about morality and the breaking of the spirit.
"I have wrought anarchy or whatever!"
Bane has very little reason not to step on Batman's neck until he stops gravely wheezing, but instead drags him to some Middle Eastern chant dungeon so he can watch Gotham crumble on an '80s television set. Had they won, he and Talia would have presumably traveled back there to take a dump on his prison bed or something.
This whole "watch the hero tear themselves apart" angle is most abused in the Marvel films, as not one but three Avengers villains seem almost allergic to killing the heroes when they have the chance.
"We prefer bantering or just straight-up joining your side."
Instead of just mind-controlling them one-by-one, Loki willingly gets caught so his magic scepter will make The Hulk freak out. In Age Of Ultron, Scarlet Witch has the drop on Tony Stark but decides not to kill the man she's specifically there to kill so she can Rube Goldberg his demise with terror dreams. Her reasoning, like Ultron's, is to make The Avengers "tear themselves apart from the inside," like that's somehow easier than just braining the man responsible for her parents' death. This nonsense motivation is so convenient that Ultron keeps Black Widow alive after capturing her so he can watch all of them die at once. Why?
But even all that gibberish is a reasoned dissertation compared to this guy:
Real life Mickey Rourke shouldn't make more sense than fictional Mickey Rourke.
When Ivan Vanko attacks Tony in Iron Man 2, the exact reason he states is: "If you could make God bleed, people would cease to believe in Him. There will be blood in the water; the sharks will come. All I have to do is sit back and watch as the world consumes you."
So let me get this straight, Vanky: Instead of just killing Tony, your plan is to show the world that he's weak ... and therefore cause others to kill him? Did I mention that he says this while sitting across from an unarmed Tony in an unguarded jail cell, fully capable of killing him with his bare hands?
"One flick of my sausage fingers to your arc reactor oughta do it."
At least Vanko gets another shot when let out of prison. Much like how Loki gets another shot when he is let out of prison. Much like how Khan gets another shot when he is let out of prison. Much like how-
Getting Caught Is Somehow Part Of The Master Plan
Nobody expected The Joker to stay caught in the middle of The Dark Knight -- but by having him captured, the filmmakers give us an opportunity to see him up close and learn what his chaotic motivations are before he retakes the upper hand. It's a semi-original and effective means of exposition that worked exactly once, which didn't stop every fucking movie from doing it over and over again.
Stop it, you derivative maniacs. Every time a villain is captured miles away from the third act, another Olympian muse overdoses on Night Train and anti-diarrhea pills. And stop putting them in futuristic Magneto cages! It's lazy hack shit that even stupid peekaboo babies can see right through. It's the exhausting chain wallet and soul patch of expositional tactics, and we're fucking done with it. Go home before I beat you to death with your favorite screenwriting book, which is a Where's Waldo? with all the Waldos pre-circled.
So, yeah, I'm a little upset about this -- because not only is it a shortcut for the characters to just look at the camera and spew exposition, but it's always incorporated in some tangled web of genius where the villain either wants to be caught or uses it to gain the upper hand. Only, half the time there's no clear reason why getting caught will actually benefit the antagonist.
Take Silva's plan in Skyfall, which apparently involves being put in prison so he can get close to and assassinate M at a public conference ... even though he in no way needed to be caught to attend it and seems to already know its location in advance.
"I really hope this is the right public conference!"
He seriously gets caught, brought to MI6, booby-traps his computer to let him escape, leaves MI6, puts on a cop's uniform, and fucking goes to this inquiry in some other part of town -- making his entire masterstroke of being caught a really complicated method for free airfare.
But of course ... Silva's insane, right? He's impulsive and on the edge and thinking about revenge, so it's understandable that he doesn't think everything through. Yeah ... about that ...
Every Villain Is (Conveniently) Insane
Here's a fucking question: What is up with Lex Luthor in Batman V Superman? Why is the iconic, cool-headed businessman transformed into a shaky-voiced lunatic peeing in jars while ranting about the paradoxical nature of man? In the end, his slap-shit babble plan is to make Superman and Batman fight while also releasing an uncontrollable ogre on the city for the fuck of it. That is objectively not the character of Lex Luthor; it's a level of nonsense quite conveniently close to The Joker. So what's the explanation here?
Oh, OK ... according to Jesse Eisenberg, Lex Luthor's insane plan is the result of him becoming "increasingly unhinged" -- because the scariest villains are the ones who progressively become stupider and less in control as the film progresses, right?
Also, just as a side note: If a film requires extra post-release interviews explaining what the characters' motivations are, it's a bad film. As someone way too excited about the Independence Day sequel, I fully understand what it's like to love something regardless of quality -- but Lex Luthor's randomly insane presence is the perfect representation for why Batman V Superman is a fundamentally broken film.
But it's also not the only one with this problem, because The Joker "just chasing cars" caused pretty much every writer to realize that making your villain crazy means that you don't have to think too hard about their motivations. And so everyone from Professor Moriarty to Ultron to a fucking dinosaur has been branded psychotic and unpredictable.
These three also makes for a thrilling "fuck-marry-kill."
Don't get me wrong: I love Sherlock, don't hate Age Of Ultron, and have so far done a really good job not slapping Jurassic World fans. This trope fills the full spectrum of quality but nonetheless drags each and every villain down by not challenging the writer to make a fully dimensional character with clear goals and evil aspirations. Instead, it enables them an easy pass from one action setpiece to the next without having to think too hard in between.
The Joker being unbridled and whacked-out is what makes him so uniquely frightening as that specific character. Copying those qualities onto every adversary is like giving the next Bond villain Predator mandibles because it makes him scary. It's inappropriate, unoriginal, requires zero creativity, and the character will ultimately never join the ranks of Vader or Hannibal. Because if you're too busy just doing what the last guy did, how are you gonna ever be the last guy?
By giving the next Bond villain Predator mandibles, obviously.
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For more ways Hollywood is just screwed, check out 4 Trends Hollywood Needs To Admit They Were Wrong About and 4 Ways Hollywood Is Completely Imploding.
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