The Dark Knight: Why Heath Ledger’s Joker is Still Scary Today

As an isolated performance, there’s an argument to be made that none has ever been finer in the realm of superhero movies. Sure, there’ve been showy turns before and since in comic book blockbusters; there have even been great interpretations of the Joker before and after Ledger. Yet what the actor was able to do in 2008 transfixed audiences because he, like the character, had the freedom to bend the film to his will—even as Nolan prevented the movie from simply becoming a showcase for the performance.

With the strung out hair of an addict who hasn’t showered in three months, greasy self-applied pancake makeup, and a Glasgow smile that’s as unnerving as it is uneven (suggesting perhaps half of it was self-inflicted to make a matching set of scars), Ledger’s anarchist supervillain was a long way from Jack Nicholson’s hammy version of the same character in 1989. For audiences, and even comic book fans baying for something darker than Nicholson, it was abrasive in its time—and electrifying, like a punk rocker leaping into the mosh pit. Indeed, Ledger reportedly based the character’s appearance in part on the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten, and there is more than a hint of Tom Waits’ gravel in Ledger’s cadence whenever the clown growls.

But more than aesthetic culture shock, the enduring horror (and not-so-secret appeal) of Ledger’s Joker lies in the effect he has on the film, both in terms of its narrative storytelling and its enduring pop culture image. Speaking strictly about this Joker as a character, the villain is off screen for far more of The Dark Knight’s running time than on it. Appearing in only 33 minutes of The Dark Knight’s epic 152-minute length, the average span of a Hollywood spectacle passes without the Joker on screen. Yet he’s omnipresent in the film, a shadow that hangs over each of Nolan’s three relatively equal protagonists: vigilante Batman (Christian Bale), police lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman), and district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).

Nolan and his brother and co-screenwriter, Jonathan Nolan, have admitted the setup is inspired in part by another quintessential blockbuster, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. In both films, three disparate, combative male authority figures band together for a mythic battle against a presence so malignant and evil, it transcends being simply a shark or a madman in makeup—or just a comic book supervillain, for that matter. Like the watery beast, Joker has no character arc, no psychological growth. He’s a force of primal evil unbounded. And as the heroes’ battle against him creeps on, it seems like the sanity of their entire community is being dragged into the abyss.

This framing allows Ledger’s Joker to functionally be a catch-all stand-in for many of the social anxieties that kept American audiences up at night during the Bush years. Some of them still do today. There are of course the Joker is outright called a terrorist in the film, a non-state actor who cannot be negotiated with and who doesn’t play by preconceived rules or notions of fairness. There is also shading of the lone wolf, the usually male gunman who inexplicably pulls the trigger. Most of all though, the Joker represents the hole in which much of humanity’s irrational predilections toward violence is collectively stored and ignored by our cultural memory… until it can’t be.

As Michael Caine’s Alfred Pennyworth famously reasons, “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” That summation of staring into irrational, needless cruelty is what gives The Dark Knight bite. And what a sharp bite it is in moments like when Ledger’s Joker laughs manically at the Batman, our ostensible hero who’s resorted to pummeling (or torturing) the villain in an interrogation room. The clown gloats, “You have nothing to threaten me with, nothing to do with all of your strength.”

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