Inspired, both by the release of "The Joker Diary" and by my recent post on Bane, I decided that I would re-watch Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight in an attempt to garner new appreciation for Heath Ledger as The Joker. I came away from the movie with a more clear picture of Ledger's goals and a better understanding of where his offering fits in The Joker universe.
Public opinion of Ledger's version of The Joker was mostly positive. However, as with anything, there were some unhappy fans. Disgruntled fans complained about the darkness of Ledger's Joker- claiming that he transformed The Joker from a joke telling criminal to a sociopathic murder-clown. Some people confessed their love for the campy performance Jack Nicholson gave in 1989's Batman and others questioned why Ledger was wearing makeup at all.
To answer all of these questions we must read a statement from Heath Ledger's 2007 interview with Empire Magazine about his character:
"It's a combination of reading all the comic books I could that were relevant to the script and then just closing my eyes and meditating on it. I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month, locked myself away, formed a little diary and experimented with voices- it was important to try and find a somewhat iconic voice and laugh. I ended up landing more in the realm of a psychopath- someone with very little to no conscience toward his acts. He's just an absolute sociopath, a cold-blooded, mass-murdering clown, and Chris has given me free reign. Which is fun, because there are no real boundaries to what The Joker would say or do. Nothing intimidates him, and everything is a big joke."
From Ledger's statement we can gather that he did not write the movie. When he was handed the script, Heath Ledger took it upon himself to read comic books that were related to the story of the film he was making. Knowing that the film would "lift" ideas from multiple sources, so too did Ledger in crafting his version of The Joker. (Here is a list of books Ledger is rumored to have read in preparation for The Joker role.)
To the people that say Ledger's Joker was darker than the comic book Joker- I agree with you. However, I don't think it is a bad thing and I do think the Joker was always meant to be a dark character. In 1940's Batman #1 The Joker is portrayed as a murdering psychopath. It wasn't until the 1950's when the Comic Code Authority started regulating the content of comics that he turned into a joking mobster. Without censorship The Joker might have become a sociopathic "agent of chaos" years ago.
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According to WhatCulture Ledger purposely ignored Jack Nicholson's performance in the 1989 film Batman. He did not want to reference the earlier movie because he wanted to avoid comparison. Further, he knew the film would be a darker, less cartoony, take on the Batman universe. He needed to create a villain to match the general aesthetic of the movie- which is also why the realism of a man in makeup probably won out over the traditional look of a Joker with chemically bleached skin.
I would say that Heath Ledger's reimagining of The Joker is as legitimate and valid as any other Joker in existence. I think his role as an unreliable narrator keeps with themes that have surrounded The Joker, since 1980's The Killing Joke, as he descends into the chaotic madness of his own mind.
In The Killing Joke The Joker is quoted to say "if I'm going have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!" He says this because he cannot remember, in the middle of telling a story, if what he is saying is true. That same uncertainty is present in the varying versions of how Heath Ledger's Joker got his scars.
Both stories are gripping but which, if either, is true? The mental instability of The Joker (both in TKJ and TDK) makes it hard to discern if either story has any truth to it- or if The Joker himself would recognize the real story if he heard it.
Heath Ledger posthumously won an Oscar for his role in The Dark Knight and, after considering all of these things, I think it was well deserved. With his performance, Heath Ledger gave The Joker a level of realism that had not yet been seen. His willingness to experiment with the character, and the level of acceptance his performance got, made it okay for actors to give their own interpretations of The Joker's character and paved the way for the forthcoming Suicide Squad movie featuring Jared Leto.
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