Why It Worked: Heath Ledger's Joker In THE DARK KNIGHT
'Character is king.'
In this 'Character Edition' segment of his ongoing "Why It Worked" series, SauronsBANE1 focuses on popular characters from recent blockbusters that, in his opinion, either worked or didn't work. In this article, take a look at how the central villain of The Dark Knight was portrayed.
This little phrase represents one of the most basic and influential 'rules' of writing that's out there today...and it didn't get that reputation for no reason. It supports the widely-embraced idea that characters are the single most vital and integral part of a solid, functional story.
Of course, movies are made up of more than just characters: action, drama, conflict, humor, romance, music, and obviously plot, just to name a few. But the one unifying element between all of these components is how each and every one of them relates to characters.
You can have the most intense, coherent plot ever written, or the most exhilarating and expensive CGI-filled action scenes ever witnessed on the big screen...but without characters that are sympathetic, 3-dimensional, likable (they can even be vilified, too. Well-written characters that inspire actual hate from the audience can be just as strong as the ones that everyone loves), or simply interesting, it's all for naught.
Just look back at some of the most critically and financially successful movies and franchises in the somewhat recent past, blockbusters that are generally accepted to be classics in every sense of the word:
The Godfather. Jaws. James Bond. The original Star Wars trilogy. Star Trek. The Indiana Jones trilogy. The original Lord of the Rings trilogy. Iron Man. The Dark Knight. Avatar. The Avengers.
(And it’s important to note that this 'character is king' theory doesn't just apply to movies or books. One can see this come to life in countless successful television shows as well: Seinfeld, Friends, How I Met Your Mother, Arrow, Star Trek, Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, just to name a few.)
The list goes on and on.
Again, the one similarity between each one of these examples is the exceptional strength of the characters. It should be no surprise that these movies have gone on to become so successful and that the characters have transcended their movies on their way to becoming a huge part of our pop culture, all these years later. This is proof that there's no time limit or restriction on characters and the kind of impact they can have on an audience...as long as they're written as well as they possibly could be.
With all that in mind, it's now time to delve into one of the most fascinating and terrifying villains in any comic book movie in recent memory, the Joker in The Dark Knight, and find out why this character absolutely worked so well.
What the Joker Did Right:
1) Embodying a theme.
Allow me to state the obvious for a moment: the Dark Knight trilogy was very different from any previous Batman film and even any other comic book movie in general.
Most people instinctively point to the singular gritty, dark tone combined with director Christopher Nolan's supposed obsession with making everything as realistic as possible (the latter of which is something I personally think is a bunch of baloney or, at the very least, blown way out of proportion. But that's another conversation for another day), but the one thing that should really be focused on is how the plot and action of all three films (and as a result, the characters as well) are centered entirely around certain, definable themes.
But so what? 'What's so great about having themes?', some may argue.
It’s certainly true that not all movies need to have strong themes in order to function well. All movies are different and certainly don't need to follow some arbitrary checklist of things to do in order to become a good, well-made, entertaining piece of cinema. But it's undeniable that, when done correctly, themes do have the ability to exponentially strengthen a story.
Look at it this way:
The overarching plot of The Dark Knight can basically be summed up as a cat-and-mouse game between the Joker and Batman. Of course, there's a ton of other stuff going on (such as the several ingenious plot twists, Harvey Dent's character arc, and the way the Joker is consistently so far ahead of our heroes) and they are intensely compelling in how they unravel. And obviously, adding the complex characters of Batman and his biggest nemesis to anything will immediately make the proceedings 10 times more interesting.
But looking beyond these admittedly shallow, surface-level details, the entire story runs the risk of coming across as cheap tricks with no other deeper meaning...without the coherent themes infused in every insane move the Joker makes and the themes involved with how Batman responds.
Indeed, even the entire Dark Knight trilogy can be boiled down to one specific theme: that Batman is a symbol for Gotham, that anyone can aspire to be him.
This theme is the driving force behind most of the events that take place in each movie, and it's a large part of the reason why Bruce Wayne's origin in Batman Begins works so well: unlike so many recent origin stories, it gives a proper explanation and motivation for having the character of Batman exist in the first place. In this trilogy at least, themes consistently prove to be absolutely essential to the plot.
Arguably the biggest strength of The Dark Knight as a whole is how masterfully Nolan managed to intertwine several intangible themes and core ideas with the main characters, and then physically represent these in the plot.
...Wow, sorry, that came across as speaking as generally as I possibly could. So what exactly do I mean? Let's talk specifics.
To do that, we need to step aside from my main point about the Joker once more for a quick second.
Take Harvey Dent for example. It's not a bold statement at all to say that he's the exact opposite of the Batman character: Harvey's well-liked by the public, works within the letter of the law, and metes out justice without ever having to wear a mask - "a hero with a face," as Bruce tells Rachel at one point. It's even possible that Harvey locks up and brings to justice more criminals than Batman ever could.
Heck, if none of that is convincing enough, this is a film about Batman that is titled "The Dark Knight." Harvey's popular nickname is Gotham's 'White Knight.' You really can't get much clearer than that in terms of opposing themes.
The central, core idea in this example is that District Attorney Dent starts out as such a strong public figure and a rare, genuinely good man in Gotham who inspires so much hope in others in a way that Batman never could. But with a little help from the Joker, he ultimately descends into a maniacal killer obsessed with extremely twisted views of chance and fairness. This strong character arc was exactly the ammunition Nolan uses as a focal point to wrap the entire film around and really drive forward the plot with such high stakes and such gripping momentum.
Some fans understandably take exception to the fact that the film actually seems to be centered on Harvey Dent's ever-changing story rather than the mostly-constant Batman, but I would argue that this simple idea perfectly shows the physical embodiment of a theme into the story, represented in the character arc.
In other words, the Joker is obsessed with the morality of Gotham and seeks to undermine all the work Batman has accomplished by proving that even the best people can descend to his own sick, twisted level. So how is this concept, this idea physically and tangibly shown in the movie? Through the rise and fall of Harvey Dent.
So what does any of this have to do with my main point about the Joker?
Well, even though his character arc isn't a focus here, the role of the Joker is similar to Harvey's. He is yet another opposing force to Batman, shown through both his actions and the themes he stands for. Take Batman's passion for justice, order, and his notorious "No killing" rule and compare those with the Joker's completely immoral, yet brilliant plan that is heavily involved with chaos, destruction, and death while staying 5 steps ahead of everyone else.
In Nolan's version, the Joker doesn't do all this because he has some uninspired, cliché revenge-trope against Batman or because he has some lame takeover-the-world endgame that the hero is simply standing in the way of.
No, the Joker simply believes in chaos and disorder while Batman stands for justice. These two concepts are diametrically opposed to one another in Nolan's Batman universe, and it leads to a perfectly natural, completely inevitable collision between the two that doesn't feel forced or artificial in the least. It's simply what has to happen: a clash between 'an unstoppable force and an immovable object,' and it makes all the sense in the world that it plays out the way it does.
The themes that are clearly involved with Batman and, more importantly, with the Joker villain, help strengthen two already-intriguing characters while also being tangibly represented in, and remaining crucial to, the plot. This abundance of evidence backs up any claim that one of the main reasons the Joker works so well is because of how the writers managed to have him embody themes that are so relevant to the ongoing plot.
2) A compelling motivation.
The concept of character motivation might be one of those subtle, easy-to-miss aspects of a particular character that can be the difference between an impactful, stand-out take on our favorite heroes or villains...or a hum-drum, mediocre, easily-forgettable performance that completely wastes the actor or actress's talent.
In the case of the Joker, motivation is incredibly important when it comes to understanding the fundamental elements of: what he wants, what he needs, how those two things come into conflict with each other, and how that conflict affects the other characters. This is a vital building block of writing effective, functioning characters and, unfortunately, so many movies skip out on this absolutely essential bit of characterization.
So the question we have to ask ourselves is, 'What exactly is the Joker's motivation here?'
The answer can either be picked up by how other characters interact with him and respond to him, or the character can let the audience know through his actions or even by simply verbalizing it. Contrary to what some might say, all of these techniques are equally as effective, as long as the writers know what they're doing and know how to best bring that message across to the audience.
So what's the answer in this specific example? Well, as I briefly mentioned earlier, the Joker is certainly not worried about vengeance. It's not an obsession with world domination, either. As it turns out, the answer is perfectly summed up by Alfred: "Some men just want to watch the world burn."
Now, critics of this movie might say this is a lame cop-out. They might use this as an excuse to say that this isn't really a good motivation, that it's a lazy attempt to justify having the Joker go all-out and cause as much destruction and madness as he can without having to actually do the work of explaining why.
My reply would be that this particular, supposed ambiguous motivation works so well precisely because the plot eventually becomes centered on this very question. We're actually meant to struggle with the question of 'What is motivating the villain?' while the protagonist does as well.
Valuable time is devoted to showing Bruce trying to figure out exactly what is behind the motives of the Joker, because he needs this information in order to find a way to stop the villain. Other movies end up as a confusing and ineffective mess because they choose not to properly define the motivations of their villain (or even their hero) and then never have the other characters question this or even have the plot reveal it.
This certainly isn't an issue in The Dark Knight, however.
The Joker's motivation means that Batman is almost entirely powerless to stop him.
Seriously, what can he do to subdue someone who can't be bullied (as shown in the infamous interrogation scene), bribed (as shown when he burns all of the mob's money...along with the mob's accountant, Lau, too), or reasoned with (as shown...well, throughout the entire movie). No matter what he does, the Joker can't be reckoned with. He shows he's perfectly willing to try and kill police commissioners, judges, and even the mayor while everyone else scurries around trying to stop him.
This leads to Batman stepping closer and closer to the thin line between being a hero and becoming a vigilante. He gets a taste of exactly the kind of things he'd have to do and the kind of person he'd have to become in order to thwart his enemy's increasingly insane tactics, and this comes to a head dramatically in that interrogation scene where Batman finally loses control and caves in to the Joker's taunts.
The brilliance of having this kind of villain is that, even when he's in the middle of his cat-and-mouse game with Batman, he's free to make a point about the morality of Gotham's citizens, as seen in the dramatic ferry scene near the end and in his entire plot involving Harvey Dent. As he begins to perceive that Batman completes him and, in a sick way, gives him a purpose in life, the Joker decides to undercut Batman's entire reason for existing by goading him into losing control, breaking his one rule, and also proving that humanity's natural state is anarchy, chaos, and pure evil. Could he have 'accomplished' any of this had his motivation been different?
The end of the movie shows how the Joker's actions have an incredibly far-reaching, unforeseen effect as Batman is forced to give up any pretense of being a hero in the public's eye and falsely accept the blame for Harvey Two-Face's death and his crimes. It's safe to say that had the Joker's motivations been anything else or less defined, none of this would have been possible.
This phenomenal ending stays completely true to the established Batman character, as he sacrifices almost everything he has left in order to protect the people and city he loves. Few villains besides Heath Ledger's Joker could have been responsible for leaving Batman in such a state, and few motivations besides his obsession with wanting to 'watch the world burn' could have led to this same outcome.
3) Skipping the origin story.
The filmmakers made a conscious effort right from the get-go to intentionally leave out any origin story for the movie's central villain, and I believe this is yet another reason for why the character went on to become so iconic.
Rather than wasting time in an already-massive blockbuster focusing on exactly how the Joker got those unsettling scars or what tragic event in his life led him on the path he's on...he's simply there. Right from the opening scene of the film, he's an established villain who we quickly learn has no redeemable qualities or any ounce of humanity left in him.
Would it have been 'nice' (and I use that term very loosely here) to see him fall into a vat of chemicals or actually witness his face being carved up? Sure, I won't deny how dark, chilling, and compelling that might have been. But to get hung up on these relatively minor details would be to miss the entire point of the character, in my opinion.
Could showing his origin to the audience have made him into a more understandable, sympathetic human? Theoretically yes, but something we have to ask ourselves is: Would any of that have made for a better villain?
I argue that not knowing the origins of Batman's greatest villain and having an air of mystery and confusion surrounding his multiple versions of how he got those scars leads to a much more frightening character. The very point of the Joker is that he isn't sympathetic. He isn't relatable, he isn't humanized. He just is.
And to further my point, Nolan did eventually go the route of a somewhat sympathetic villain in The Dark Knight Rises with Bane. And rather than having moviegoers appreciate this bit of character development and insight into his motivations when it was revealed...fans immediately and loudly denounced him as "disappointing" or "weak" or simply a lame "henchman" that supposedly wasn't ever in charge in the first place.
Who knows if the same thing would have happened with the Joker. Perhaps fans would've responded positively and gained a better understanding of the character. After all, knowing Loki's origin and motivations in Thor and The Avengers absolutely helped make him a definable, effective villain, right?
But in the unique case of the Joker, it undoubtedly would've led to a lesser quality of villain. Skipping his origin story was one of the more inspired choices the filmmakers made when adapting their version of the terrifying, unstoppable force known as the Joker.
It goes without saying that it's absolutely unfortunate that Heath Ledger passed away in early 2008, when his career really had the potential to take off and when his life had almost unlimited potential in front of him. From a film perspective, Nolan almost certainly had plans for his Joker character in the final installment of The Dark Knight trilogy, and it's a bit sobering to know that we may never know how the trilogy would have panned out had things gone according to plan.
But perhaps it's fitting that Ledger's most famous, and perhaps his best, performance came as the Clown Prince of Crime in The Dark Knight. As bad as it sounds, did his untimely passing have an effect on the marketing and anticipation in the months leading up to the film? Most likely. Was his portrayal seen through a certain biased lens in the minds of most fans? Absolutely. But should any of this take away from his incredible work in bringing one of the more realistic, more terrifying versions of the Joker on the big screen? The answer is a resounding no.
His chilling acting performance only worked so well because it was added to the very capable writing team that devoted so much time and energy in writing and adapting the character in the first place.
From the themes that defined his character, to the compelling motivations that spurred him to wreak chaos across Gotham, to the omission of any sort of origin story that may have cheapened him, Ledger's Joker already has a permanent place in our pop culture. And like it or not, fair or not, any future versions of the Joker in cinema will always be compared to Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. And in my opinion, rightfully so.
Once again, thank you all for reading! Fully agree with me, or convinced I'm way off base? Let me know in the comments below!
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