“You won’t kill me out of some sense of self righteousness and I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.”
This is what the Joker says to Batman in the Dark Knight and somehow they are strangely prophetic. When Christopher Nolan decided to redo the Batman Movies as he saw them, he kept the Joker for the second movie. Many wondered who could possibly play the Joker in this new grittier series with many stating no-one would ever match or outdo Jack Nicholson‘s portrayal of the madman who killed you with a smile in Tim Burton’s movie. And when word got out that Australian actor Heath Ledger had been cast in the role, the world gave a collected gasp of horror. Ledger had been best known for Brokeback Mountain and first Knight, he seemed a strange choice and immediately fans went a bit gaga. Then images of his make-up emerged; a more terrifying version than the clean cut Nicholson or Caesar Romero of old. This was a Joker for Nolan’s world of Batman, a world that didn’t entertain comic characters in tights but ground the villains into a reality where you could believe they could exist.
The Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul had gone down well with audiences and with hindsight we know Nolan knew what he was doing. I remember sitting in the audience in the cinema mentally challenging them to confirm the reports I had heard that Ledger had completely redefined the Joker. I sat, expecting to be entertained but never for a second did I think Ledger’s performance would leave me open mouthed as it did. This was a scarred Joker both mentally and physically who knew Batman as well as he knew himself.
I sat there watching as the Joker told the sad tale of how his father had caused his facial scars and I immediately was sucked into the story. Then when he told a different version of how he got his scars I actually said out loud: ‘I believed him before.’ I was blown away. It was only at that moment that I realized how magnetic Ledger was as Joker. I completely believed his story and was genuinely shocked that I had been fooled. But that was the beauty of his performance. Those little tics of the face, the movement of his mouth, the blazing eyes from a canvas of smeared clown paint as he taunts his enemies is electric. Even when he laughs when Batman hits him completes the madness that is the Joker. Ledger did the right thing and ignored what was gone before. Although when he dressed as a nurse it made you laugh out loud. He was an extreme personality that would go to extreme measures to get what he wanted, even if it meant cross-dressing.
Instead of bullet firing umbrellas and nerve gas balloons we got a man that came out of nowhere almost as if he has been spewed from the mouth of madness itself. When he is in the police interrogation room, Ledger’s silence speaks volumes as he rocks slightly and is twitchy. He knows what his grand plan is and is a simmering volcano waiting to erupt the minute Batman and Gordon finally figure it out. Even when he has no dialogue you can see the intelligence burning behind those eyes as they dart about, waiting for his moment to escape when his plan comes to fruition. He is twenty steps ahead of the Batman and takes great delight in making him figure out the Joker’s lethal game plan. He doesn’t care that a boat full of people will die when a button is pushed. All he wants to see is how far people will go to survive and prove that they are as insane as him in their own way.
The Joker wants the world to admit it is as screwed up as he is and who better to prove that than a man who dresses like a bat and roams the streets at night. Both hide behind masks, both live dual lives and both are out to prove they are right. Batman wants to give the world hope while Joker wants to show that the world is hopeless. He sucks the characters into his mind just as he does us. To achieve that in a character that is established in fans’ heads is no mean feat. And for two solid hours Heath Ledger did what no-one has done before. He made the world believe madness had taken human form. He is sorely missed.
Heath Ledger 4 April 1979 – 22 January 2008