Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in director Christopher Nolan’s 2008 sequel The Dark Knight is one of the great performances of all time. It’s destined to lord over cinema history for decades to come, and indeed it has loomed large over the superhero genre in the recent boon of comic book movies. But why, exactly, is Heath Ledger’s Joker so great? What makes this villain so memorable in The Dark Knight when plenty of other villainous turns by famous actors are so forgettable? That’s the question at the center of a new video essay that unpacks, from a script level, how this iteration of The Joker is the perfect antagonist for Christian Bale’s Batman in The Dark Knight.
Indeed, when Nolan first opted to tackle this iconic Batman villain for his follow-up to Batman Begins, many thought it was a fool’s errand. Jack Nicholson had already given the iconic Joker turn, so why embarrass yourself? But folks underestimated not just Ledger’s performance, but the brilliance of the film’s screenplay by Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan. There’s a reason this film has endured in a sea of superhero movies, and it’s because it works brilliantly on a spectacle level, a character level, a story level, and most importantly, a thematic level. At its heart, The Dark Knight is a 9/11 movie, and thus the anarchic and chaotic Joker was the perfect villain to serve the film’s thematic resonance.
This video essay doesn’t delve too deep into the 9/11 parallels and instead discusses the specifics of the protagonist/antagonist relationship in cinema, and why this particular dynamic works so well in The Dark Knight. And it’s not wrong—the film subverts convention by offering up a villain who doesn’t have some overarching plan for world domination or copious amounts of wealth—he’s a force of nature, which is a terrific foil for a hero who refuses to kill and is struggling to find the balance of saving lives without putting more in danger.
The essay also points out that it’s not just using the character of The Joker that guarantees success, as evidenced by Suicide Squad. He has to be utilized correctly, as a utility in service of the story and character. Agree? Disagree? Watch the video below by Lessons from the Screenplay (via The Playlist), and sound off with your thoughts in the comments section.