Ten years ago this week, Heath Ledger left an indelible impression on the world with his portrayal of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT, one of the best comic book-based movies ever made.
While Nolan’s first foray into the Bat-universe – 2005’s BATMAN BEGINS – was ok, the anticipation for the sequel was pretty intense. Christian Bale’s second turn in the costume was going to put him up against his most famous rival, teased at the end of the first movie with a playing card. And in the gritty, more realistic world Nolan created, it really did have the potential to be something special.
Heath Ledger was an interesting choice. While he got some critical acclaim with BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN in 2005, there wasn’t a whole lot in his body of work that indicated he would do well with a character as nuanced and as disturbed as the Joker. Look at Jack Nicholson’s performance in 1989’s BATMAN – he basically was just Jack Nicholson in clown makeup. But that wouldn’t play in Nolan’s Gotham City. Most of the previous adaptations of the Joker would have been out of place in this world.
The thing that I most remembered Ledger for was his turn as Patrick Verona in the 1999 teen comedy 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU. Not exactly a comparable part. But look at that smile.
Obviously, Nolan saw something in Ledger that a lot of other people probably hadn’t. The performance they both created was one for the ages. From the opening scene, where Joker’s goons rob a mobbed-up bank as clowns one-by-one turn against their partners before Joker is finally revealed, moviegoers knew this was going to be a tense, moody film and Ledger’s performance as Joker was going to surprise a lot of people.
THE DARK KNIGHT was maybe the last movie I went to see in theaters multiple times. Despite the 2-and-a-half hour run time, the film rarely felt like it dragged. While I personally felt the subplot with the two ferries escaping Gotham was unnecessary and could have been cut, it’s still not a complete drag, and adds to the Joker’s defeat at the end of the film.
Ledger’s turn as the Joker was the performance of a lifetime, and his death in January 2008 was made even more tragic in that he never got to see how well his Joker was received with just about everyone.
Another aspect of the film that I loved was the origin story for one of my favorite Batman villains: Two-Face. Before THE DARK KNIGHT, there had been a pair of origin stories for Harvey Dent – in two different media – that became iconic origin stories for Two-Face. The first came in Batman: The Animated Series, which went out of its way to introduce Dent as an ally and friend of Bruce Wayne’s before he suffered he was disfigured and became a villain. The second was in Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s 12-issue maxiseries BATMAN: THE LONG HALLOWEEN and its follow-up, BATMAN: DARK VICTORY. Those two depictions of Dent really made me see him as the best of Batman’s rogues.
Aaron Eckhart had a lot to live up to with his performance as Gotham’s white knight District Attorney. I don’t think I would put this role up there with the other two as the most iconic Two-Face depiction, but once he reveals his disfigured face, this movie version definitely looked like it jumped right out of a comic book panel, yet still maintained the realism Nolan kept throughout.
The 10th anniversary of THE DARK KNIGHT‘s release is this Wednesday, and the movie still holds up as one of the best comic book movies of all time, and it is definitely, in my opinion, the best Batman movie ever made (even if I think Christian Bale’s Batman voice is silly). We should all watch the movie again this week and pray that Warner Bros. figures out a way to make a DC Comics-based movie half as good as this one.