The Joker (The Dark Knight)

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The Joker
Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)
Publication information
Publisher DC Comics
First appearance The Dark Knight (2008)
Created by original character:
Jerry Robinson (concept)
Bob Kane
Bill Finger
The Dark Knight adaptation:
Christopher Nolan
David S. Goyer

The Joker is a fictional character portrayed by Heath Ledger and the main antagonist of the film The Dark Knight, the second film In The Dark Knight trilogy. He is director Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer's interpretation of the comic book character created by Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger and Bob Kane in 1940 as the archenemy of the superhero Batman. This is the third time the character has been adapted to a live-action film.

Character development[edit]

Heath Ledger with director Christopher Nolan during the filming of one of the Joker's videos.

Heath Ledger told Sarah Lyall of The New York Times that he viewed that film's version of the character as a "psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy."[1] Costume designer Lindy Hemming described the Joker's look as reflecting his personality, in that "he doesn't care about himself at all"; she avoided designing him as a vagrant, but still made him appear to be "scruffier, grungier", so that "when you see him move, he's slightly twitchier or edgy."[2][3] Nolan noted, "We gave a Francis Bacon spin to [his face]. This corruption, this decay in the texture of the look itself. It's grubby. You can almost imagine what he smells like."[4] In creating the "chaotic" look of the Joker, Hemming drew inspiration from such countercultural pop culture artists as Pete Doherty, Iggy Pop, and Johnny Rotten.[5] Ledger described his "clown" mask, made up of three pieces of stamped silicone, as a "new technology", taking less than an hour for the make-up artists to apply, much faster than what more-conventional prosthetics usually require. Ledger also said that he felt he was barely wearing any make-up.[2][6]

Unlike most incarnations, where his appearance is a result of chemical bleaching, this version sports a Glasgow smile, accentuated through unevenly applied clown make-up, and has dyed green hair. During the course of the film, he tells conflicting stories about how he acquired the scars, which involve child abuse and self-mutilation. He carves Glasgow smiles into some of his victims' faces as well, in lieu of the postmortem smiles created by Joker venom in the comic books. Where the character is usually depicted using a variety of gag-based weapons, this version uses knives, firearms, and an array of explosive devices.

Before Ledger was confirmed to play the Joker in July 2006, Paul Bettany,[7] Lachy Hulme,[8] Adrien Brody,[9] Steve Carell,[10] and Robin Williams[11] publicly expressed interest in the role. However, Nolan had wanted to work with Ledger on a number of projects in the past (though had been unable to do so), and was agreeable to Ledger's chaotic interpretation of the character.[12] When Ledger saw Batman Begins, he had realized a way to make the character work that was consistent with the film's tone.[13] Throughout the film, the Joker states his desire to upset social order through crime, and comes to define himself by his conflict with Batman. To prepare for the role, Ledger lived alone in a hotel room for a month, formulating the character's posture, voice, and personality, and kept a diary, in which he recorded the Joker's thoughts and feelings.[2][3] While he initially found it difficult, Ledger eventually generated a voice unlike Jack Nicholson's character in Tim Burton's 1989 film.[1][3] He was also given Batman: The Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, which he "really tried to read and put it down."[13] Ledger also cited A Clockwork Orange and Sid Vicious as "a very early starting point for Christian [Bale] and I. But we kind of flew far away from that pretty quickly and into another world altogether."[14][15] "There's a bit of everything in him. There's nothing that consistent," Ledger said, and added, "There are a few more surprises to him."[14] Ledger was allowed to shoot and mostly direct the videos the Joker sends out as warnings. Each take Ledger made was different from the last. Nolan was impressed enough with the first video shoot that he chose to not be present when Ledger shot the video with a kidnapped reporter (Anthony Michael Hall).[16] On January 22, 2008, after he had completed filming The Dark Knight, Ledger died of an accidental prescription drug overdose, leading to intense press attention and memorial tributes. "It was tremendously emotional, right when he passed, having to go back in and look at him every day [during editing]," Nolan recalled. "But the truth is, I feel very lucky to have something productive to do, to have a performance that he was very, very proud of, and that he had entrusted to me to finish."[15] All of Ledger's scenes appear as he completed them in the filming; in editing the film, Nolan added no "digital effects" to alter Ledger's actual performance posthumously.[17] Nolan has dedicated the film in part to Ledger's memory.[18][19]

Ledger told Empire how he prepared for the role:

"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 to 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 towards his acts"; after reiterating his view of the character as "just an absolute sociopath, a cold-blooded, mass-murdering clown", he added that Nolan had given him "free rein" to create the role, which he found "fun, because there are no real boundaries to what the Joker would say or do. Nothing intimidates him, and everything is a big joke."[3]

Role in the franchise[edit]

The character's existence is hinted at the end of the first film Batman Begins, where Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) tells Batman (Christian Bale) of an armed robber who leaves Joker playing cards at scenes of crimes.

The Joker is featured as the main antagonist of the film, the Joker and his men rob a Mafia-owned bank; he engineers his henchmen's deaths and escapes alone with the money. He then breaks into a meeting of Gotham City's crime bosses and offers to kill Batman in return for half of their funds. After killing mob boss Gambol (Michael Jai White), he issues a city-wide ultimatum for Batman to turn himself in, and threatens to kill people each day until Batman does so. He murders the judge presiding over the mob trials and Police Commissioner Gillian B. Loeb (Colin McFarlane), and makes a failed assassination attempt on Mayor Anthony Garcia (Nestor Carbonell). Gotham's district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) falsely reveals himself as Batman at a press conference as part of the plan to lure the Joker out of hiding. The Joker is captured after a long high-speed chase, but it is soon revealed that he actually planned his own capture to retrieve the Chinese accountant Lau (Chin Han) that was working for the mob.

It's eventually revealed that the Joker sees himself as an "agent of chaos" and comes to define himself by his conflict with Batman. The Joker is also responsible for the death of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Dent's transformation into Two-Face.[20] After he rigs a trap in which Rachel is killed and Dent is disfigured, the Joker (disguised as a hospital nurse) then convinces the traumatized Dent to seek revenge on the mob and the police.

At the climax of the film, the Joker has placed bombs on board two evacuation ships, one containing inmates of Gotham's penitentiary, and the other containing ordinary citizens. The Joker places detonators on both boats, threatening to destroy them both at midnight if one doesn't destroy the other. He also holds several hostages (disguised as his own henchmen) at a tower where he is observing the ships. Batman subdues the Joker's henchmen (disguised as medical personnel) and eventually captures the Joker himself just as both ships refuse to destroy each other. Batman then knocks the Joker off the building, but saves his life by snaring his legs with a grappling hook. The Joker says Batman can't kill him because it violates his moral code, and that he can't kill Batman because he's "just too much fun"; he then predicts gleefully that they are destined to fight each other forever. Just before being taken into custody, the Joker gloats that he has won "the battle for Gotham's soul": the people of Gotham will lose hope once they learn of Two-Face's homicidal rampage. In order to save the city, Batman takes the blame for Two-Face's crimes so that people will remember Dent as a hero.

The Joker is not mentioned in the third (and final) film The Dark Knight Rises out of respect for Heath Ledger.[21] However, the character is briefly mentioned in the film's novelization as being "locked away as Arkham’s sole remaining inmate. Or perhaps he had escaped. Nobody was really sure."[22]


Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker was highly acclaimed. On February 22, 2009, Ledger posthumously won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.[23] He was the fourth actor to be nominated for the portrayal of a comic strip/comic book/graphic novel character (the others being Al Pacino in Dick Tracy, Paul Newman in Road to Perdition, and William Hurt in A History of Violence), and the first to win.

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times describes The Dark Knight as a "haunted film that leaps beyond its origins and becomes an engrossing tragedy." He praises the performances, direction, and writing, and says the film "redefine[s] the possibilities of the comic-book movie." Ebert states that Ledger gave the "key performance", and pondered whether he would become the first posthumous Academy Award-winning actor since Peter Finch in 1976. Ledger ultimately won the Oscar.[24] Ebert named it one of his twenty favorite films of 2008.[25] Peter Travers of Rolling Stone writes that the film is deeper than its predecessor, with a "deft" script that refuses to scrutinize the Joker with popular psychology, instead pulling the viewer in with an examination of Bruce Wayne's psyche.[26] Travers praised the cast, saying each brings his or her "'A' game" to the film."[26] Travers says Ledger moves the Joker away from Jack Nicholson's interpretation into darker territory, and expresses his support for any potential campaign to have Ledger nominated for an Academy Award,[26] Entertainment Weekly put it on its end-of-the-decade, "best-of" list, saying, "Every great hero needs a great villain. And in 2008, Christian Bale's Batman found his in Heath Ledger's demented dervish, the Joker."[27]

Emanuel Levy wrote Ledger "throws himself completely" into the role,[28] and that the film represents Nolan's "most accomplished and mature" work, and the most technically impressive and resonant of all the Batman films.[28] David Denby of The New Yorker was critical of the film but said that Bale's "placid" Bruce Wayne and "dogged but uninteresting" Batman is constantly upstaged by Ledger's "sinister and frightening" performance, which he says is the film's one element of success. Denby called Ledger "mesmerising" and said, "His performance is a heroic, unsettling final act: this young actor looked into the abyss."[29]

Film critics, co-stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Michael Caine, and many of Ledger's colleagues in the film community joined Bale in calling for and predicting a nomination for the 2008 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in recognition of Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight.[30] Ledger's subsequent nomination was announced on January 22, 2009, the anniversary of his death;[31] Ledger went on to win the award, becoming the second person to win a posthumous Academy Award for acting, after fellow Australian actor Peter Finch won for 1976's Network. The award was accepted by Ledger's family.[32] Ledger also won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Supporting Actor, the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture, and the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. On November 10, 2008, he was nominated for two People's Choice Awards related to his work on the film, "Best Ensemble Cast" and "Best Onscreen Match-Up" (shared with Christian Bale), and Ledger won an award for "Match-Up" in the ceremony aired live on CBS in January 2009.[33]

Nolan dedicated the film in part to Ledger's memory, as well as to the memory of technician Conway Wickliffe killed during a car accident while preparing one of the film's stunts.[18]

Ledger's death affected the marketing campaign for The Dark Knight[34] and also both the production and marketing of Terry Gilliam's film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus; both Nolan and Gilliam celebrated and paid tribute to Ledger's work in these films.[15][34][35][36]

Other appearances[edit]


  • The Dark Knight version of Joker appears on the Robot Chicken episode "President Hu Forbids It" , voiced by Seth Green.


Video games[edit]

  • The Dark Knight incarnation of Joker (in his nurse outfit) appears as a playable character in Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham via downloadable content. This version is separate from the character's other versions that are also playable characters.


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