Is Heath Ledger’s ‘Joker’ the greatest villain of all time?

"And here we go."

It’s difficult to do Heath Ledger’s astounding performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight justice. It has to be seen to be fully appreciated but as one of modern cinema’s most breathtaking achivements I’m going out on a limb and assuming that most people have witnessed the Caped Crusader stand up to Gotham’s biggest threat.

Christopher Nolan set himself a monumental task. The ultimate question, how to reinvent The Dark Knight for the modern cinema goer? Before the omnipresent age of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe Christian Bale donned the black cape in Batman Begins and went toe-to-toe with Ra’s Al Ghul and Scarecrow, two of the franchise’s most recognised villains.

We have to thank Bob Kane and Bill Finger for their collaborative creative genius in bringing Batman into the world way back in 1939. I’m no Batman expert so I won’t go into too much detail through fear of infuriating the comic book universe but Batman has been around for a long time. Batman’s longevity has been accredited with a number of nicknames, The Caped Crusader, Winged Avenger, Detective, The Bat, The Dark Knight. It’s the latter that concerns this post, but Batman takes a back seat in our discussion on one of cinema’s greatest villains.

I say cinema because, although The Joker has his origins in the DC Universe and has been played countless times by varying degree of actor and voice actor, Heath Ledger’s performance reinvented the way audiences connect with villains. There’s nothing really frightening about Marvel’s latest line of villains, just fist fodder for the universe’s superheroes. DC are better at bringing comic book lovers a darker representation of superheroes and villains alike what with Watchmen, The Dark Knight trilogy, even Man of Steel. So when The Dark Knight was announced as the sequel to Batman Begins there was huge anticipation to see what Heath Ledger could bring to the most recognised Batman villain of all time, The Joker.

“I’m an agent of chaos.”

There is no logic to The Joker. Manic, anarchical, self-destructive. Each scene is dominated by an air of unease, a sense of dread fills the room to the point where nobody else matters, even Batman plays second fiddle. It’s no wonder Heath Ledger was posthumously awarded the academy award for Best Supporting Actor.

The Joker is more than just a maniacal voice of irrationality, psychopathic tendencies and a pocket full of grenades. What Ledger was able to bring to the role will never be matched, certainly not by Jared Leto in next year’s Suicide Squad. Ledger brought a slimy, unpredictability to The Joker. The tongue, hand gestures, and existential soliloquies frequented by moments of madness all add to an unnerving aura that puts us on edge. But not out of nervousness, we’re captivated, we’re on the edge of our seats awaiting his next move. What makes him special is his frightening realism. While the performance from Ledger should be revered as one of cinema’s greatest Alfred serves a potent philosophical reminder that “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

“Why so serious?”

Ledger brings an eerie reality to The Joker as a character. Each scar origin story, improvisation, and shrill of sinister enjoyment ensures a nocuous tone is maintained. Despite The Joker’s psychopathy he stills embraces an underlying sense of vulnerability, taking offense to labels such as, freak, and crazy. His magic trick has the potential to make us laugh but out of nervousness, to the point where the normal villains, Maroni or Chechen for example, become victims of The Joker’s crazed persona. His ability to make the world burn is beautifully framed in front of his flaming stack of immeasurable cash.

“Do I really look like a guy with a plan?”

Despite his insistence to Harvey Dent on his hospital bed The Joker does have a plan, but he doesn’t have an end goal. He hatches various violent villainous schemes to ensure his demonstrably destructive persona is anything but pernicious and yet there is no end to his noxious means.

The incisive poignancy when The Joker is hanging upside down, wearing his anarchical grin, and trademark purple threads with an erratic green barnet to suit, closes out The Joker’s role in The Dark Knight franchise respectfully.

“You won’t kill me out of some misplaced 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.”

The Joker will never be seen in this raw capacity again. It truly is a timeless performance that raises The Joker’s profile even higher as Batman’s archenemy in a silver screen comic universe that has no end in sight.

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31 thoughts on “Is Heath Ledger’s ‘Joker’ the greatest villain of all time?

  1. Some really great insights here. I’m a huge fan of the Batman franchise and love comics, especially The Killing Joke in reference to The Joker. I think Ledger did a great job portraying his (and Christopher Nolan’s) depiction of The Joker but I felt like it was a little removed from the comic book version of the character. Overall though, you can’t deny that he’s a great villain and Ledger was a very talented actor.

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    1. Having never had the privilege of reading the Batman comics I didn’t feel I could comment on accurateness of the character, but like you say, there is definitely no denying Ledger’s awesome performance and The Joker’s wicked villain status

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  2. Very nice write-up, Leto will have a very hard time measuring up to Ledger’s performance, even moreso than the task that Ledger himself had in people’s minds in order to live up to Nicholson’s performance before him. But I do think that in time there will be another actor who takes this character in yet another direction that is just as brilliant, but for now at least we have the Dark Knight to watch time and time again.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, that’s a good point, I suppose Nicholson’s performance was pretty iconic, how many more directions can The Joker be taken? We don’t know much about his origins?

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  3. Great review. I have always liked Ledger; even in his teen flicks early on, he was distinctive. I liked how I saw some of the faux menace from an early comic role (in 10 Things I Hate about You) become disturbing & real in The Dark Knight. I think we talk a lot about unpredictability, but it was creepy to see an actor so fully realize it.

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  4. It’s a fantastic performance – one that doomed every other Batman film to being simply “the one without Heath Ledger”.

    I love all the tiny implications that he may not be human – not really. He has no real name, no record, no fingerprints. It’s almost like he is an avatar for Loki or some other ancient trickster god.

    Great film. Great write up. Really enjoyed it.

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  5. Well it certainly gave The Dark Knight Rises something to think about and I think it done a pretty good job with Bane, but it certainly felt different, no where near as dark.

    The Dark Knight Rises does have some fantastic moments though, might just watch it now

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  6. Excellent article. At the moment, Ledger has given us by far the best version of the Joker on screen. He took a well established character and managed to make it completely his which is no easy task. It’s a monumental performance. I will say that there is always a chance someone will outdo him, or at least equal him. Leto is excellent in his own right. I’m just worried he won’t have the material to really give him a chance to be great. Hope I’m wrong. FYI, for this blogathon I actually wrote about the same movie…but about, Batman…

    http://dellonmovies.blogspot.com/2015/04/the-great-villain-blogathon-batman-in.html

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    1. Yeah I don’t think The Joker will feature that heavily in Suicide Squad but he will add something different to the vast array of portrayals that’s for sure, I can’t wait to see Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn though, should make for a great film if the post-production rumours come to fruition

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  7. Very good pick, one of the top pop culture villains ever, and one that has proven to be such a juicy role for great movie actors. I agree, it’ll be really hard for anyone to ever top Ledger’s performance since it’ll take an equally complex story too. Thanks for joining us for this event!

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  8. Great post on a complex character – one of my favourite villains from the past few years. It’s a shame the character is tinged with tragedy but that probably enhances the appreciation of the performance. And I hadn’t considered that what makes him so terrifying is that the goal or motivation for his behaviour is never fully explained – you can’t fight unpredictability!

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    1. Hi there, thank you :) I don’t know the Barrymore’s that well but I did enjoy 50 First Dates, you won’t catch me reviewing a rom com that often so I think I’ll make this an exception, if that’s alright with you?

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