What Made Heath Ledger's Joker So Great?

Tuesday, 12 May 2015 - 8:01AM
DC Comics
Batman
Suicide Squad
Tuesday, 12 May 2015 - 8:01AM
What Made Heath Ledger's Joker So Great?
When David Ayer, director of Suicide Squad, released the first pic of Leto's Joker a few weeks ago, it left DC fans in a state of debate. Some loved the new look, and were excited for a new take on comics' most beloved super villain. Others were quite disappointed, particularly with the fact that this Joker was quite literally covered from head to toe with tattoos. That sort of portrayal certainly isn't the Joker that fans have been accustomed to seeing in the comics, nor is it like anything we've seen before in any of the recent animated movies or live action projects, and when it comes to comic book fans, we don't always embrace change with open arms.

But Heath Ledger's legendary portrayal of the Joker in the Dark Knight, which is now held up as the gold standard for comic book movie character portrayals, was far from a conventional take on the character. In fact, some fans reacted in much the same way to the first images of Ledger's Joker as some are currently reacting to those that were recently released of Leto's. "Is he wearing makeup? Is his smile made of scars?!" The fact that Ledger's Joker wasn't the same old villain with acid-scorched skin and a permanently goofy grin was the cause of quite some concern to more than a few fans.

Though Ledger's portrayal omitted some of the more traditional aspects of comics' greatest villain, it immediately became one of the greatest takes on any comic character to be brought to the big screen. This was not only because of Ledger's phenomenal acting and experience, but was also due to how Ledger and Christopher Nolan, the film's director and co- writer, were able to incorporate some of the greatest characteristics and traits of the Joker found in the comics into this brand new take on the villain. Yes, one of the greatest reasons for the success of a character infamously known to have strayed from the source material is in fact the way the character stayed true to the source material. Here's 5 ways that Ledger's Joker did just that. 

His Lack of a Past


Without doubt, one of the most intriguing characteristics about comics' most notorious madman is his past (or rather his lack of one). In Alan Moore's famed comic, 'The Killing Joke', the Clown Prince of Crime said the following in a dialogue with Batman:
"All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That's how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day...What made you what you are? Girlfriend killed by the mob, maybe? Brother carved up by some mugger? Something like that, I bet. Something like that...Something like that happened to me, you know. I...I'm not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another...If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice! HA HA HA!"
Ledger's portrayal of the Joker was largely inspired by these very words. Who could possibly forget his deranged and conflicting backstories, each one beginning with the same eerie line: "Wanna know how I got these scars?" Though multiple origin stories have been attributed to the Joker in different comic series, it's the questions that remain about his background that make the Joker so interesting. What could have possibly made him the insane individual that he is? No one really knows the answer. One of the reasons that Ledger's Joker was as complex and fascinating as he is, was because of how well this part of the character was adapted to the big screen. In an age where Hollywood has become obsessed with an origin story, resisting the temptation to build background to the Joker's madness, could be make or break for Ayer and his team.

His Cartoony Side


In Nolan's ultra-real take on the Batman universe, it definitely wouldn't have made sense to have a Joker that used exploding chattering teeth or a toxin designed to make all the fish of Gotham harbor grin (such as in the "The Laughing Fish" comic). Yet Nolan clearly knew that this cartoony side of the Joker was far too big a part of the character to leave out completely. While Ledger's Joker definitely didn't show this side of the character for the majority of the film, the scene in Gotham Central Hospital where he is dressed as a nurse was twisted, comical, and one of the most unforgettable scenes in the entire movie. Clearly the scene owes its inspiration to the zanier side of the Joker that is frequently represented in the comics.  

His Sick Love for Batman


The Joker of The Dark Knight found true purpose in being the antithesis of Batman. Understanding the Caped Crusader's intellect and his unwillingness to kill, the Clown Prince of Crime had discovered his ultimate playmate. Setting up schemes for the Bat to unravel and finding ways to terrorize him emotionally, became his greatest mission in life. This part of the Joker's character also draws inspiration from themes that are frequently presented in the comics. Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns comic series, Batman has retired and the Joker has been locked in Arkham for quite some time. When the Dark Knight decides it's once again time to take up the cape and cowl to defend Gotham, the Joker springs back into life. Without Batman, the Joker is simply incomplete. The Joker's sick love of tormenting the Batman is yet another trait that was perfectly captured by Ledger's portrayal in The Dark Knight. Hopefully those shots of Ben Affleck on the set of Suicide Squad mean that David Ayer has recognized this as well.

His Deranged Sense of Humor


In The Dark Knight, Ledger's Joker obviously has a unique and deranged sense of humor. Anyone who has watched the movie has had that moment where they wonder if they should really be laughing about the fact that Joker actually made that pencil disappear, and this twisted sense of humor once again comes from the character's source material. In "Slayride" (Detective Comics #826), the Joker tricks a distressed Tim Drake (or the third Robin for the Batman illiterate) to take refuge in the passenger seat of the car he's driving. He then gasses Drake, ties him up in Christmas lights, and drives him around town while bowling over random pedestrians. He eventually decides to take Tim out for some eggnog milkshakes, but sadly the lady at the drive through can't keep up with his order. The Joker asks to speak to the manager before promptly shooting him in the chest and driving away, disappointed he didn't get his milkshake. This deranged and twisted sense of humor is yet another part of the Joker which Ledger and Nolan masterfully brought into their cinematic adaptation of the character, and it's one that Leto and Ayer will need to recognize if they are to emulate their predecessor's success. 

His Maniacal Goals


Throughout the years, the Joker has had multiple purposes for his criminal escapades. Sure, he spent some time in a classical bank robber role, but he eventually made it back to his roots as a sociopathic madman bent on spreading death and destruction. Ultimately, the Joker always sought to make the world just as crazy and deranged as himself, and Alan Moore's 'The Killing Joke' is a prime example of this. The comic is focuses on the Joker's belief that one truly bad day can drive anyone mad. In an attempt to prove this point, he shows up to Commissioner Gordon's home and shoots his daughter, Barbara, in the spine, before proceeding to undress her and photographing the entire incident. Afterwards, he takes Commissioner Gordon to his amusement park hideout and forces him to ride a roller coaster while displaying pictures of his naked, paralyzed daughter on screens all around him. Though he does not succeed, the Joker's intent was to show that even one of Gotham's finest can be driven just as mad as him. If there's one facet of the Joker's personality that Ledger's portrayal truly excels at, it's this one. Not only is he a self described "agent of chaos" whose only wish is to watch the world burn, but in doing so he strives to drag everyone he can down to his level of insanity. Unlike in The Killing Joke, however, he succeeds in showing that one bad day can drive even one of Gotham's finest as mad as he is. It is this aspect of the Joker that is perhaps exemplified by Ledger's portrayal to a level greater than any other.

While Ledger's acting was absolutely phenomenal, what really made his take on the Joker so amazing is how the source material for the character was incorporated. By keeping these core components of the Joker intact, it allowed Ledger to bring to life one of the most legendary villains of all time.

So when it comes time for Leto's Joker to make his big debut, fans should keep in mind that though he may not look like the Joker they've grown accustomed to, Leto and his writers still have the ability to use the same source material in new and exciting ways to create a completely original take on comics most beloved sociopath. It's now been almost seven years since the Dark Knight premiered in theaters, and fans are still talking about Ledger's portrayal of the Joker. Who knows? In another ten years, fans may still be talking about Leto's as well.

Suicide Squad hits theaters on August 5th, 2016.
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What Made Heath Ledger's Joker So Great? Can It Be Replicated?