Why So Serious: Ledger’s Joker is the Reason We Still Have Superhero Movies

Why so serious?

A line that is as memorable today as it was seven years ago at the release of The Dark Knight. Before it, we were familiar with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s  Mr. Freeze and his cool puns (I couldn’t resist), as well as Danny DeVito’s Penguin and his plans to drown Gotham’s children. While one can make the argument that the Batman movies trumped other superhero movies in regards to its villains, it is Heath Ledger’s Joker that stands above all. The sheer mania caused by the character both within the film and in our culture, as well as the post-humous Oscar win for Ledger, marks the true impact that the character had on Hollywood and moviegoers alike. Heath Ledger’s Joker has catalyzed an entire superhero movie revolution that will continue to grow for years to come, and all of this has happened because The Dark Knight featured the world’s greatest superhero character, let alone villain.

Now, that is a bold statement. However, it would be impossible to find a greater superhero movie character that has accomplished more from both an acting standpoint as well as a cultural standpoint. To analyze this, one must look at Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker, past and future incarnations of both the Joker and other villains, as well as the sound behind the character, amongst other things.

The job before Heath Ledger could have been considered impossible. The wealth of material available regarding the Joker’s origin story, including the multiple dimensions and parallel universes where Batman and the Joker have done battle, are enough to overwhelm anyone. More so, Ledger had to portray a character that had a bewildering amount of mental issues (lack of empathy, sociopathic tendencies, enjoyment of prolonged pain as per knife use, etc.) that had very little basis in a physical person that could be examined, and yet had to be accepted by audiences as a plausible human. My acting professor explained how Ledger delved very deep into his character to reach a place that both encompassed the necessary madness but was still grounded in reality. To have one foot firmly in that character’s shoes and the other in the real world was a strong indication of Ledger’s genius, and also of the personal issues that would eventually lead to his death. However, Ledger’s portrayal was successful in every way: we all feared the Joker and his plans in the film and yet still accepted that he could be lurking right behind us.

Beyond the depth of the character that Heath Ledger achieved, it is incredibly to consider the various mannerisms and physical ticks that Ledger adopted in his performance, particularly in comparison to past and future villains. His incredible voice is chief on this list. “You wanna know how I got these scars?” is a rather unsettling line on its own, but Ledger’s Joker took it to a whole new place, drawing us in fearfully yet intrigued to know more about his disfigurement. Ledger changed his voice significantly to achieve this effect, and truly began a revolution. Before him, the only Joker even close to comparison is Jack Nicholson’s, who embodied a mad comic image. However, that Joker still bore Nicholson’s voice. Where Nicholson truly excelled was the Joker’s laugh and his penchant for frightening madness. This aspect can be seen in Ledger’s performance, particularly in both Jokers’ higher pitched laughs as well as their mad plans to psychologically destroy Gotham. An interesting point my father raised was Ledger’s Joker licking his lips in a similar fashion to Nicholson’s. The depth of mannerisms that both actors’ adopted just goes to show how deep one can take a comic book character. Ledger went further than just licking his lips. The arms movements and the eye gestures of looking away and then suddenly fixing his gaze on your eyes truly brought fear into both the movie characters, as well as audiences alike.

Continuing on with this comparison to past and future villains, one can say that most villains before were quite “childish” in comparison. Exceptions must be made when looking at Michelle Pfeiffer’s Cat Woman, Ian McKellen’s Magneto, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, or a few select others, but one can confidently paint with a broad brush when saying that past villains sucked. A villain makes a hero, and without a strong villain the superhero is limited in both their performance and impact on the audience. Before Ledger, villains were either physically intimidating (see 1997 Batman & Robin’s Bane or 2003 Daredevil’s Kingpin) or ridiculously mad (1995 Batman Forever’s Riddler). A hero must fight fire with fire, so intelligent villains must be met with intelligence, or else the brawny hero will lose the first battle and must rethink their strategy. Same goes for intelligent superheroes. Simply look at any superhero movie and you will see that the villain and hero are two sides of the same coin.

After Ledger’s Joker, Americans could no longer playing a convincing villain. Or rather, actors had to give villains a new voice or accent that would contrast the warm American vowels. English accents depicted intelligence, and dumb American accent would no longer suffice! Ton Hiddleston’s Loki is a perfect example, as well as Sir Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin. Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull, Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan, Tom Hardy’s Bane, need I go on? And this is just a list of superhero/ fantasy movie villains, there are plenty of examples of villains with English accents that are successful in other genres of cinema. Both Marvel and DC pursue British actors to play their latest villains. Giving the villain an accent or different mannerisms when speaking is no longer Ledger’s exception from the norm, but rather the new norm. And of all this started immediately after Ledger’s Joker showed the world what a real villain looked like.

However, an actor’s performance is not enough to create the world’s greatest superhero character. The entire movie, or most importantly the music and sound must complement the villain in order to truly achieve greatness. Hans Zimmer’s sound for the Joker in The Dark Knight is truly the perfect complement to the character. In interviews, he mentions testing new sounds with director Christopher Nolan in his search for the perfect sound. To truly find the score for a character that is on edge, Zimmer found a wide variety of string instruments and tuned them until the strings were as taut as possible. Then, he scraped a razor blade against the strings until they snapped. He recorded the entire process, and sent over 10 hours of such sounds to Nolan, who described listening to it as very dreary and depressing. However, the ultimate result was using a violin’s string being played with a razor blade up until the string snapped, with the Joker’s sound residing in the moments before the symbolic snap. This sound is the perfect fit for the character, complementing his madness and further enhancing his ability to put audiences on edge. As a 13 year-old when I watched the movie, I remember covering my ears any time that sound would play, recognizing subliminally that the sound hinted at the Joker. Only later would the connection become clear to me. The subtle way the razor on string sounded naturally unsettled audiences and proved to be the ultimate catalyst to push the Joker to infamy.

After looking through these elements, it is clear that the Joker is truly the greatest superhero character of all time, let alone the greatest villain. After Ledger’s portrayal, superhero movies became legitimized as more than just a children’s film or a nerd’s fantasy. Suddenly, mainstream media accepted these movies as Golden Globe and Oscar-worthy, and they became more prevalent. Now, we face a near-saturation of the market in regards to these movies, but that is a story for another day.

The fact that we are even able to see so many superhero movies is due in large part to the impact that The Dark Knight’s Joker had on cinema. The impact he had on the movie was incredible, creating a darker tone that would be mirror by many future superhero movies, all trying to achieve the same level of grit and reality. In the end, Heath Ledger fully deserved his Oscar, and it is a shame that we will never get to find out how he got those scars.


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