You wanna know how I got these scars?
I still remember the first time I saw him. Like a malevolent spirit materializing in the streets of Gotham, a hunch in his stance and generic clown mask in hand while the IMAX camera captures the entirety of Gotham’s cityscape around the figure in front of us. But it’s impossible to see anything but him. He’s tall, he’s dark, he’s mysterious. He’s robbing a bank with a spring in his step and a song on his lips: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stranger.” In what is easily one of the single greatest character introductions ever to make it onto film, this anonymous figure systematically kills his co-conspirators one by one in a devious display of villainy — by getting them to pick each other off for the promise of a bigger share of the money before escaping himself in a yellow school bus. That calculated closeup once he pulls off the mask to reveal his true face is, to this day, still one of the most exhilarating moments in cinematic history.
Ask almost anybody, and they’d be able to tell you without hesitation who their favorite Batman is, one actor in the bunch who’s put on the cowl that they’ve claimed as their own. Everybody has Their Batman.
Me? I have My Joker.
Enough people have already exhausted the subject on what made The Dark Knight such a groundbreaking hit and everything good about it has probably been said 1,000 times over, but 14 years later, most if not all of it still holds up. After the success of Batman Begins, the stakes couldn’t have been higher for a sequel that met if not surpassed expectations, which, of course, it did. Having quality actors like Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and Eric Roberts around for window-dressing might have seemed confusing at first, but given that Batman himself becomes a supporting character in his own movie once the Joker enters the frame, it’s easier to accept that this is his world and we’re all just living in it. After so many versions of the character, we probably should have been tired of him by now, but that was simply never in the cards. Really, who better to deal out the winning hand than the Clown Prince of Crime himself? And it didn’t disappoint.
The Joker has appeared in many forms throughout his long-running campaign of madness. His debut in Batman #1 (1940) paints him as an anonymous psychopath with a flair for theatrics and a penchant for murder, leaving permanent smiles on his victim’s faces with Joker’s venom. Cesar Romero’s Joker in the 1960s Adam West television show is a hypnotist turned criminal, often less of a crazed maniac and more of a goofy prankster. While a mugshot without his white face suggests it’s makeup, Romero insisted it was chemicals that turned his Joker’s hair green. Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Eisner Award-winning graphic novel The Killing Joke introduces the Joker as a failed comedian who quit his job as an engineer, helped criminals break into a chemical plant and wound up falling into a vat of chemicals, thanks to Batman. The accident and also grief over losing his wife and unborn child pushes him to become the Joker. In Tim Burton’s Batman, the Joker (Jack Nicholson) shares a similar fate, the mobster who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents who goes insane after a chemical accident that permanently alters his appearance. His Joker’s smile is the result of a botched plastic-surgery job, very 1980s. Even Mark Hamill’s Joker in Batman: The Animated Series mimics the origin story of a mobster turned homicidal clown following an encounter with toxic chemicals.
In this darker, much grittier Gotham, the Joker (Heath Ledger) is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. No name, no (credible) backstory, not even a fingerprint or dental match to his name. Just knives and lint in his pockets. An unstoppable force of incomprehensible nature with a Glasgow smile who seems to embody something from all versions that came before him. He still has the cartoonish suit in Joker purple, the gags, the ghostly white face and the shock of green hair. His short stint midway through the film dressed as a cop without any makeup and his hair washed out, as well as a later scene where his eyes are painted dramatically darker like a Chaplin villain, confirm his features are more of an aesthetic choice, not the end result of a freak accident that permanently changed his appearance and gave him the necessary motivation to turn to a life of crime.
He’s also an unreliable narrator who gives consistently different accounts for the story behind his trademark Joker smile, depending on his audience. In one retelling, he carves it into his own face to make his wife smile again, and she left him for it. In another, it’s the end result of his drunken father’s abuse. Strongly reminiscent of a line in Moore and Bolland’s The Killing Joke that goes, “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another. If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.” The conflicting histories of the Joker’s character between lives are as inconsistent as the ever-evolving story on how he got his scars, which makes for a more terrifying foe. It’s just so much scarier when there’s no motive; assigning one to the Joker would be as pointless as giving a reason for why Hannibal Lecter liked to eat people. We never know the why, and that’s what gives it a lasting impression.
So many different Jokers, so many different stories. The one thing they all have in common? Every Joker has eyes for Batman.
As is custom, it starts with a courtship. Joker wants the Caped Crusader’s attention, but he doesn’t know how to get it. So, after leaving Batman his calling card (a subtle but classy move), he robs a bank. Subtlety didn’t work, so the Joker is peacocking. In those captivating first moments of his opening scene, committing casual murder with the confidence of a low-level henchman before his sinister reveal as the mastermind behind the whole operation, Ledger bites down viciously on a smile as he tells the bank manager he believes whatever doesn’t kill you makes you … stranger before disappearing in a cloud of smoke. We’re clearly not dealing with your average secret admirer, but when Batman (Christian Bale) shows up afterward to study the crime scene, the vigilante is not yet impressed. The Bat is playing hard to get. His curiosity is piqued, but he’s moving too slowly for the Joker, who decides to try including those around Batman in their foreplay.
While Batman and his allies are busy working to bring down the Gotham mob, the Joker is busy making offers to kill Batman on their behalf, his big entrance into a room full of Gotham’s notorious underworld bigwigs with that insidious Joker laugh causing the whole scene to pulse with electricity that Ledger wields throughout the film like a live grenade. He’s laughed at and called a freak by the men around him, visibly bothered by the ridicule for a guy who just demonstrated a magic trick by ramming a man’s eye into a pencil to make it disappear. But instead of immediately going after the real Batman, the Joker kills one of Batman’s copycats and films the act in a disturbing piece of found footage that shows the Joker’s whimsy abruptly switching to something that more closely resembles a dangerous animal. A Joker’s card is found taped to the dead man’s chest saying, “Will the real Batman please stand up?,” which sounds like a challenge, but I think these copycat Bats offend the Joker. There’s only one Batman, and the Joker only wants him.
The proof is everywhere you look when it comes to the special relationship between Batman and the Joker. Even the television show Gotham dedicated an entire storyline to the Joker’s relentless mission to make Bruce acknowledge their connection. And in one of the best episodes from the animated series, “The Man Who Killed Batman,” the Joker is openly distraught when he thinks that Batman might be gone for good. Without Batman, according to his arch-nemesis, crime has no punchline. Batman made him the criminal he is today. In Nolan’s world, Batman’s sense of theatricality starts to draw costumed imitators, regular men dressing up like him who want to help in the fight for Gotham’s soul. But what about the costumed agitators? We may not know the real story behind why this Joker became the way he is, but it’s plausible that the very existence of Batman might have been enough to inspire him. Unlike the weekend-warrior copycats who just want to be like Batman, the Joker feels a genuine connection to Gotham’s #1 vigilante — so much that in his mind, only he can toy with the Bat. The minute someone else threatens to expose him, the Joker puts a hit out on the blackmailer instead, unable to cope with the idea of a world without Batman in it. Batman has changed things in Gotham, and in turn, Batman has changed him.
To them, you’re just a freak. Like me.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the greater the hero, the greater the adversary, and there’s possibly no greater adversary to Batman than the Joker. Batman artist Jerry Robinson said of his inspiration for the Joker, “All great heroes had an anti-hero, and were stronger characters because they were pitted against strong antagonists. ” The Joker is Batman’s greatest threat because he challenges everything Batman for which Batman stands. Most villains will justify their actions as a response to tragedy or loss, and most criminals are motivated by wealth, power or even revenge, but this Joker doesn’t care about any of that. Traditional things like money or power are meaningless. He steals from the mob and then lights their money on fire because he can. Batman lives by his morals and a single rule he vows to never break, and all the Joker wants to do is break Batman free of his perceived chains. Other villains have risen up to pose as credible threats, but the Joker has always been his constant, his great white shark.
In true Austen-novel fashion, the two star-crossed enemies finally come face to face at a party. While elsewhere a judge’s car explodes in fire and a deck of cards, and a police commissioner dies a slow death by poison, the clown and a few goons crash a party Bruce Wayne is holding for district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in the hopes of snuffing out Gotham’s Bright Future themselves. They don’t find Harvey, as Bruce has put him in a sleeper hold before stuffing the DA in a closet, but after hors d’oeuvres and a tense standoff with Batman, Joker throws Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) out a window, forcing Batman to dive after her.
He’s done everything to win Batman’s affections. He even tries to kill the mayor, but no romantic gesture seems grand enough to get Batman’s undivided attention. Following the Joker’s arrest, he finally gets Batman in a room alone where he proceeds to put all of his cards (figuratively) on the table in the interrogation room and invokes the romantic power of a 1990s Tom Cruise movie to tell a positively irate Batman, with remarkable earnestness, that Batman completes him while denying any genuine desire to kill him. What would the Joker do without him? After all, the Joker loves chaos, and who is more chaotic to him than Batman? Even villains can have a change of heart. He just wants to see what the masked hero would do. In the beginning of the film, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) warns Bruce that even Batman has limits, and the proof of that is now sitting in front of him, pushing him right to the edge as Bruce mindlessly throws the Joker around the room, blind with rage at the thought of Rachel in danger once it’s revealed that both she and Harvey have been taken captive. The Joker is just winding him up and watching him go.
Batman’s rogues’ gallery represents some of the most psychologically interesting villains in comics, particularly in the way they mirror the hero who opposes their every move. Like Batman, the Joker is a character who won’t compromise, and he believes them to be the same while Batman refuses to think he’s anything like his nemesis. Both are victims of some form of existential crises, men who wear masks and separated only by the way they choose to operate outside the rules of an oppressive society that would call them freaks because what didn’t kill them made them both stranger. They’re dark reflections of each other, it’s only their choices that are different. In a campaign lifted directly from The Killing Joke, the Joker is set on proving that everyone is only one bad day away from becoming like him. But on the worst day of his life, Bruce chooses the path of justice instead of revenge. They both thrive on the city’s terror; only the Joker basks in it by hurting others and inciting chaos while Batman uses it to save people and put away criminals. Every positive has a negative, and the answer to Batman seems to always be the Joker. One can’t exist without the other.
In an arc inspired by his story in The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, Two-Face is the classic hero turned tragic villain, Gotham’s district attorney and shining White Knight. Both he and Batman work to clean up Gotham’s streets. But where Batman can only work in the shadows, Harvey Dent does all of his work in the light. Or so we thought. Tragedy pushes him to villainy, but the writing was already on the wall. We see the darker side of Dent start to peek out long before the death of the woman he loves makes him go full villain, when he plays Russian roulette with a mentally ill man to trick him into a confession. Ever the politician, the pressures of an already corrupt system influence Harvey’s dependency on his double-headed coin as his own tool for cheating the system. The most righteous are also sometimes the most dangerous, and the irony of Gordon’s (Gary Oldman) claim that he doesn’t get political points for being an idealist is that the Joker is able to take them both down by exploiting Dent’s political idealism and Gordon’s blind eye to the cops in his own unit in his pursuit of justice. And as it often goes when men are jockeying for power, it’s always someone else who pays the price for warring male egos.
Fridging Rachel to give Bruce something new to angst about, and Harvey the motivation to go full-villain, is lazy writing, but considering the Nolan films never really knew what to do with her, it’s kind of whatever. After a nightmare scenario created by the Joker in which both Harvey and Rachel are tied to oil drums rigged to explosives, the clown continues his love of cosplay by dressing up as a nurse and visiting Harvey in the hospital, who’s being treated for severe burns on one side of his face. We’ll just say that’s why Harvey doesn’t seem to recognize him until after he takes off his surgical mask, easily one of the funniest scenes in the entire movie. He gives Dent his sales pitch of anarchy that convinces him to go after everyone else that let the mad dog off the leash, and on his way out, the Joker (and Nolan) blows up the building. (For years, people spread rumors that Ledger’s inability to make the bomb go off immediately was due to the actor’s improvisational skills, which isn’t true, but it makes for a fun sidenote that the truth of some of Ledger’s on-set quirks were just as much of a mystery as his character’s stories.)
The last time we’ll see the Joker is in a short, but brutal, fight with Batman that ends in the clown hanging by his ankles after his explosive grand finale fails to go off with a bang. Honestly, the only thing about the Joker’s social experiment I find hard to believe is that a boat full of the white and privileged wouldn’t have pulled the trigger on a boat full of the incarcerated to save themselves. But for the sake of the narrative, the Joker’s attempts here to prove that anyone can be corrupted end in failure. I guess it is a nice idea that strangers would actually come together in a crisis to do the right thing instead of the selfish thing, I just don’t buy it, but chalk that up to me not having a lot of faith in people after the last three years of real life. Anyway, for an agent of chaos who “just does things,” his moves are suspiciously calculating and many of them politically motivated. Attacks on politicians, cops and judges. Blowing up hospitals and publicly targeting civilians, all things in which the real world was, at the time, genuinely living in fear.
When Batman first arrived in Detective Comics (1939), the world was recovering from the Great Depression and its first World War, while not far away from a second. Depicted as everything from a mob crime fighter to a kid-friendly superhero, Batman stories often reflected the struggles and anxieties of their times. So, too, did the Dark Knight trilogy. Given their timing and Nolan’s dedication to realism, the Dark Knight trilogy in many ways echoes the anxieties of a post-9/11 society living in the shadow of modern terrorism, a world too recognizable to the one I lived in with its uncomfortable law enforcement bias, abuse of government power and a more militarized Batman. Not to mention the Ground Zero-like imagery of Batman standing in the rubble surrounded by firefighters, frequent references to the Joker as a terrorist, and the fact that Harvey’s nickname is literally Two-Face because he used to work in the police department’s Internal Affairs division. You can do a Batman movie featuring the GCPD without being so aggressively pro-authoritarian, Gotham managed to do it for five seasons. It’s disturbing to this day, but I digress.
Where Batman Begins was about Bruce finding his footing as Batman, much of The Dark Knight is about testing Bruce’s limits with the Joker as the catalyst, constantly pushing Batman to the edge. He even eggs the Bat on to hit him with his Bat-cycle in the middle of the street until our hero inevitably swerves to miss him. Ledger reportedly toed a similar line with Bale in their onscreen dynamic together, wanting Bale to hit him for real to make the interrogation scene more authentic. In their final showdown, Joker fights tooth and nail in a last-ditch effort to force Batman to break his one rule and kill him, laughing while nearly falling to his death before Batman pulls him back up at the last second. All too happy to finally be the center of Batman’s attention as he gloats that Batman won’t kill him out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness, and the Joker won’t kill him because he’s just too much fun. (Does that sound like wedding vows to anyone else?) It’s a vicious cycle without an end because the Joker doesn’t want to kill Batman and Batman won’t kill him. It’s, as Lady Gaga might say, a bad romance.
I think you and I are destined to do this forever.
Heath Ledger died on January 22, 2008, with The Dark Knight’s release still six months away. Like so many, I had loved Heath for a long time. I loved him as he won the heart of Julia Stiles with grand romantic gestures set to a high-school marching band. I continued to love him as a brave knight fighting to make a name for himself above his station. I loved him even more as an emotionally repressed cowboy pining for a man that society told him he couldn’t have, and I loved him as the Joker, but watching his performance as Gotham’s number one villain was always destined to be more bittersweet than joyful because he was already gone. Heath was truly one of a kind. Losing Chadwick Boseman in 2020 brought back a lot of those feelings, actors who were already one of their generation’s best, here one second and gone the next, and the rest of us scrambling to understand why.
Sometimes it still doesn’t feel real that someone who looms so large in my memory could be taken so early and unexpectedly. Some believe this role took such a toll on Ledger’s mental health that it’s what cost him his life while his family and many who worked closely with him have gone on record to deny it. In the end, the reason doesn’t change the outcome, but it’s only human to try and make sense of something incomprehensible. Ledger would later win an Oscar, as well as numerous other awards, for his role as the Joker. He would be the second person to win a posthumous Academy Award for acting, as well as the first comic-book movie actor to win an Oscar for their performance. Still making waves, even after he left us.
That the Joker is now a part of Ledger’s legacy only adds to the film’s enduring significance. Every single moment of Ledger’s screen time is electrifying and absolutely merciless in its hold; like every performance of his, it was beyond fearless. He took an iconic character and brought such unique oddness and unsettling vulnerability to him while succeeding at being utterly terrifying, a genuine costume villain who doesn’t like being called crazy and never once tries to make his character fit into Nolan’s more down-to-earth Gotham; he makes Nolan’s Gotham fit into his, offering a much more desired supernatural element to the film and a glimpse into a world where villains like him exist only to oppose the Batman. A Joker who is less of a human being and more of a driving, near-mystical force without a name or a known backstory, someone who likes stabbing people so he can savor the little emotions and set entire chains of events into motion like cards in a deck. A delightfully complex adversary verging on unhinged mania. His Joker was something else entirely. Ledger, in his too-short career, was something else entirely as well. In the years since we’ve had to go on without him, the world has certainly felt darker and a little more serious.
In the film’s final moments, we see the Joker’s final trick come to fruition. After making the rounds in Gotham to bestow his twisted form of judgment on everyone he held responsible for Rachel’s death, Harvey lures Jim Gordon to the site where Rachel died and where he has taken Gordon’s family hostage, thus completing his arc from an incorruptible district attorney who punches mobsters in the courtroom to a half-burned monster that tries to murder a child. The Joker’s bid to prove that one bad day can push anyone over the edge may not have worked on Batman, but a push was all Harvey needed to fall from grace, and to his death, fulfilling his own prophecy of living long enough to see himself become the villain as he dies at Batman’s hand (which extends out to save Gordon’s son from Dent’s clutches). Harvey was the symbol of hope Batman could never be, and though he had to, Batman was the one who killed him. Like Martin Brody in Jaws after his mythic battle with a force so evil it can hardly be described, he came out of it alive, but forever marked by it.
Have to admit, it’s a pretty good punchline.
The Joker sets out to prove that people are only as good as the world allows them to be, and therefore no one is incorruptible. Though his real target for corruption was always Batman, Harvey was the easier target and, in the end, the key to taking them both down. By creating Two-Face and ultimately forcing Batman to become the thing he feared in order to stop the Joker and break his one rule, the Joker wins. In killing Gotham’s White Knight, Batman becomes the Dark Knight.
The Dark Knight is, in its entirety, a meticulously well-oiled machine and a thoughtful story about the rise and fall of heroes. It’s simply one of the greatest sequels of all time in terms of how it became a genuine cultural phenomenon, how it legitimized comic-book movies and created a lasting effect on the superhero film genre once it introduced a little anarchy to things. There hasn’t really been anything that resonated in the same way since. Just as the Joker tells Batman in hushed, worshipful tones that he’s changed things forever, so, too, did The Dark Knight. It didn’t just change the playing field, it changed the entire game in how it brought the ever-evolving mythology of two of DC’s most iconic characters to life for a wider audience.
Two actors have taken on the role (at least named as the Joker) for the big screen since Ledger’s passing. Jared Leto’s time with the part is better left unacknowledged if we don’t have to, and while Joaquin Phoenix’s stint as a Joker with a name and backstory whose every motivation is rationalized by a society that mistreats the mentally ill maybe isn’t as cringeworthy, like all other efforts it still suffers under the long shadow cast by the late Ledger’s mark on the role. The Dark Knight became the gold standard in many ways, because it simply wouldn’t have worked without him. Ledger was always the one. When it was first released, I saw the film seven times in theaters, slapped a poster of Ledger’s Joker on my bedroom wall like a teenage girl (I was in my early 20s, so not far off), and I started reading superhero comics in earnest where before I had only ever dabbled and mostly stuck to cartoons. I would go so far as to say it even put me on the eventual path to professionally working in and writing about comics (and film).
I can’t say The Dark Knight is a perfect Batman movie anymore because with considerable time and distance, I don’t think that’s always true, though it may depend on what you consider necessary to make the perfect Batman movie. Even Bale has his second thoughts about how he fared next to Ledger’s unforgettable performance, and I can’t say I blame him. Next to Ledger and the role to which no one else may ever live up to, everything else in the film may as well pale in comparison. All in all, it’s a superior action thriller that happens to have Batman in it while successfully avoiding commitment to some components that, in my opinion, are crucial to any Batman story (namely the ongoing discussion of mental health driven by the very existence of Arkham Asylum and Bruce’s dedication to rehabilitation, a wider rogues’ gallery that isn’t afraid to get a little weird, and the inclusion of sidekicks; any Batman movie that refuses to acknowledge the importance of Robin automatically gets minus one point from me.)
But The Dark Knight did change things forever, for me and for the way we look at the genre. And it is, if nothing else, a perfect Joker movie. He promised us a better class of criminal and we got it. Nothing else has ever, or likely ever will, compare.