The Joker from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight: The Anatomy of the Perfect Movie Antagonist
When was the last time you watched a movie and said, “Wow! That bad guy is epic.” We live in an age of comic book movies (which is great for me… not so much for my girlfriend — but we’ll save that discussion for a different article) with strong, heroic protagonists saving the world over and over from cookie cutter, lacklustre bad guys. Nearly every antagonist committed to screen over the past few years has fallen into the same tired old tropes of men in suits or crazy people with a paper-thin motive for being nasty.
Think about it. Disney and Marvel alone are responsible for the vast proportion of summer movies but other than an honorary mention of Erik Killmonger in Black Panther and a lesser nod to Thanos in the last couple of Avengers films, how many bad guys can you remember let alone name.
To find that last truly great comic book movie antagonist and one of the most perfectly realised bad guys in cinematic history you have to go all the way back to 2008 and Heath Ledger’s astounding portrayal of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
But what makes Ledger’s Joker such a high benchmark deserving of a posthumous Oscar?
To answer that question, we need to break down the factors that made the character so memorable in the first place and really dig into the psyche of this perfect movie antagonist. Let’s get out that spade.
That entrance and opening sequence
Whenever I think about The Dark Knight my mind wanders to the opening sequence. We first meet the Joker clown-masked and in the process of a daring and (for his gang members) ruthless bank robbery. Before I dig into the scene, let’s think about the sequence as a whole. The entire first 5 minutes or so of the movie are given over to the introduction of the Joker, our ‘baddie’, not the hero. Batman doesn’t appear until the 8th minute of the film (7th if you count the fake Batmen) and by this time his appearance is anticlimactic.
The entire opening gambit is beautifully framed and plays out like a demented version of the bank heist in Michael Man’s Heat (a film from which The Dark Knight draws a lot in terms of stylistic choices and atmosphere). As an audience member, we know that the character with the strange voice is the Joker, even though the rest of the gang sport the same clown mask as him. We know it, but we still sit on the edge of our seats awaiting the reveal. Stylistic camera angles, tense music, and a shed load of school buses are employed to great effect as the scene builds to a crescendo and the Joker is unmasked, scars and all.
More focus on the ‘Baddie’
Other comic book movies (and movies in general) should take note from how The Dark Knight puts the Joker front and centre. Yes, Batman and Bruce Wayne are the heroes of the story, but they don’t drive it. As a viewer you are never waiting to see what Batman does next but you know that the Joker’s next action will be a doozy.
Joker’s motives and his actions push the narrative along. Giving the Joker more screen time and making his actions the driving force of the movie allow Heath Ledger to shine. This is in stark contrast to recent movies who limit antagonist screen time, whether this be due to having too many protagonists to juggle (we’re looking at you Avengers) or out of a false belief that the good guys are more interesting (they seldom are). To counter this antagonists are more often than not lumbered with an over exposition of back story in an attempt to make them feel rounded. Writers need to understand that back story is irrelevant unless it reveals something important about a character… at the right time. We don’t need five second flashbacks highlighting childhood neglect unless they are relevant to what’s happening on screen. Unless the film explores the motivations of the character, why bother nodding to a tortured past? Surely the character’s actions right now are far more important to the story?
The Joker in The Dark Knight gives little in the way of motivation for his actions except for an ever changing and expertly delivered monologue of how he got his scars (who can forget the, “Why so serious?” line). But, at the end of the day we don’t need to know how the Joker came into being. We just need to see him on screen, expertly acted, doing his stuff, and giving purpose to our heroes.
Compare the amount of screen time Ledger’s Joker enjoys in The Dark Knight compared to Jared Leto’s over the top rendition in Suicide Squad. Leto’s Joker is barely visible and spends most of the film on the side-lines cackling away like a defective Energizer Bunny. Leto is undoubtedly a great actor but like many other worthy thespians, he is portrayed as an over the top pantomime villain with little time to shine. By giving Ledger room to breathe he manages to envelope himself in the character and has the space to develop a truly memorable screen presence.
Predictably unpredictable — motives matter
Everyone who’s ever read a Batman comic knows that the Clown Prince is the embodiment of chaos. But translating this unpredictability to celluloid can be difficult and come across as random. There’s nothing worse for venting a movie’s narrative steam than a character doing something silly that is narratively different to the rest of the story. But the Joker works because he never sways from his claim that he is an agent of chaos. He has no human moments and his only motives are to disrupt both the good and bad characters within the film. In early scenes you are deliberately left feeling that despite his words, the Joker is a money hungry bank robber intent on stealing the mob’s cash. But when he finally gets his hands on the mountain (literally) of money, he sets it on fire. Money isn’t his driving force. Chaos is.
At a time when film villains are overly sympathetic with relatable motives, the Joker is deliberately inhuman. He wants to watch the world burn and has no urge to play nice. In lesser hands the character could have come across as campy or mean-spirited, but a combination of expertly written dialogue and great acting makes the Joker a breath of fresh air in an otherwise roll call of facsimile antagonists.
The most terrifying thing about Heath Ledger’s Joker is that we know he’s right. His idea that chaos is the cure for the shitty status quo in Gotham is hard to disagree with. He has a plan that works, even if it is brutal in its execution. Batman and to a lesser extent Harvey Dent have tried for years to bring any semblance of order to the swamp of a city but have failed. Why shouldn’t the Joker be given a shot at solving the problem? We relate to the Joker’s motives even if we can’t relate to his actions.
There’s no doubt that Ledger’s Joker has left a mark on cinema antagonists we still feel today. Years later DC’s main competitor in the comic book field, Marvel, would walk a similar line with Black Panther’s Erik Killmonger played by Michael B. Jordon. Killmonger is comparable to the Joker in many ways, albeit with a more humanistic nature. His quest to steal Wakandan resources has a just motive. Gaining revenge on those who had oppressed and colonised his people is a noble act. His actions are chaotic, even if his motives are not, just like the Joker. As they say, imitation is the greatest form of flattery.
This brings us neatly onto the man behind The Joker. Now, I’m not going to suggest that Heath Ledger is the only great actor to portray a ‘bad guy’ in a movie. Over the years hundreds of outstanding actors have walked the dark road of movie villain, with varying degrees of success.
But every time Ledger’s Joker enters a scene in The Dark Knight, he becomes the centre of attention and steals the spotlight from the other characters. This is no mean feat when you consider that the other actors in the film include Oscar winners Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine. Ledger winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for The Dark Knight was the least he deserved and, let’s be honest, shouldn’t have been his first. Anyone who’s seen him (and the equally great Jake Gyllenhaal) in Brokeback Mountain will know that he should have been recognised by the Academy for that movie years before his sad passing.
And this is the saddest fact of all about Ledger. Before his portrayal of the Joker the Academy didn’t take comic book films seriously and no actor had come close to warranting consideration for an Oscar in a comic book role. His win was not just a nod to his sad death but a truly deserved acknowledgement of his ability to imbue the Joker with timeless qualities few other movie villains have. Would Black Panther have been nominated for best film without Ledger’s Joker? Unlikely. Would Joaquin Phoenix have won a best actor Oscar for playing the same character a few years later? Probably not (the film might not have been made in the first place).
Without Ledger’s Joker, the landscape of comic book films could have been incredibly different and we might still find ourselves ‘treated’ to campy crap like Daredevil and the Fantastic Four films.
That’s why, for us, Ledger’s Clown Prince is the perfect movie antagonist and should be talked about in the same breath as other iconic villains like Hopkin’s Hannibal Lector and Brando’s Kurtz. “Whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger,” indeed.