Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” turns 10 years old this summer. While there are many reasons that it is widely regarded as one of the best “Batman” movies ever, no discussion of the film would be complete without mentioning Heath Ledger’s turn as the iconic villain, the Joker.
The Joker is perhaps one of the most recognizable villains in modern popular culture and even though there were quite a few skeptics when Ledger was cast, his portrayal has become the gold standard for many fans.
Tragically, the movie was released after Ledger died from an accidental drug overdose, meaning that the many awards he collected for his performance, including an Academy Award for best supporting actor, were posthumous. The Joker has become Ledger’s legacy, and any actor looking to step into the role has his large shoes to fill.
This became painfully obvious when Jared Leto was cast in the part for the 2016 movie “Suicide Squad.” Rumors quickly spread that Leto, like Ledger before him, was using method acting to prepare for the role. Yet unlike Ledger, who kept things light on set, Leto sent disturbing gifts to his co-stars that stirred up controversy about his portrayal before the film was even released.
Once audiences saw the movie, responses to Leto were mixed, although many cited him as one of the worst parts of a bad movie. Despite the lukewarm response to Leto’s characterization, Warner Brothers has decided to give him another chance with the studio, who are currently developing a standalone “Joker” film starring Leto.
But Leto isn’t the only one who will be tackling the character in the near future. Warner Brothers has also announced a “Joker” origin story movie, set to begin filming in September, which will feature another actor in the starring role and be separate from the current DC cinematic universe.
However, the details are much less hazy than those surrounding Leto’s upcoming feature; Joaquin Phoenix is in discussions to take the lead role, “The Hangover” director Todd Phillips is set to direct and the story is said to be pulling inspiration from Alan Moore’s famous comic, “The Killing Joke.”
Even with the project’s transparency, many fans are still struggling to make sense of the continuity of DC’s established cinematic universe. More importantly, even 10 years later, Ledger’s Joker remains so iconic that it raises the question of whether these upcoming movies will be able to bring anything new to the character or his story.
Ledger’s performance managed to perfectly walk the line between being understated and completely unhinged. Every line he delivered was nuanced and full of hidden meaning, allowing the audience to try to piece together what he would do next. This is where Leto’s Joker ultimately failed.
Within his limited screen time in “Suicide Squad,” Leto managed to deliver more over-the-top line readings and maniacal laughs than Ledger did in his significantly larger role. However, “Suicide Squad” doesn’t portray any of the Joker real plans, leaving his actions to come across as crazy simply for the sake of crazy. This removes the terror that was evoked by Ledger’s characterization. Not only does the audience not know what Leto’s Joker will do next, but they also don’t really care.
In fairness to Leto, this characterization is partially the fault of the film’s production rather than the acting. Despite being featured heavily in the marketing, Leto is hardly in “Suicide Squad.” His actions have very little effect on the plot and, as such, he is not given the chance to showcase his signature diabolical plans.
Furthermore, with Ben Affleck’s brief appearance as Batman in “Suicide Squad” serving as nothing more than a cameo, Leto’s Joker does not get the chance to play with his archenemy.
The Joker exists in DC comics as Batman’s opposite. Whereas Batman is dark, controlled and somber, the Joker is colorful, anarchical and has a sense of humor. The relationship between the two characters is part of what makes the Joker such a compelling villain, so removing that in “Suicide Squad” gave Leto’s portrayal an immediate disadvantage. While a standalone movie might give Leto the chance to develop a more complex character, it will likely not feature Batman, and may therefore struggle to give the Joker an engaging counterpart.
The Phoenix “Joker” film will face the same Batman problem with another major one tacked on. Warner Brothers has said that this movie will be an origin story for the Joker. The problem is, the Joker has never been given a definitive origin. The comics feature multiple origins for the character, with him famously saying, “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” in “The Killing Joke.”
Within “The Dark Knight” alone, Ledger’s Joker offers several explanations of how he got his famous scars.
The lack of a definitive origin story adds to the mystery of the character, as it is impossible to believe any story that he tells, while keeping his motivation for evil unclear. Centering a movie solely around the Joker’s origin would minimize the enigmatic nature of the character. T
he movie is reportedly going to depict the Joker as a failed comedian, suggesting that its origin story will be pulling directly from the “The Killing Joke.” Not only is this an extremely controversial comic, but it was just adapted as an animated movie in 2016, which might not make it the most interesting choice for a new “Joker” story.
That being said, the Phoenix-helmed movie definitely has some things going for it. While Leto is facing an uphill battle to disprove the negative reviews he got in “Suicide Squad,” Phoenix’s take on the Joker will be completely new. The fact that Leto gave the most recent portrayal of the character also means that Phoenix is more likely to be compared to him than to Ledger’s seemingly untouchable performance.
Renowned film-maker Martin Scorsese is attached to the project, which means the promise of a gritty, ‘80s-style movie that will be a new setting for the Batman universe. Plus, if ever there was an actor suited to play the unpredictable character, it would be the erratic Phoenix. The actor made headlines back in 2008 for a public meltdown, which turned out to be nothing but a prolonged publicity stunt for the 2010 mockumentary “I’m Still Here.”
Clearly, Phoenix is not one to shy away from committing himself to a character or making people feel uncomfortable — characteristics that will surely help him embody this psychopathic role. Although the proposed plot is questionable, seeing Phoenix’s take on the Joker is certainly an exciting prospect.
“The Dark Knight” has managed to stay relevant in both the world of Batman and the world of film even 10 years after its release, and it is unlikely that this will change anytime soon. The movie’s beloved status has not, however, stopped others from creating new takes on the stories and characters that were brought to the screen so well in 2008.
With at least two Joker films currently in development, it is hard to avoid comparing the new performances to that of Ledger, even before the films are released. But as Phoenix said, “I think that genre, comic books, kind of lends itself to having different people play the same character and interpret it in a different way.”
While Ledger’s performance may always define the Joker for some, it does not preclude Leto and Phoenix from putting their own interesting spins on the character.