Nearly a decade later, and we’re all still recovering from the powerful impact The Dark Knight left. Jared Leto just offered a different and striking take on the clown prince of crime, but Heath Ledger’s diabolical performance continues to mesmerize. Indeed, how many “best villain” lists does he top, year in and year out? Cinephiles keep picking apart his Joker’s je ne sais quoi. What made it so memorable? The lip-smacking ticks? The nasal intonation? The fits of menacing sing-song delivery?
Filmmaker Michael Tucker proposes it might actually have much more to do with his placement within the movie’s plot structure and thematic tensions. In the latest installment of his video essay series Lessons from the Screenplay, he concisely and compellingly examines Dark Knight‘s Joker, positing that he shines as an antagonist because of the comprises he forces Batman to make. Watch on.
For what it’s worth, I’d add that a couple other factors contributed here. First, Joker’s not competing for screen time with other big bads. Two-Face is re-conceived as a victim to underscore how dangerous his corrupting influence is, rather concretely embodying the stakes of this struggle for “the soul of Gotham.” And the rest of the antagonists, from the Chechen to the accountant who wants to blackmail Batman, aren’t colorful, complicated creatures who need the kind of lengthy explanation that, say, a man made of lightning requires.
Christopher Nolan didn’t see much point in devoting precious chunks of screen time to an origin story like so many other superhero flicks feel obligated to do. The Joker is most interesting as the Joker. In fact, he’s much more threatening when you don’t know where he’s come from or who he was before.
Tucker’s made a lot of other fascinating video essays at his channel, applying the same critical scrutiny to blockbusters like Gone Girl and Independence Day. In this other clip, he discusses how a balance of fantastical ideas and grounded concerns makes Ghostbusters work so well.
Do you agree with Tucker’s take? Why does Ledger’s Joker soar? Drop your own theories in the talkback.
Featured Image Credit: Warner Bros.