In this Man of Character column, Man of Many takes a look at some of popular culture’s most notable male protagonists. We discuss the origin of the character and why they have had such an enduring influence on the popular consciousness.
“Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it! You know, I just… do things.” – The Joker, The Dark Knight
When Christopher Nolan’s ‘Batman Begins’ arrived in 2005, it faced the unenviable task of redefining a character that had enjoyed a storied, but inconsistent, screen presence that dated back to the early 1940s.
Whilst remaining one of the world’s most iconic superheroes, the Dark Knight had struggled to break away from Adam West’s camp 60s television portrayal and more recently had his reputation sullied by the disastrous ‘Batman & Robin’ in 1997.
Repositioning Batman as a darker, morally complex character, Nolan managed to reinvigorate the comic book movie and help usher in a golden age that continues apace over a decade later. It wasn’t until 2008’s much-anticipated sequel, ‘The Dark Knight’, that Nolan’s vision was fully realised – incorporating Batman’s unique moral philosophy into a crowd-pleasing Hollywood blockbuster that wowed audiences and critics alike.
Yet it was the inclusion of Batman’s ultimate nemesis and the most lauded of his extensive rogue’s gallery that truly elevated the film and secured its status as a classic.
It seems risible in hindsight, but the casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker famously met with excessive fan backlash when announced in 2006. Despite winning plaudits for his performance in ‘Brokeback Mountain’, Ledger was viewed as a lightweight, pretty-boy actor ill equipped to tackle the rigorous psychological demands of the iconic villain.
Having purportedly prepared for the role by locking himself in a hotel room for a month and keeping a diary to help inhabit the Joker’s psyche, Ledger’s pantomimic, but nuanced, performance was a welcome mess of contradictions and surprises, befitting a character whose abiding philosophy is one of pure chaos.
In attempting to ground the character in the more realistic world of Nolan’s Batman, Ledger’s performance signified a deliberate departure away from the character’s traditional clownish persona. Coupled with costume design meant to evoke disparate elements of the Sex Pistols and Francis Bacon and makeup that accentuates the Joker’s ‘Glasgow Smile’ scarring, the character offers a twisted take on the type of theatrical sensibility exemplified by the New Romantics.
At the heart of ‘The Dark Knight’ is a question about the fundamental nature of humanity, exemplified by the Joker’s plan to corrupt Harvey Dent, the “white knight’ of Gotham. His personal fate is the battleground for the Joker and Batman’s ideological war – a desperate struggle that culminates with the genesis of Dent’s crazed alter-ego Two-Face.
Influenced by Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’, this setup is the perfect testing ground for the diametric clash between the Joker’s criminal anarchism and Batman’s absolutist vigilantism. That neither are ultimately successful is itself a commentary on the complexity of the moral questions best explored in popular fiction.
Ledger received overwhelmingly critical acclaim, and won a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor following his untimely death in early 2008, six months before the film premiered. His portrayal of the Joker has come to represent the gold standard of cinematic comic book villains and helped legitimise the genre as one worthy of critical attention and analysis.