Comic book superhero movies have exploded to the point where it has become “just another genre.” Heroes and villains have etched their names and made history. The antagonist in the arc of a story can be argued as being just as important as the protagonist. The impact, chaos, and the mayhem of the villain can elevate a piece of work from “good” to “great.”
Enter Heath Ledger‘s Joker. Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker from 2008’s The Dark Knight was more than just a great performance from a comic book movie, it’s one of the best villain showcases in the history of film. Right up there with the T-800, T-1000, Hannibal Lecter, John Doe, Norman Bates, Darth Vader, Alex Forrest, The Wicked Witch Of The West, and Jack Nicholson’s jovial version from almost 30 years ago.
Heath’s Joker grasped the attention of the audience enough to make an indelible impact. With all of that praise, we all need to be honest with ourselves. While great, Heath Ledger’s Joker and the impact he had on the genre are also in many ways completely overrated. Check out my reasons for both after the drop!
15. Best – He’s The Best Batman Villain
Anyone that knows about Batman knows that his rogue’s gallery is stacked beyond belief. Only a select few in the comic book world can even think about competing with the diverse and lethal mix of “Batsy’s” array of dastardly fiends.
The Joker is the ultimate yin to Batman’s yang. His sick humor and uncanny ability to be the thorn in Batman’s side mentally and emotionally is unlike anyone The Dark Knight has or ever will face. The Joker has no superpowers. He’s just a psychotic, charismatic, vicious, and unpredictable force of nature. That’s what makes him so dangerous. The Joker killed Robin (Jason Todd) and shot and subsequently paralyzed Barbara Gordon (Batgirl). The Joker escapes Arkham repeatedly and makes Batman suffer for not giving in to his rule of no killing. That key aspect of their messed up relationship is highlighted in The Dark Knight’s iconic interrogation room scene when the Joker forces Batman to “break his one rule.”
14. Overrated – Heath Ledger’s Death Impacted Our Opinions Of His Performance
Despite the fact that there was Oscar buzz for Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker right before he died, no one could have predicted the swarm of controversy, buzz, rumors, and support that followed. Once the trailer and 10 minute preview showed the first live action big budget Joker since Jack Nicholson‘s Joker in Tim Burton‘s 1989 classic, it was a wrap. While good, we must really ask ourselves about Mr. Ledger’s overall impact as an actor. Heath Ledger, despite garnering an Oscar nomination for 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, wasn’t exactly known as a “great” actor.
He was more known as that guy from 10 things I Hate About You or A Knight’s Tale. His body of work didn’t exactly spell “greatness.” Ledger’s Joker swept everything during awards season and it was a foregone conclusion that the fallen actor would win the coveted Oscar. There are still people who claim to this day that the reason Heath’s version of the Joker is as loved as it is is simply due to its tragic circumstances.
13. Best – He’s One Of The Most Quotable Villains Ever
I got into a conversation with a friend about Michael Keaton‘s Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming. This friend said Vulture will be up there with Heath’s Joker in years to come. I told him he was a prisoner of the moment. My first point in the incoming debate was to name five quotes or memorable moments from Vulture. You can easily do that with the Joker. The Dark Knight is already an incredibly quotable movie but Heath’s Joker and the exquisite delivery of the lines written by Jonathon Nolan flat out dominate the movie and are still quoted to this day.
“Do you want to see a magic trick?” “Why So Serious?” “Wanna know how I got these scars?” “Look. at. me!” “It’s all part of the plan” and “… But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!…” are just some of the memorable quotes that reign on from Heath’s Joker. It can easily be argued that there hasn’t been a more quotable villain in a high profile movie over the course of the last few decades.
12. Overrated – His Convenient Planning
For people that haven’t seen The Dark Knight in a while, take a moment to view it again. You may notice that things really seem to work out for him. I mean, like all of his planning is ULTRA convenient. It’s so convenient that you would think that “planning” is his damn superpower. There are countless examples of this almost “mystical” part of the character. He’s about to get shot during the bank robbery and the bus driver backs into the bank at the precise spot at the precise moment so the Joker doesn’t get shot? Or the school bus just conveniently leaves the scene of the crime to join other school buses as if nothing happened. Or how about the Joker planning to get caught, needing his “one phone call” and then having an inmate conveniently have a bomb that was somehow planted inside of him blow up leaving everyone in the room incredibly messed up except the Joker who then frees Lau (Ng Chin Han)…Yeah, okay…
11. Best – He Won The First Performance Oscar For A Superhero Movie
Heath’s Joker broke new ground for the genre in that not only was the character nominated for an Oscar, the character won. Regardless of Heath’s death or not, there was already immense positive buzz for what Ledger was doing behind the scenes in late 2007. Superhero or comic book related movies more often than not were considered nothing more than “popcorn” fodder and no one seriously felt a film based on a comic-book character would ever vie for a serious award outside of technical and other “non-performance” based categories. The Dark Knight and more importantly Heath’s Joker changed all of that. Nowadays with the dominance of the MCU and the emergence of DC’s own cinematic universe, if a film Logan wants to be more than just a “comic book movie” it can and it will garner respect and positive buzz. The genre can thank Heath Ledger for that.
10. Overrated – He’s Not The Best Joker Or Best Villain
Heath Ledger was a damn good Joker. I believe he is the best on-screen Joker ever. However, I’m willing to bet there are a lot of purists and old school Bat-fans that would say Jack Nicholson would have something to say about that or better yet, so would Mark Hamill‘s iconic portrayal of the Joker from the classic 90s Batman cartoon drama Batman: The Animated Series. Hell, I’m sure there are even older fans that would take Cesar Romero’s Joker from the 1960s campy Batman show over Heath.
Heath certainly gave a new age spin on the Joker, but it can easily be argued that the first big-budget Joker was the best. Jack was playing Jack but still provided the classic quips associated with the character such as laughing gas, the classic origin of falling into the vat of chemicals, “permawhite” and of course, “permasmile.” Mark Hamill most likely still reigns as king when factoring all of the Bat-Media, portraying the iconic voice (and laugh) of the clown prince of crime, making for arguably the greatest Joker across all platforms.
9. Best – He Wins
Heath’s Joker boasts something that many iconic villains don’t. In many ways, he wins. He forces things to spin out of control so badly that Batman has no choice but to take the fall for crimes he didn’t commit. Batman spends the entire film under public duress due to not giving into the Joker’s demands. The biggest example of all is the Joker being able to emotionally terrorize and eventually morally corrupt the “white knight” that was The Dark Knight’s Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Harvey Dent was the public beacon of hope, taking down the mob, and inspiring the city with his actions as Gotham’s District Attorney.
When has had half his face burned after the Joker kills his girlfriend Rachel Dawes with a bomb Dent ends up having a meeting with the Joker. The Joker explains his chaotic methods in the now iconic hospital scene, leaving a vengeful Dent to hunt down the people that the mad dog that is the Joker let “off the leash.” The result is Batman taking the hit and subsequently retiring until the events of The Dark Knight Rises lure him out. Yeah, it can definitely be argued that the Joker won.
8. Overrated – He’s Not The Best Performance In His Own Movie
Yes. Heath won the Oscar, but it can strongly be argued that the real hero of The Dark Knight was Aaron Eckhart’s, Harvey Dent. The entire movie centered around him while Batman and The Joker battle for the “soul of Gotham.” The “soul of Gotham” was represented by Harvey Dent whose story arc and meaning for the film last until the very end. The ability for Eckhart to hold his own while in the same movie as Heath Ledger’s force of nature actually shows how strong of a performance he had. Eckhart played Harvey “Two Face” Dent with confidence and an aura of “hope” delivering some of the most memorable quotes of the movie: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain” and “The night is darkest just before the dawn.”
7. Best – Heath Ledger’s Dangerous Dedication
One of the biggest takeaways from Heath Ledger’s unfortunate demise was the notion that “the character killed him” or “the character drove him to the edge.” This is because Heath Ledger really did immerse himself into actually becoming the Joker. Ledger prepared like no other, locking himself inside of a hotel room.
“I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month, locked myself away, formed a little diary and experimented with voices — it was important to try to find a somewhat iconic voice and laugh,” said the late actor, who also constructed a “Joker diary.”
The diary included stills from Stanley Kubrick‘s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, photos of hyenas, crazy clown makeup and a list of things the Joker would find funny such as AIDS and landmines. The fallen actor also found inspiration from the famous Joker graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. He also read The Clown At Midnight by Grant Morrison (Batman#663).
6. Overrated – The Ferry Experiment
The Joker does a lot of cool **** in The Dark Knight. However, I will argue that one of the dents in the Joker’s armor is the ferry experiment during the third act. The acts of the Joker up until this point are both filled with a unique mix of awesomeness and pure terror…Then we get to the ferry scene of the third act, which features one ferry filled with criminals and another filled with citizens, both of which are leaving Gotham. The Joker, who for all purposes had the best planning imaginable and the greatest execution of said plans in the history of film, came up with this? Yeah, alright. Yes, he had plans to blow up both ferries if the experiment failed, but I think a better culminating act of “Jokerism” could have been concocted.
5. Best – He’s Simply A Bad Person, A Hurricane
“Some men just want to watch the world burn…” said Michael Caine‘s Alfred. That quote in a sense completely sums up the Joker. The terrifying part about the Joker is that he simply doesn’t care. He exists solely as an agent of chaos, a force of nature. He doesn’t have an origin story. Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathon wanted to present the Joker as an “absolute.” They claimed that the scariest aspect about the Joker was that he didn’t have an origin story; he just arrived like a hurricane and left a plethora of damage behind. That’s exactly what the Joker did in The Dark Knight. We are often taught that there’s a reason, a catalyst why people turn out to be the way they are…For Heath Ledger’s Joker that is simply not the case. One of the most defining aspects of the Joker’s aura is that he finds everything to be one big joke, including death. Ledger captured the character’s chaotic nature to the extreme!
4. Overrated – Heath Was Good, But Not THAT Good
There is no doubt that Heath Ledger’s Joker was a very good villain. But if some people were to be honest with themselves…Maybe he wasn’t THAT good. The Joker is so praised that you would think he’s the be all and end all of all time villains. You would think that no other person playing the Joker in the future would have a chance at hell in surpassing him. Remember, people said the same thing about Jack’s Joker when Heath was originally cast in 2006. Time will tell if Heath Ledger’s Joker will continue to be as remembered as much as Annie Wilkes, HAL 9000, Hans Gruber, let alone the other all time memorable classic villains listed in the beginning of this list. For all that we know, Jared Leto reprises his role as the Joker in a Matt Reeve’s directed Batman movie and wows everyone like he did four years ago in Dallas Buyers Club. Heath was awesome, but it could be said that he wasn’t untouchable.
3. Best – Mannerisms And Delivery
“You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it.”
Part of what made Heath’s Joker so damn iconic was his mannerisms and delivery of the lines written by Jonathon Nolan. Whenever the Joker spoke one could easily notice the smack or click before he talked, the switching between lighthearted and downright terrifying tones of voice, and the constant licking of the lips, like a dog which echoes the quote above and inhabits exactly what Heath embodied in his version of the “clown prince of crime.” The Joker was effective not only because of his actions and what he said but because of how he said it and how he expressed it. Everything from the tone of his voice when yelling “I want you do it, I want you do it….HIT ME!” to saying to Batman himself, “I don’t want to kill you. What would I do without you” shows the distinct and precise execution of the character that took it to another level.
2. Overrated – The Faithfulness To His Comic Book Counterpart
Heath’s Joker was indeed the Joker. With that said this version of the Joker does, in fact, take some liberties that old school fans could have issues with. Heath’s Joker didn’t become the Joker by falling into a vat of chemicals, changing his skin white and turning him into a maniacal madman. There was no laughing gas that forces its victims to literally laugh themselves to death. There was no acid that spewed from his boutonnière in the upper pocket of his purple blazer…The Joker’s pale skin wasn’t permanently white. The white we saw was explained as being “war paint” that the Joker used while he instituted his brand of “chaos” and “disorder.” These deviations could definitely be considered as another overrated aspect to the “greatness” of Heath Ledger’s Joker. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a vocal minority that considers Ledger’s Joker as more of an “elseworlds” Joker than a Joker that could be replicated in the comic book world.
1. Best – Mix Of Horror And Humor
We know what to expect from the Joker, or do we? The Joker is unique in that he’s so damn intriguing, entertaining, crazy, and downright horrific at the same time. Heath makes sure to capture this core aspect like no other. The “magic trick” scene was a great example of this. He walked in with a hilarious laugh making fun of Gambol along with the rest of the mob. He immediately killed one of the mob criminals by putting his head through a pencil and said, “Ta da, it’s-it’s gone.” This was one of the many moments where Heath’s Joker was captivating, hilarious, bad-ass, and well, ****ed up at the same time. Another example of this is when he held the Batman impersonator hostage and recorded it to show Gotham and Batman himself how crazy his enemies have become. Joker interviews him in a way that has one laughing to themselves before he completely switches the tone by yelling “look.at.me!” to the soon to be victim. Moments like this happen repeatedly throughout the movie and only serve notice as to why Heath Ledger’s Joker is easily one of the best big screen movie villains of all time.