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(Credit: Warner Bros.)


How Heath Ledger’s Joker transformed the superhero movie


“Oh, hee-hee, aha. Ha, ooh, hee, ha-ha, ha-ha,” Heath Ledger’s Joker cackled as he sauntered into Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, instilling a sense of instant threat as he turned the tide of superhero moviemaking. Sporting the kind of eerie makeup you would imagine seeing on a clown in the process of a nervous breakdown, Ledger would change the credibility of blockbuster cinema the very same year that Marvel would properly kick off their invincible franchise. 

Of course, comic-book movies had long been around before the premiere of both Iron Man and The Dark Knight in 2008, though, superhero cinema, pre-Millennium, was a strange beast. Featuring a melting pot of different styles, approaches and tones that included the sweet, camp flavours of Batman Forever and Superman IV, as well as the grungy horror of 1997’s Spawn, it was a landscape of little thought, transferring the comic book image directly onto celluloid.

Innovation would soon come in the form of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Bryan Singer’s X-Men, with both franchises inspiring key ingredients that would soon become integral to the identity of superhero movies. Creating a blueprint for what we see in modern Marvel movies, particularly the smart, quippy humour akin to Guardians of the Galaxy, if Raimi and Singer laid the groundwork, Christopher Nolan did a lot of the heavy lifting. 

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Bringing an undisputable quality of realism to the city of Gotham and the troubled character of Batman, Nolan demonstrated that superhero films didn’t have to be treated with a degree of levity, in fact, they could tell brutal stories of fragile characters forced into a life of crime. As Christopher Nolan told Indiewire in 2020, “Superman had a very definitive telling with Christopher Reeve and Richard Donner [in 1978]. The version of that with Batman had never been told. We were looking at this telling of an extraordinary figure in an ordinary world”.

Telling stories of criminals and vigilantes in a world that closely resembles our own, it was the Oscar-winning performance of Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight that provided the driving force behind the success of the Nolan series, with his sinister Joker character having transformed modern superhero movies. Inspiring the sub-genre to adopt a more serious tone across the board, Ledger’s revolutionary performance set a significant precedent for the future of the character with the Clown Prince of Crime now seen as a vehicle to Oscar glory. 

Suddenly, superhero movies were not mere nuggets of entertainment, but they were also genuine sources of cinematic greatness, with the enduring success of The Dark Knight arguably kickstarting the intricacy of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Without the power and staggering command of Ledger’s Joker at the centre of The Dark Knight, the Nolan film would fail to retain the same reverence as the actor’s indelible effect changed the course of the trilogy. Still standing as an exemplary example of the potential of superhero cinema, it is unlikely that the performance of Heath Ledger will ever be topped, though what is certain is that the landscape of the subgenre will never be the same again.

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