15 years ago, one of the greatest ever movie villains redefined an era 2 months ago

15 years ago, one of the greatest ever movie villains redefined an era

The Dark Knight is 15 years old.

A movie that redefined what fans expect from a trip to the cinema, The Dark Knight currently stands as the third-highest rated film on IMDb, behind only The Shawshank Redemption and The Godfather.


Sterling performances across the board from the all-star cast of Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart and Michael Caine made high art of a genre that was once better noted for CGI tricks, cheesy dialogue and Tobey Maguire.

Given the calibre of the ensemble, Christopher Nolan's unforgettable writing, the stunning visual set-pieces, it is all the more remarkable that the movie will always exist in the shadow of its greatest component. That is, the performance of Heath Ledger, who died from drug toxicity in January 2008, six months before his Joker reached the big screen.

To this day, Ledger remains the only actor to have won an Academy Award for a performance in a superhero movie. At the age of 28, he is the youngest actor to ever be posthumously awarded an Oscar. Any "Best Movie Supervillain" listicle that puts another actor on top is making a dangerously controversial call.

But certainly the most shining testament to Ledger's performance is that it has utterly forced audiences and studios to recalibrate what is necessary for a truly great blockbuster.


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Batman made all superhero villains up their game

Despite the rampant success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one of the sharpest criticisms of the franchise has been the weakness of their villains. Virtually no villain has been worth keeping beyond one movie, and there appears to be a solid correlation between the success of a villain and the "darkness" of his goals and methods.


Since Heath Ledger's Joker, fans have expected bad guys to be making some kind of broader point about the world we live in and our place in it.

It's no longer enough to poison the city's water supply or catapult the mayor into the sun or whatever the hell else they used to do back when screen-adaptations of comic books came with like... visual representations of sound effects for some reason (???). It's no longer enough for Captain America or Superman to beat up an adversary and send them on their way. It's become incumbent upon superheroes to defeat their enemies on a philosophical level too.

The influence of The Dark Knight can be seen throughout the spate of superhero movies that now flood theatres and break box office records. Despite its Gotham setting, The Dark Knight seemed to drag movie studios into the reality that in order for superhero films to succeed, they had to feature real people.

Two of the most popular superhero films of 2018 have been Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther — two films where audiences came out of the theatre thinking "I'm pretty sure there are at least some levels on which I agree with the bad guy".


Similar enough to the anarcho-socialism espoused by Bane and Talia al'Ghul in The Dark Knight Rises. We mightn't agree with the nuclear bomb aspect of it all, but hey, maybe it's fair to say that rich people could stand to be a bit less rich.

Captain America: Civil War centred around the debate on whether the state has the right to limit the power of superheroes. Meanwhile, in the DC universe, Superman vs Batman dealt with a similar quandary — revolving around the responsibilities of the most powerful in society. Neither of those films were that good or anything but it was clear that they were trying start a conversation.

One could go so far as to make the argument that The Dark Knight paved the way for the wild popularity of Game of Thrones, a series in which motivations and desires of each character, good and bad and everything in between, are explored and discussed in painstaking detail. The dark side is embraced, and the fundamental quality of the story hinges on the murderous actions of the people on screen.

Still, it takes real skill to be thought-provoking while flipping trucks and blowing up hospitals.

"You know what I've noticed? Nobody panics when things go 'according to plan'. Even if the plan is horrifying. If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all 'part of the plan'. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then, everyone loses their minds."


The better we got to know The Joker throughout the movie, the more unpredictable his moves became — surely the sign of an expertly designed baddie.

It's execution was all down to Ledger though. In preparing for the role, Ledger locked himself away for a month, refining the distinctive voice, look and mannerisms of the character. It was Ledger's goal to inhabit the chaotic and twisted mind of The Joker, something his prodigious work rate and skill allowed him to achieve. It was a triumph of effort and of acting, and deserves the effulgent praise it has received through the years.

Much like the jersey of a club hero, The Joker character should have been retired for at least several decades.

It is for this reason that Jared Leto's 2015 take on The Joker in Suicide Squad was met with such an overwhelmingly exhausted "Why are you doing this?" groan by the general public. Nothing was going to touch Ledger.

Heath Ledger 'created such mesmerising art'

15 years on, there persists the disturbing myth that Heath Ledger's commitment to the role was responsible for his premature death.

The corollary being, of course, that his masterful performance came at the expense of his young life. It's a story that feeds into the overarching narrative that artists must suffer for their art, and that there is no means to create beauty unless the creator is prepared to put their own wellbeing on the line.

It is a thread that runs through the history of expression — from Vincent Van Gogh to Emily Dickinson, from Kurt Cobain to Amy Winehouse — the idea that torture is at the heart of talent is one that is accepted and parroted by many in the public.

But it's not true. Ledger turned in his performance in spite of illness, in spite of addiction, in spite of the horror that would soon claim his life.

Those closest to Ledger have pointed out that the actor had suffered from an inability to sleep for years, and his death was confirmed as a result of an accidental overdose on prescription medication.

Ledger's great triumph was not that he died for his art, but that he created such mesmerising art while under the crushing yoke of such unbearable pain. In doing so, he changed our relationship with blockbusters forever.

*Updated from piece first published in September 2018.

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