Last weekend, my DH and I had a rare night to ourselves and we decided to see a movie. In a sign of my old age, nothing seemed appealing. Demographically, I’m in the target audience for Mama Mia but I really didn’t want to expose myself to Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan capering about a beach. DH lobbied for The Dark Knight, and despite the fact that I’d never gotten into the Batman movie franchise, reluctantly I agreed.

Wow. I expected killer special effects, lots of explosions, and a hero skirting the dark side. A tight script that turned conventions on their head. And I’d heard good things about Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker. But I never thought I’d be both enthralled and repelled by a super-hero’s arch nemeses the way that Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker pushed my buttons. I wasn’t alone. Every time The Joker came on screen, the entire audience in the packed theatre reacted, sometimes wildly. It’s worth studying how screenplay writers David Goyer and Jonathan Nolan re-imagined a stock superhero villain to make him contemporary and scarier—a worthy foe for Batman.

The first scene introducing us to The Joker encapsulates his manic (and lethal) mind. We start with a mundane crime, a bank robbery. In an obscene parody of the Batman t.v. show, The Joker’s henchmen carry out the crime wearing masks that are also freakish parodies of clown faces. Seconds into the heist, they begin to turn on each other as per their boss’s directive. By the end of the robbery, you’re laughing guiltily even as you’re horrified by the crime’s brutality. You’ve become complicit in The Joker’s world.

In an interview with Newsarama.com, Goyer reveals that he plucked bits of the Batman legend to round out The Joker, but he and Nolan hewed to one thing: The Joker can do anything at any time. There are no boundaries.

“The Joker’s cause is chaos. To me that’s very different, somewhat timeless and a little more frightening,” he says.

And yet, The Joker’s seemingly random crimes all make sense. To him. But how do you figure out what makes a guy like The Joker tick? He’s the classic unreliable narrator. In one scene, he tells a character that his father was responsible for his ruined face. In another, it was jealous passion that drove him to mutilate himself. What is the truth? Does he even know anymore?

It must be said that Heath Ledger has a lot to do with the scariness of The Joker. A character like that could have easily become cliched and melodramatic. But Ledger modulates his voice to sound like a middle America dude. He could be the guy working in the cubicle next to yours. Until he laughs. Then Ledger peels back the veneer of sanity to reveal the character’s instability.

I particularly like how Ledger and the filmmakers embed the character with mundane behaviors like using hand-sanitizer or checking his hair just before he’s ready to complete another heinous act of violence. He’s got ordinary concerns like keeping germ-free and wanting his hair to look nice along with taking over Gotham City and mass murdering people.

In Ledger’s hands, The Joker was by turns horrifying and hilarious, which kept the audience off-balance. Are we supposed to sympathize with The Joker? Feel pity for him? Hate him? Want him to triumph over Batman? The ambiguity is what made The Joker such a successful villain.

Honestly, I sorta don’t remember Batman all that much, or any of the sub-characters. But The Joker . . . I’m going to remember him for a long time. It’s a true pity, one of the many, that Ledger won’t be able to reprise his role. He elevated the material and made that character unforgettable. It is our loss.

About Kathleen Bolton

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including Ani Bolton. She has written two novels as Cassidy Calloway: Confessions of a First Daughter, and Secrets of a First Daughter--both books in a YA series about the misadventures of the U.S. President's teen-aged daughter, published by HarperCollins, and Tamara Blake, for the novel Slumber.