They say that every great hero needs an antagonist. Ali would not have been revered had he not competed against Joe Frazier, Sonny Liston and George Foreman. People remember 80’s wrestling for the spotlight that Hulk Hogan was able to bring to it. However, if not for Roddy Piper, Paul Orndorff, Andre the Giant and Randy Savage, we wouldn’t have had the epic moments that still give me goosebumps today.
I’ve never been a big Heath Ledger fan. I thought his performance in Brokeback Mountain was exceptional, as he portrayed a character whose repressed sense of love was evident –even in the way that he walked and spoke. But aside from this, I would never admit to having seen greatness in him. He was just another actor who, instead of taking a wealth of easy, guaranteed-money, movies highlighting his physical appearance, he instead took the ‘Johnny Depp route’ and decided in favor of more challenging roles.
OK, I know I’m beating around the bush, but the setup is important for what I’m about to say: Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker was probably one of the best performances by an actor playing a antagonist – comic book villain or otherwise – that I’ve seen… maybe ever. He’s that good. The entire time that I was watching this film, I kept peering around the theater to see of other people were as in awe as I was to watch this award winning performance. And what’s sad about the film (aside from the fact that Heath is no longer with us) is that without his performance, this is probably just another acceptable Batman film.
I wish I could talk more positively about other aspects of the film, but there’s not much here that hasn’t been seen in 2005 with Batman Begins. The car’s the same. We do get a cool new feature, but it’s pretty much the same car. The toys he uses are a slightly better. There’s a bit of a love struggle (and Maggie Gylenhaal, despite being incredibly fine, is about as annoying as Katie Holmes was). And yes, the cast is strong: Christian Bale and Gary Oldman turn in solid performances, as do Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. But let’s not kid ourselves: this is not a notable movie without the performance of Heath Ledger.
So, (I’m sure you may be asking, if you haven’t seen this yet) what is it about his performance that is so notable? I remember when this film was being made and I believe I recall hearing or reading somewhere that Heath was ‘studying’ different sources to get the role right. I’m always amazed to hear actors talk about all this ‘studying’ that they do, yet the benefits can rarely be seen on screen. Yet, this performance as the Joker is more than a comic book villain who comes to life. From the moment he makes his entrance, we see something intrinsically evil about him. Yes, he’s got the makeup and it makes him incredibly creepy looking. But it’s more than the makeup. He’s not physically menacing. He’s actually kind of lanky. But everything – from his expressions to the way that he walks – conveys to the audience that you’re dealing with someone who’s missing more than a few marbles.
As much as the Joker is sadistic, he’s incredibly funny. I found myself laughing out loud (something I rarely do in theaters unless it’s unavoidable) several times.
For me, it’s the way that I felt (and actually still feel) a sense of sadness for the Joker that brings this role to greatness. As he moves through Gotham causing destruction, he manages to give us some clues as to how he got to be the way that he is. His retelling of the stories are a bit chilling. We get clues that an abusive childhood, lost loves and other disappointments have all contributed to his sick mental state. But at the same time we abhor his actions, strangely we understand them. The best way that it can be expressed is through a line that Michael Caine has in the film: “Some people just want to see the world burn.”
I recall being a kid of about 15 when Batman staring Michael Keaton came to the theaters. That was probably an even bigger deal than this film because it was the first big-budget film representation of Batman. And not to trash that film – it was what it was. But I wasn’t as thrilled with Jack Nicholson as the Joker as everyone else was. Nicholson did with it what he could. And it was interesting. But I felt that there was too much comedy and not enough of the sinister behavior that made ‘The Joker’ such a compelling character on the TV show and in the graphic novel. All the Prince music and the parading Joker musical numbers just made me sick. This role does justice to the character that Caesar Romero brought to me when I was a kid watching the TV show.
Usually when you go home after seeing a film, if you love movies the way I do, you want to be the character. I wanted to be Bruce Lee. I felt like I was Christopher Reeve in Superman. Rarely is it the case that I walk home thinking that kids are walking out of the theater imitating the the villain. This film is one of those exceptions. It’s incredibly unfortunate that this film makes it obvious that we lost more than just a good actor in Heath Ledger. We lost someone the likes of River Phoenix – who’s best work was probably not even to be discovered yet.
This is a great film that you must see, if only for the performance of Heath Ledger.