Dark Knight Essay Joker

Nearly a decade later, and we’re all still recovering from the powerful impact The Dark Knight left. Jared Leto just offered a different and striking take on the clown prince of crime, but Heath Ledger’s diabolical performance continues to mesmerize. Indeed, how many “best villain” lists does he top, year in and year out? Cinephiles keep picking apart his Joker’s je ne sais quoi. What made it so memorable? The lip-smacking ticks? The nasal intonation? The fits of menacing sing-song delivery?

Filmmaker Michael Tucker proposes it might actually have much more to do with his placement within the movie’s plot structure and thematic tensions. In the latest installment of his video essay series Lessons from the Screenplay, he concisely and compellingly examines Dark Knight‘s Joker, positing that he shines as an antagonist because of the comprises he forces Batman to make. Watch on.

For what it’s worth, I’d add that a couple other factors contributed here. First, Joker’s not competing for screen time with other big bads. Two-Face is re-conceived as a victim to underscore how dangerous his corrupting influence is, rather concretely embodying the stakes of this struggle for “the soul of Gotham.” And the rest of the antagonists, from the Chechen to the accountant who wants to blackmail Batman, aren’t colorful, complicated creatures who need the kind of lengthy explanation that, say, a man made of lightning requires.

Christopher Nolan didn’t see much point in devoting precious chunks of screen time to an origin story like so many other superhero flicks feel obligated to do. The Joker is most interesting as the Joker. In fact, he’s much more threatening when you don’t know where he’s come from or who he was before.

Tucker’s made a lot of other fascinating video essays at his channel, applying the same critical scrutiny to blockbusters like Gone Girl and Independence Day. In this other clip, he discusses how a balance of fantastical ideas and grounded concerns makes Ghostbusters work so well.

Do you agree with Tucker’s take? Why does Ledger’s Joker soar? Drop your own theories in the talkback.

Featured Image Credit: Warner Bros. 


batman, film theory, the dark knight, the joker, video essay

The Dark Knight Essay

1034 Words5 Pages

"The Dark Knight" is grimly magisterial. It's a summer blockbuster that contemplates near-total civic disaster: Crowds surge, tractor-trailers flip, and buildings explode, but the pop violence feels heavy, mournful. Light barely escapes the film's gravitational pull.

Yet flitting through this 10-ton expressionist murk is a diseased butterfly with stringy hair and a maniacal giggle. Played by a dead actor, he's the most alive thing here.

It's not quite fair to say that the late Heath Ledger steals "The Dark Knight" from Christian Bale and the forces of (problematic) good, but, as the Joker, he is the movie's animating principle and anarchic spark - an unstoppable force colliding with the immovable objects of Batman and director…show more content…

Confusion reigns in the opening scenes; loose threads abound toward the end (including one major figure literally left hanging).

Yet the generous midsection works as an agonized big-muscle action film about a conflicted superhero. As Bruce Wayne, Bale is gravely shallow, and he lacks the sense of fun Robert Downey Jr. gave his obscenely rich playboy in "Iron Man." Bruce uses his secret identity as a hidden camera to glean information from the city's upper echelons, but he's not quite there otherwise. This, oddly, is what makes him interesting, both to us and to assistant DA and ex-girlfriend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over from Katie Holmes and providing the character - at last - with a spine and a brain).

Batman's a whole other story. The filmmakers have worked out the mask problems from the previous film; Bale fills the suit with grace and danger. His voice is disguised as well - it's now a bass-heavy synthesized whisper. The character seems more than ever an extension of his high-tech toys (like the neat-o Bat-scooter that pops out of the Batmobile at one point, ecstatically rearing up like the Lone Ranger's Silver). He represents a citizen's darkest urges, though, and it eats at him. He's Dirty Harry crossed with Hamlet.

The complicated plot involves Batman, Gordon, and Dent putting the squeeze on the mobsters, who look to the

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