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The Clown Prince

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A chilling hybrid: Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight.
A chilling hybrid: Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight.

ROHIT PANIKKER

The late Heath Ledger’s new and terrifying Joker has given a new class to the breed of villains in Hollywood.

For someone who confessed to not being a comic book fan, the late Heath Ledger had intensely researched for his role as the Joker for Christopher Nolan’s movie ‘The Dark Knight,’ drawing inspiration from landmark graphic novels such as Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ (1986) and Alan Moore’s ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’ (1988). His Joker, a chilling hybrid of Sid Vicious’ punk rocker style and Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s deranged personality, has become one of the finest portrayals of the villainous character.

“This city,” says the Joker, “needs a new class of criminals.” Indeed, that is what this new and terrifyingly improved Joker has given to the breed of villains in Hollywood – a new class. In fact, his performance has sparked a renewed interest in the character ever since the movie hit theatres this month.

Many transitions

The persona of the Joker, or the Clown Prince of Crime as he is often referred to, has undergone many transitions since his first appearance in 1940. In the late 1950s and the ’60s, the character was portrayed merely as a prankster who wove anarchy into Batman’s world. But after Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns,’ the Joker was reworked as a deeper character – a psychotic mass murderer who did it purely for the sheer pleasure of it.

In the same way, the Joker has undergone numerous transitions in the movie versions through every actor who has represented him. Cesar Romero’s depiction in the 1960s television series was a reflection of the character as he appeared in the comics at the time.

Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ (1989) was a subtle shift that had shades of the prankster villain, but also assimilated the mass murder with ease, but Ledger’s interpretation in ‘The Dark Knight’ definitely pushed the character into a whole new dimension.

From prankster to a morally void agent of chaos, this Joker would give you nightmares.

Sole obsession

Who is the Joker? There has never been an established background story for this character unlike for other villains in the Batman series such as the Penguin, Cat Woman, Two-Face or the Riddler. The Joker himself has been found to narrate different versions of his life. In ‘The Dark Knight,’ he narrates two entirely different stories of parental abuse and self-mutilation to explain the smile-like scar on his face. The commonly accepted story of his origin is that he was a mobster who was caught in a shootout in a chemical factory and fell into a vat of chemicals which gave him the permanent grin and the bleached face. The concept of the permanent grin on the Joker’s face is said to have been inspired by the look of Conrad Veidt’s character in the 1928 movie ‘The Man Who Laughs.’ Now, Ledger’s Joker has broken the conventional look of the Joker with a grungy, unkempt style and a Glasgow grin that replaced the chemically altered smile.

The symbiotic relationship between Batman and his arch-nemesis is a concept that has awed comic book fans ever since the inception of the character 68 years ago. As Joker explains in ‘The Dark Knight Returns,’ “To be the Joker, I must beat the Batman. That’s where it becomes really fun! I am a force of nature, a force of the mind! And I must have a counter-force. Only one man can stand against me, make me work.”

Ledger’s Joker mockingly delivers the mushy line from ‘Jerry Maguire,’ “You complete me,” to Batman. That explains it. His sole obsession is to keep pushing the caped crusader to that point where he would let go of his vow to never kill. This idea is what Nolan stated as the inspiration for the storyline of ‘The Dark Knight’ - from the closing moments of ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’ where the Joker taunts Batman by telling him: “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day. You had a bad day once. Am I right? You had a bad day and everything changed.”


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