I’ll never forget the day Heath Ledger was cast as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Rumors had been swirling for months — Would it be Jude Law? Johnny Depp? Adrien Brody? Who would be brave enough to take on the character that Jack Nicholson had played so perfectly 19 years before? And then, one day after school, I was sitting on my bed when my brother knocked on my door. He opened it and simply said, “Heath Ledger.” I immediately knew what he was referencing, and after a brief pause, the first words out of my mouth were, “That could work.”
It wasn’t surprising that I supported the decision. For one, I was already a huge fan of Ledger’s work, from Monster’s Ball to Brokeback Mountain and every Candy-esque film in between. Plus, I felt that his square jaw would work with the Joker’s look, so it made sense to me. However, that didn’t stop the speculation from running rampant, both on the interwebs and within my own home — Should there even be a Joker if it can’t be Nicholson? Is Ledger going to be able to pull this off? Even I started to doubt it at times. But I remember there being one distinct moment when all the speculation ended and the anticipation began: When they unveiled The Dark Knight‘s first teaser trailer.
The teaser didn’t show any characters. Visually, all we saw was the Bat signal, but it was what we heard that gave me chills. At the end of the 60 seconds, Ledger’s voice took over: “Starting tonight, people will die. I’m a man of my word.” And then, he laughed.
At that moment, my brother and I looked at each other and we knew that Ledger wasn’t just going to pull this off, but he was going to do something great. And a year later, after Ledger’s untimely death, the movie debuted, and the world was smacked in the face with what many consider Ledger’s greatest performance, if not one of the greatest performances of all time.
So what does all this mean for Fox’s new Batman prequel series Gotham?
So far, Gotham has cast Ben McKenzie as its lead, a young Jim Gordon who we will follow as he navigates his way through a corrupt city filled with potential vigilantes and villains. Other than McKenzie, Zabryna Guevara has been brought on as Captain Essen, Sean Pertwee will play Alfred Pennyworth, Erin Richards is Gordon’s fiance, and Donal Logue has joined the series as Det. Harvey Bullock. But out of all of that, only one villain has been cast. Robin Lord Taylor will play a young Penguin, a decision that some fans already think is a little risky. But believe it or not, the Penguin is not who worries me in all this. I’m more focused on the potential introduction of the Joker. The Joker is the character that could make or, potentially more likely, break the new show.
For one, the Joker is about as big a character as anyone can create. From a dramatic standpoint — not even thinking about the acting — he’s A LOT to take in. For any show, it would be difficult to incorporate such an over-the-top villain. From his stunts to his mannerisms, it’s not uncommon for the Joker to cause a sensory overload for the audience. And, of course, there’s the simple fact that his cartoonish ways aren’t easily incorporated into certain environments. With The Dark Knight, Nolan was crafting a darker, more realistic world, which is why he and Ledger worked to tweak some of the more outlandish elements of the character. Sure, the show could do the same, but it’s not easy to make such an out-of-the-box character fit into even the most unpredictable of boxes.
Now, I realize that Gotham is a prequel, which means we’d probably be spending a fair amount of time with the character before his chemical dip, and even though that intrigues me, the “before” version of one of the most extreme comic book villains of all time would still be a big undertaking.
And then, there is the acting element of things. Much like the debate I once had after Nicholson’s time in the Joker’s purple suit, I’m not sure who could follow in the last actor’s (Heath Ledger) footsteps. Am I saying that the Joker should never be portrayed by anyone else ever again? Of course not. The Joker was around long before Ledger and will be around long after. And I think it’s a fascinating character to watch actors really explore. However, I am saying that we need more time.
In general, I hate how remakes are starting to happen closer and closer together. In my perfect world, every generation would have their Batman or their Joker, and we’d wait at least 10 years (but ideally longer) before introducing another. Sadly, that’s just not how things are done in Hollywood. That being said, the Joker has been a bit of a different story. Excluding Mark Hamill’s amazing voice-over work as the cartoon Joker, we’ve only had two men portray the Joker, in real action, in the past 25 years. (This does not count.)
After Nicholson’s unforgettable performance in Tim Burton’s 1989 film, Ledger didn’t premiere his newly imagined version of the character until 2008, 19 years after Nicholson chuckled his way to his death. Now that was the kind of time gap I could get on board with, which brings me back to Gotham.
Considering that Gotham couldn’t use a voice-over, but would need another actor to physically portray the character in real action, I’m incredibly hesitant. Talking about the timing of it all, the show could be introducing a new Joker as soon as six years after Ledger stunned audiences, and I’m just not ready for another interpretation. I’m openly admitting that I’m close-minded about this. I don’t want to be, but I’m worried I wouldn’t give another Joker a fair chance.
And even if I were able to let go of my time grudge, there’s the Ledger of it all. It’s not as if Ledger was just another actor who put on some face paint and terrorized Gotham. Ledger won an Oscar for a reason. He was magnificent. He brought the Joker to life on that screen in a manner in which we’d never seen. He didn’t simply try to reinvent what Nicholson had done, but rather he and Nolan worked to craft a villain all its own. It was mesmerizing. As my colleague Darren Franich put it, “That performance was bigger than life.”
So am I ready for another actor to go on screen as the Joker? I’m really not. For one, I know I’ll compare them to Ledger, and in general, I’m worried about what a character of that size would do to a show.
The Joker brings chaos, and I’m simply fearful that if he were to enter the world of Gotham, the joke would be on them.