The Dark Knight on TMC: how was the Joker from Christopher Nolan’s movie born?

Played by Heath Ledger, the Joker is the main attraction of “The Dark Knight”, while many thought the performance of Jack Nicholson unsurpassable. But how did this version of the villain come about?

Teased in the very last scene of Batman Begins, thanks to a playing card, the Joker is the big villain of the sequel entitled The Dark Knight, released in 2008 and broadcast this Monday, February 15 on TMC. After a little less than twenty years of absence, the nemesis of the Batman was back, in the flesh, in the dark rooms, but things were far from won. Because if Christian Bale had succeeded the much maligned George Clooney, who did not take long to deny his own performance, in the role of Bruce Wayne and his masked alter ego, the new Clown Prince of crime had to compete with Jack Nicholson and his performance deemed unsurpassable in the feature film signed Tim Burton in 1989.

A challenge that does not frighten Paul Bettany, Adrien Brody or Steve Carell, who publicly express their interest in the role. Just like Robin Williams. Used by Warner as a means of pressure while Jack Nicholson hesitated, he then saw Joel Schumacher prefer Jim Carrey to him to play the Mystery Man in Batman Forever. But this time, he believes it. Especially since Christopher Nolan directed him in Insomnia a few years earlier, and he enjoys an interview given to IGN in 2006 to get the message across: “We want to have a different Joker”, he explains. “If they adapt ‘Arkham Asylum’ that would be great. It’s one of the most awesome and dirty comic books of all time.” If the story has served as a reference, the director already has his favorite in the person of Heath Ledger.

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Like Cillian Murphy, the actor had been one of the candidates for the role of Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, before slipping into the shoes of a villain. And not just any one, since he was officially introduced as the new Joker in July 2006, two years before the feature film’s release. At the time, the comedian came out of an Oscar nomination for his performance in The Secret of Brokeback Mountain, a film with which many Internet users will associate him to protest against his choice with a lot of bad faith. Judging that he does not have the shoulders to embody the Clown Prince of crime, his opponents will be numerous to return their jackets from the teaser put online at the end of 2007 and which highlights it.


Before that, the Warner had unveiled a first photo, surprising in every sense of the word: a close-up of his face, revealing a Glasgow smile, a scar caused by an enlargement with a knife from a person’s mouth to the ears. and which takes the form of a huge smile. A cliché that refers to L’Homme qui rit, 1928 silent film adapted from the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo, which served as the basis for the creation of The Joker in 1940, and gives a good indication of the approach of The Dark Knight . More realistic and disturbing than that of Tim Burton’s Batman, in which Jack Nicholson insisted more on the grotesque and the clown side. However, the director had one reference in common with Christopher Nolan: the essential “The Killing Joke” Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, who recounted the villain’s assault on Barbara ‘Batgirl’ Gordon, and presented us with a version of her origins, with her fall into a vat of acid.

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Despite the producers’ insistence, the Dark Knight will not pass by the box origin story with this antagonist that Heath Ledger describes as a “Psychopathic clown, serial killer, schizophrenic and devoid of empathy.” The actor quickly realizes that he and his director are on the same wavelength when it comes to their approach to the character: in addition to notions of anarchy and chaos, the distressing paintings of Francis Bacon (already highly prized by Jack Nicholson in the Batman Museum sequence in 1989) serve as a reference for the villain’s face. “There’s this depravity, this rot in his appearance. It’s dirty. You can almost imagine how it smells.”, explains the filmmaker in a interview given in January 2008, when her smile is composed of three pieces of silicone placed on her skin, which both save time and give her a minimalist feeling.

The dark knight on tmc: how was the joker from christopher nolan's movie born?

Warner Bros. Pictures

Amazing first photo of the Joker

The character of Alex DeLarge, ultra-violent anti-hero of Clockwork Orange is also one of their inspirations (both in the Stanley Kubrick film and the Anthony Burgess novel from which it is inspired), at the same title that punk icon Sid Vicious, singer of the Sex Pistols accused of having killed his partner Nancy Sprungen and died of an overdose at the age of 21. The world of music also serves as a reference for costume designer Lindy Hemming, Oscar winner for her work on Topsy-Turvy in 2000. Without going so far as to give her the look of a vagadond, she nevertheless insisted that her clothes reflect her chaotic personality, especially the fact that he does not take care of himself. Intended to show how nervous he is as soon as he starts to move, as we can read in the January 2008 issue of Empire, this grungy and scruffy appearance is inspired as much by Pete Doherty and Iggy Pop as by another member of the Sex Pistols: its leader Johnny Rotten.

While important, researching the look was ultimately only a small part of creating The Joker. Most of the rest was played out on set and during pre-production. Heath Ledger had a contract, according to his agent “pay-or-play”, guaranteeing him to be paid whether the film was made or not, and thus felt free to do whatever he wanted, without fear of going to extremes. Very involved in the creation of his costume and the way to put his makeup, he also locked himself for six weeks in a hotel room, in order to find the voice of the character (“the key to this demented killer”, according to the words of the principal concerned reported by ABC News) and immerse yourself in the state of mind of this agent of chaos. This includes the creation of a logbook, which he blackens with thoughts he would have as the Clown Prince of Crime and embellishes photos of Clockwork Orange, hyenas and the faces of disturbed clowns.


Eager to move away from the version of Jack Nicholson, who looked a lot like his performer, while re-using the clowning methods learned on the set of Terry Gilliam’s Brothers Grimm, Heath Legder chose to immerse himself body and soul in the Batman’s nemesis spirit. It means changing your voice and posture, or looking at pictures of some of the most horrible things, until you can laugh at them. A total investment, which continues on the set, where he remains in his costume between takes, but would have ended up costing him dearly. Even though he’s always portrayed The Joker as the funniest character he’s had to play, he tells himself that the preparation he has imposed on himself has drained him mentally and made him fall into depression, leading him indirectly. to his tragic death on January 22, 2008, following an accidental drug overdose.

According to his relatives, these drugs were in fact linked to insomnia problems whose origin was prior to this preparation. But the result is the same, and The Dark Knight loses one of its major assets, a few months before the release and while the teaser unveiled at the end of 2007 suggested a demented performance from the Australian actor. What the spectators present in the IMAX theaters projecting I am a legend in the United States were able to have a good preview, since the prologue was broadcast there as a preview. The buzz continues to rise until July 18, 2008, when the American public discovers the feature film and allows it to sign the biggest start of all time, while confirming the hype surrounding the film and the Joker.

The dark knight on tmc: how was the joker from christopher nolan's movie born?

Warner Bros. Pictures

In addition to the films and comic books mentioned above, Christopher Nolan was also inspired by the Testament of Doctor Mabuse, for the diabolical genius of his villain, and Heat by Michael Mann, for the cat and mouse game that takes place between Batman and the Joker on the streets of Gotham City. And the incredible robbery that opens the story and supports the metaphor of post-September 11 America, notably by showing an enemy operating from within. Embodiment of Tim Burton’s fascination with the circus world and its beasts in 1989, the Clown Prince of Crime here becomes a terrorist, an anarchist who only wishes “see the world burn” and make the hero cross the border between justice and revenge. He then personifies the words of his director, on the way in which the separation between Good and Evil tends to blur, but also the tormented time in which he is illustrated, and where danger can have several faces and stories.

And this is where one of the film’s stroke of genius lies: not giving it this origin story claimed by producers. The Joker however explains the origin of his scars in a scene, disappointing at first, before changing version in the next. As if to better muddy the waters, wink at the comic books in which he was born in different ways and make what he embodies more universal. And therefore worrying. Unrecognizable and as possessed by the role, Heath Ledger is breathtaking. The influences that brought him to life never interfere with his performance and he manages to make all his appearances memorable, going so far as to steal the show from Batman. Enough to make him one of the Oscar favorites. Born in the heart of summer 2008, the trend does not weaken during awards season. Quite the contrary, since his competitors in the Best Actor in a Supporting Role category quickly understand that they will only be figuring out against the one who will, unsurprisingly, be awarded posthumously on February 22, 2009.

Heavily criticized when he was cast for the role, Heath Legder allowed a number of jackets to turn around with a different take on Jack Nicholson’s, and immediately brought his Joker into the pantheon of the best villains in the history of the Cinema. Eleven years later, Joaquin Phoenix has also won an Oscar by demonstrating that, like Batman, the Clown Prince of Crime can evolve and become a reflection of his time and of his director’s obsessions, without losing his essence or giving the impression of copying those which preceded it. This is also the mark of the great supervillains.

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