Looking back on comic book movies from the last 25 years or so, few performances stand out like Heath Ledger as The Joker in the 2008’s The Dark Knight. His twisted, manic take on the quintessential Batman villain redefined the character for Nolan’s dark, grounded film and the approach resonated with audiences. When Ledger died months before the film was released, his death was the most-reported entertainment story of the year, and became inseparable from both his portrayal of The Joker as well as the film on a whole.
Ledger was first approached by Nolan to play the title character in 2005’s Batman Begins. Ledger replied politely that he’d “never do this kind of film,” and the role would eventually go to Christian Bale. The following year, when discussing the sequel, Nolan announced that Ledger would be cast as The Joker, and that he was “talented but fearless,” promising audiences that “watching Heath Ledger’s interpretation of this iconic character taking on Christian Bale’s Batman is going to be incredible.”
Regardless of Nolan’s assurances, when Ledger’s casting was announced, it was subject to the scrutiny of Bat-fans all over the internet. Of course there were similar reactions to Michael Keaton’s casting as Batman in the late 1980s, as well as Ben Affleck when it was announced he’d don the cowl for Dawn of Justice back in 2013. While Keaton and Affleck each won over many of the doubters, only Ledger managed to undo virtually every skeptical fan’s doubts.