DC’s Movies Are Still Haunted By Heath Ledger’s Joker

This summer, there’s been a bitter war between film critics and fanboys over a terrible summer movie season that seems utterly unworthy of such passion. The latest movie in the crosshairs is Suicide Squad, which critics hated and audiences seem to like — or, more accurately, audiences were willing to ignore the reviews and pay to see Suicide Squad in big, historic numbers, though bad word of mouth may already be working against it.

But let’s not worry about winners and losers for a moment, but rather try to find some common ground. Whether you found Suicide Squad to be an abrasive, nonsensical disaster or a fun joyride designed “for the fans” (assuming you’re not bothered by how “for the fans” is always the go-to cop-out for defensive show-business millionaires), perhaps we can all agree that there was nothing in Suicide Squad as good or memorable as this scene.

I know, it’s unfair at this time to invoke the Citizen Kane of modern comic-book movies. Isn’t that what critics always do in situations like this? Of course nothing will compare to The Dark Knight, right? Must we think of prime rib when we’re trying to talk ourselves into enjoying this bowl of gruel?

The problem is that the movies themselves — I refer specifically to the DC films, including this year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — can’t seem to shake the influence of The Dark Knight. The self-conscious “grittiness,” the operatic storytelling style, the dark-hued cinematography — The Dark Knight wrote the language that these films continue to use and only lightly elaborate upon. Which wouldn’t be that much of a problem if they weren’t also trying to replicate the one aspect of The Dark Knight that can’t be replicated: Heath Ledger’s Joker.

“It’s one of the best performances ever in cinema,” Suicide Squad‘s Jared Leto recently declared of Ledger’s Joker in Rolling Stone, which gives you an idea of the reverence for that performance among Ledger’s former peers, as well as the reverence that must be publicly declared before fans will allow you to follow in his footsteps.

Is there a more iconic film performance from the past 10 years than Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn in The Dark Knight? There are Wikipedia pages and YouTube videos devoted to deconstructing it. There are scores of fan pages memorializing its greatness. If we accept that Hollywood’s primary business now is the cinematic interpretation of comic books, then Ledger’s Joker must represent the new height of actorly prestige. Nobody ever got it more right in a movie like this than he did.

The mythology around Ledger’s performance has only grown since The Dark Knight‘s release in 2008. The method to Ledger’s madness — he supposedly locked himself away in seclusion for six weeks, reading A Clockwork Orange and keeping a “Joker journal,” before emerging as a fully formed set of tongue flicks and verbal tics — echoes the influence of previous Serious Actor transformations by Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. For actors looking to distinguish themselves in comic-book cinema, Ledger is the Brando/De Niro figure to emulate.

I suspect this is what drove Leto to his own extremes of Method preparation for Suicide Squad, which included… well, actually, let’s not rehash that silliness for the umpteenth time. What matters is what’s on the screen — again, there’s room for honest disagreement here, but most reasonable people can agree that Leto’s aggressively mannered performance in Suicide Squad isn’t as good as Ledger in The Dark Knight. It certainly doesn’t coalesce into anything all that frightening or original. Instead, Leto’s Joker resembles Marilyn Manson’s version of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” a “scary” goth cover of a menacing, understated gem. In other words, Leto reminds you of Ledger for all the wrong reasons.

In keeping with the film’s “more is more” aesthetic, Suicide Squad supplies an additional Ledger surrogate in the form of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, who some predicted before Suicide Squad’s release would be “the most dynamic villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker.” Sorry, but no, not even close. Robbie, like Leto, is spirited and commits herself to the ugliness of the character. But, again like Leto, there’s a glibness to Robbie in Suicide Squad that undermines any emotional payoff the film might’ve had. She’s not evil, but “evil,” and, boy, are those air-quotes obnoxiously exaggerated.

What about the other major bad guy in the revamped DC universe? The most disappointing performance in any movie this year for me has to be Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman. I’ve counted Eisenberg among my favorite actors going back to The Squid and the Whale, and on paper his conception of Luthor as a nerdy Mark Zuckerberg-style tech bro seemed inspired. In execution, however, Eisenberg appeared haunted by a familiar ghost. While Eisenberg shrugged off Ledger comparisons in interviews, even implying that he was unfamiliar with the performance, his Luthor was suspiciously Ledgeresque, from the stringy hair to the eccentric line readings to his goofy, annoying laugh. In the end, Eisenberg had the same old problem — he relies on what are now established comic-book movie villain signifiers, with little to nothing that feels authentic beneath.

Perhaps I’m overstating this. Is it possible that Ledger’s Joker is overrated? Otherwise, why have all of these other talented actors failed at mining the same vein? Upon revisiting The Dark Knight this weekend — I needed a chaser after Suicide Squad — I was surprised to discover that Ledger’s performance was more restrained than I remembered. Perhaps that’s a byproduct of being bashed over the head by recent DC films, but what stood out for me this time watching The Dark Knight was the graceful subtleties of Ledger’s movements and speech patterns, and the ways in which he unsettles you without raising his voice or resorting to graphic violence. What gets you instead is how convincing Ledger is at projecting nothingness. His imitators are fixated on portraying ever-escalating levels of badness, but Ledger understood that the role actually required the absence of good or bad. The lack of a moral core is what’s chilling. That blankness still seems unfathomable when you revisit The Dark Knight, either as a viewer or (apparently) an actor trying to plug into whatever Ledger discovered.

One of the sketchier legends surroundings Ledger’s Joker is that Ledger was hoping to get fired off The Dark Knight by giving an outrageous performance, because he would’ve been paid either way. But that doesn’t translate when you watch the film — he’s pushing it, but within the confines of what the film needs. Ledger performs like a comic actor who’s trained himself to forget that the material is supposed to be funny — his playful, almost musical physicality in The Dark Knight is frightening because Ledger isn’t killing himself to be frightening. The audience can feel however it wants to feel, but Ledger is going to have a ball either way.

What were we talking about again? Oh right, Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman. It’s just so much more enjoyable to think about how great Ledger was eight years ago. And therein lies the central dilemma for the DC films moving forward — the bad guys are too much like Ledger’s Joker and not nearly close enough to Ledger’s Joker. Deliberately or not, Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman invite comparisons that can’t possibly be good for these films and their sequels moving forward. Until they can shake Ledger’s ghost — whether by an actor with a fresh approach or by a larger retrenchment in how these films look and feel — the DC films are doomed to feel vaguely unsatisfying, no matter their attributes. After all, it’s the surprises of Ledger’s performance — which are still there to be discovered upon subsequent viewings — that makes it memorable. There’s nothing surprising about hitting the same beats with less skill or style.

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