Just how did he get those scars? Ten years after The Dark Knight unleashed Heath Ledger's Joker on audiences, the question of his character's origin remains. In that time, there have been countless theories, but one has consistently been cited, albeit often over-simplified. As Christopher Nolan's Batman epic hits double digits, it deserves a proper deep dive.
The Dark Knight remains a pinnacle of blockbuster cinema, having changed how superhero movies are viewed artistically, popularising the gritty realism style as popcorn entertainment, and solidifying the Christopher Nolan approach to hiring directors. Above all, it's a great movie. There's a lot of reasons for its legacy, but on a basic reactionary level, the standout aspect has to be Heath Ledger's Joker. His take on The Clown Prince of Crime is now the gold standard for not just superhero villains but screen villains in general. Hans Landa, Loki, Kylo Ren, Killmonger: any great modern turn will inevitably get comparisons to Ledger's Oscar-winning performance. And for good reason; like Darth Vader or Hannibal Lecter before him, he speaks to something inescapably and unknowingly terrifying just out of eyeshot in the real world.
That mystery is so key to the fear, and unlike Vader or Hannibal who both had prequels that retroactively attempted to explain how these black hearts came to be corrupted (the Star Wars prequels and Hannibal Rising respectively), Ledger's Joker never got any explanation. Indeed, that's a key part of his character. Throughout the film, Joker asks "Do you want to know how I got these scars?", each time giving a different (unrequested) account that lightly plays with his reading of the victim and their fears: criminal Gambol hears of domestic abuse; Rachel an unrequited love; and Batman, a man defined by fear, cuts him short.
Like The Killing Joke version, Nolan's Joker on the face of it seems to ascribe to the theory that "If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice". However, in actuality, it's an illusion of choice. There is no past to speak of; he has no fingerprints, no aliases, no history of any kind. In the world of The Dark Knight Trilogy, it's as if the Joker simply came to be, with the closest we get to an origin story coming at the end of Batman Begins, when Gordon discusses the inevitable escalation caused by the arrival of The Batman to Gotham, citing the Joker as the first of a new wave of criminals. And that aspect, teased long before Ledger was even cast, is the key to this interpretation. One that, unlike a lonely slave or tortured boy, actually improves our reading of the character.
- This Page: What Exactly Is The Dark Knight' Joker?
- Page 2: The PTSD-Sufferer Joker Theory
- Page 3: Why This Is The Only Origin Theory That Works
The Dark Knight's Joker Was A Villain For The 2000s
The Dark Knight may have an influence that can still be felt today, but it is - along with the other two entries of The Dark Knight Trilogy - undoubtedly a product of the 2000s. Released in 2008, the film came at the end of George W. Bush's second term at a point where the safety of domesticity was being eroded. America was engaged in multiple conflicts in the Middle East leading to images of injured soldiers all over the news, and it was also only seven years on from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The threat at home - both physical and emotional - loomed large.
The Joker explicitly preys on those fears, striking at the heart of Gotham (and by extension America) with acts of not just extreme violence, but randomness. Joker has a plan, evidenced in The Dark Knight's twisting middle act, but he attacks with no goal greater than breaking the spirit of Gotham; he's operating on a different plane and so becomes utterly unstoppable. This chaos is a constant Joker trait across his 75-year history, but it's his defining aspect in Nolan's version, to the point the teaser trailer is simply Alfred's "Some men just want to watch the world burn" speech over a slowly disintegrating bat symbol. Against the backdrop of Bush, this is presented as the true way to damage society.
However, the Joker is an American himself. He is not simply an extended parallel to Al Qaeda and 9/11 (unlike many other direct riffs from the time, such as Cloverfield). And that creates something more unsettling: the danger at home comes from home, within the city gates. We don't just fear what he can do, we fear over how little he may be removed from us. What drove him that way? What destroyed the American Dream?