Christian Bale has shared a reflection from working with Heath Ledger during the filming of The Dark Knight. For the second film in the Batman trilogy led by writer and director Christopher Nolan, Bale returned as the Caped Crusader, and Ledger played his iconic antagonist, the Joker. The film was an enormous commercial and critical success, grossing more than $1 billion against a budget of $185 million. The Dark Knight arguably paved the way for comic book movies with an edgier tone to garner mass appeal, and Ledger’s Joker solidified The Clown Prince of Crime as one of audiences’ favorite on-screen personas.
Prior to Ledger, the Joker had been played by Jack Nicholson and Cesar Romero in a manner that seems almost cartoonish by today’s standards. The past versions relied on either vats of acid or high-concept diseases that disfigured the character. Ledger’s depiction of the Joker, with facial scars, hand-applied makeup, and a more believable psychosis, brought the character up to speed with the realism demands of the 21st century and altered the course of comic book villains in cinema forever. Bale’s Batman, who spent the first film training with Ra’s al Ghul, was given space to grow in response to the arrival of Ledger’s Joker.
In an interview with GQ, Bale reflected on collaborating with Ledger during the production of The Dark Knight. Read Bale’s full comments below:
Heath Ledger, oh my God, what a performance. What a pleasure to have gotten to work with him, and just to see him and how much he put himself into the Joker. And I was watching him going, ‘Yeah, this is absolutely fantastic. Are we in trouble here?’ When Chris [Nolan] and I first sat down, we said, the problem with Batman is that the villains are always more interesting, right? And so Batman, actually, he’s very close to being a villain himself. So, let’s never let him become dull by comparison, and unfortunately I was sitting there going, ‘I feel a little bit dull by comparison because Heath is just killing this.’ But I’m so proud of that film, I love it, The Dark Knight is absolutely extraordinary, and it was such a pleasure to have gotten to work with Heath.
Why Heath Ledger’s Joker Remains So Iconic
Ledger’s Joker was the perfect foil for Bale’s Batman and a key part of The Dark Knight‘s success. Numerous repeated lines like “Why so serious?” and “You want to know how I got these scars?” are etched in history as unmistakable quips belonging to Ledger’s villain. It’s no wonder Bale suggests Ledger’s Joker outshines his Batman, and given the onset of the villains-as-protagonists style stories seen in the Suicide Squad franchise and Harley Quinn animated series, it’s easy to see how Ledger’s performance may have led to those projects.
The Joker at large became a far more interesting and sought-after character following Ledger’s turn in The Dark Knight. There has been debate about whether propping up a homicidal villain in such a big way is wise, but it hasn’t stopped actors like Jared Leto, Joaquin Phoenix, and Barry Keoghan from offering their takes on the character. Still, Bale is correct in his assertion that Ledger commits fully to his performance as the Joker, in a way that could be argued is hard for anyone else to top. It’s no wonder the actor looks back on his time working with Ledger fondly.