Just like there have been many Batmans, there have been many different adaptations of his number one Rogue - The Joker. We've seen the twisted Clown Prince of Crime attempt to destroy Batman and rip apart Gotham City piece by piece in the comics, animated series, video games, live-action television shows, animated films, and of course, live-action films.
However, there is one actor that managed to perfectly capture the twisted and maniacal essence of The Joker arguable better than anyone else - Heath Ledger. His hauntingly accurate performance in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight in 2008 as an "agent of chaos" is often referred to as iconic.
Let's make one thing clear right off the bat, Heath Ledger's on-screen adaptation of the sadistic, criminal mastermind did not become the most definitive version of The Joker because of Ledger's unfortunate death, but rather because he delivered such a chilling, Oscar-worthy performance that no one had ever expected to see.
Ledger himself described his Joker as a, "psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy."
Now, onto 5 reasons why Ledger's Joker is so iconic...
He Prepared in Isolation
Before The Dark Knight started production, Ledger decided to lock himself away in a hotel room to prepare for the role. He secluded himself for almost 6 weeks, as he learned every single creepy facial tic, perfected his shrill Joker voice, and practiced getting into an overly twisted state of mind.
He kept a diary filled with images of playing cards, brutal scenes from Batman comics, photos of hyenas, stills of Alex DeLearge from A Clockwork Orange, and real-life sadistic news stories to mentally prepare himself on set.
His somewhat excessive efforts paid off, as he completely transformed himself into one of the most faithful, yet haunting on-screen adaptations of the Joker we have ever seen.
He Was Scary
If you remember correctly, there was absolutely nothing comical about this Joker. In fact, most of his jokes were just evil tricks that severely lacked any sort of laughable punch line. We might have had a few good giggles watching Jack Nicholson's version of Joker in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, but Ledger straight up scared us to death.
His sole purpose for existing was to torment innocent people, while trying to tear apart Gotham at the seams. He blew up a hospital dressed as a nurse and took a bus full of hostages, he threatened to keep killing people unless Batman revealed his true identity, and he rigged two evacuating ferries (one loaded with innocent citizens, the other with prisoners) with explosives as one truly nasty trick.
You might know know about this one, but Ledger actually ad-libbed the infamous clap which grew to be one of the most iconic Joker scenes in film history.
After he was arrested by Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) he sat in his jail cell alone as Mayor Garcia (Nestor Carbonell) showed up to look over Gotham’s latest wave of crime and promoted Gordon to the position of Police Commissioner (because Joker had already killed the previous one).
As the officers in the room applauded the announcement Ledger begins to slowly clap along, never changing his facial expression, creating an unsettling and brilliant scene.
His Signature Makeup
It was actually Heath Ledgers brilliant idea to smear white chalk all over his hands to remind the audience that The Joker did his own makeup. This created a messy, unkempt, signature style that we haven't seen before.
The Dark Knight actually changed Joker's origin story a bit here. In the film, he has a Glasgow smile, a wound caused by making a cut from the corners of a victim's mouth up to the ears, leaving a nasty scar in the shape of a smile. His trademark chalk-white skin and red lips are actually self-applied makeup rather than the result of chemical bleaching.
And that neon green hair is forever burned into our minds...
Why So Serious?
Heath Ledger's Joker delivered three simple words, "Why so serious?" in such a chilling way, that it became one of the most iconic lines in the supervillain's history. In the film, he told the tormented story of how he received his trademark smile.
While he held a knife inside Gambol’s mouth, he went on to explain in grim detail, "Wanna know how I got these scars? My father was…a drinker. And a fiend. And one night he goes off crazier than usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself. He doesn’t like that. Not-one-bit. So…me watching…he takes the knife to her, laughing while he does it! He turns to me, and he says, “Why so serious, son?” Comes at me with the knife…”Why so serious?” He sticks the blade in my mouth…”Let’s put a smile on that face!”
Seconds later, he slashed up Gambol's face.