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Why & How The Joker CAN Return
Author: Mark Hughes
January 23, 2010
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Since the tragic death of Heath Ledger and the subsequent praise of his performance as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT, fans have debated the merits of recasting the role for any future Batman films. This debate has resurfaced in recent days due to rumors that some major character (not necessarily The Joker) might return in any potential third Christopher Nolan film in the Batman franchise. I'd like to talk first about the debate over whether or not a recast and return of the Joker in the next film should be done, and then move to the question of whether it can be done (and if so, how).

Opposition to a recasting of the role and a return of the character in a third Nolan film make several good arguments. The most important ones are that the character was well portrayed in THE DARK KNIGHT amid a perfect Joker story, why immediately follow that with another Joker story when there are so many other strong villains worthy of screen interpretation? The second, and perhaps most common, good argument against a recast-return is that it is too soon after Ledger's death and Oscar-winning performance to try to bring back the same character with yet another new portrayal.

Some add to this the question of respect for Ledger, but that is not an issue I personally agree with at all, since it suggests that a recast-return would amount to disrespect for Ledger. That is not an accusation I agree with or find very helpful, so I won't consider it here.

I'll first explain what parts of these points I agree with, and then what parts I disagree with, to make an argument that in fact I do think a return of the Joker could and would work in a third Christopher Nolan film. After that, I will more directly address the question of how a recasting could and would work, why it would avoid mere imitation and bad comparison to Ledger's performance, and why a recast in a third Christopher Nolan film is perhaps preferable than a recast by a later creative team.

I agree that there is a long list of terrific Batman villains from which to draw and many who have never been portrayed on film. There are several whom I hope to see in a Nolan Batman film (notably, Hugo Strange), so I am in agreement with the sentiment behind this argument. However, I don't think that a return of the Joker would inherently prevent the use of another great villain, nor would it need to sideline that villain.

A third film could have as its central plot a villain like Hugo Strange, surrounded with perhaps a couple of other villains (I've suggested Killer Croc and Bane as replacement "Monster Men", but others such as Catwoman could also be introduced in different ways instead). However, the main narrative and themes of the film could not only include the main plot, but elements related to the continuation of the relationship between Batman and The Joker. How would the Joker react to no longer being the center of Batman's attention? Consider the events of TDK, the effect it all had on the Joker and his perception of himself with Batman, and how his sudden extrication from events might be hard for him to accept.

A subplot about this aspect of the Joker as he relates to Batman and Gotham could be an important addition to the storyline. To any storyline, in fact, and exactly because it is so soon after the events of TDK. We need not see an entire new storyline about the Joker menacing all of Gotham. The Joker as a supporting character, much like Lecter's role in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was not the main plot but instead the most important narrative element making up subplots and character arcs.

As for the question of it being too soon after Ledger's death and his Oscar win, I would say that immediately following TDK and amid speculation about getting started on a new Batman film immediately, this argument eventually gained resonance with me. I shifted my stance to one in support of delaying the Joker's return until later, feeling a recast would be distracting and possibly too hard for fans and audiences to buy into so soon after TDK.

Things are quite different now. Any third Nolan film would not release until probably 2012 at the earliest. Four years after the release of TDK, I think reactions and sentiment will be quite different. It will likely be easier for the filmmakers to have better perspective and distance from the tragic circumstances leading up to TDK's release, it will give fans more time as well, and audiences won't be faced with accepting yet a third actor in the role just a couple of years after Ledger won an award for his performance.

This is not to say the sadness of Ledger's death is any less than it was before. But time does heal wounds, and the truth is that the people who honestly suffered real loss were those who knew him personally and worked with him. True, we as fans connect with actors who give life to characters we've grown up with, and we share a common experience with them that helps us feel a sense of the sadness and tragedy when one of those actors dies. But if family and friends can move on and recover, we should be able to do so as well. And I am convinced we will, and that most audiences will be able to accept a new actor in the role by the time of a potential third Nolan film is released.

I've always felt that if Nolan wants to tell another Joker story, he should. If it is the best story and he wants to tell it, it would be a mistake not to do so. Ask yourself two questions. First, "If Ledger had lived, would you want The Joker in the next film?" Second, "After such a great introduction in TDK, do you want the return of this character handled by a totally different filmmaker, not only missing Ledger but Nolan as well?"

After such a perfect introduction in TDK, if the Joker is going to appear again (and he will, it is only a question of when), who do you want telling the very next Joker story? Who do you want continuing that story and arc between The Batman and The Joker? At the very least, who do you want telling the story of how that Joker reacts to being gone, and how he comes back, and how Batman reacts when he must face him yet again (now that not only Rachel but also Dent has died, and the city hunts Batman as a killer)?

If Nolan returns, it will almost surely be his very last Batman film. And since a return of the Joker means the role must be recast, it raises perhaps the most important point of all in the equation for me: who better to decide on Ledger's successor -- the person who will pick up the mantle of this Joker and continue it in future films -- than Nolan?

So we come to the question of how such a recast can be done. Can it be done? Yes, absolutely it can.

Many people thought it would be close to impossible to find someone capable of crafting a new Joker on screen after the widely hailed performance in 1989ís BATMAN by Jack Nicholson. Nicholson gave a terrific performance, some say one of his best (a sentiment I happen to share). It was faithful to the character's history and persona in the source material, a wonderful mix of playfulness and humor alongside homicidal rage. There was real concern that any new performance would suffer unavoidable comparison and fail to live up to the high standard Nicholson set.

We know how that turned out. There are many top modern actors with the skill and heart to step into such a difficult situation and deliver unexpected greatness. Many names have been suggested, among them Daniel Day Lewis, Johnny Depp, Michael Shannon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Pitt, and even Leonardo DiCaprio. There are also no doubt plenty of left-field choices to consider, such as Sam Rockwell.

The point is, we could name many excellent actors who, when we remove personal emotional attachment and related concerns, would stand out as excellent possibilities and whom we could probably imagine turning in well-received performances in the role. However great we all know Ledger's performance was, it is no insult to him or his work to admit that it is not impossible to find another actor capable of delivering another award-winning performance.

Some feel that this is where the main concern really comes in. Namely, that any new performance will either be a hollow impersonation based on Ledger's own performance, or a complete re-imagining of the character entirely apart from the character Ledger created on screen.

Neither option, this reasoning says, can appropriately follow up (in the very next film) Ledger's performance. Better, the thinking goes, to just wait for a new creative team and direction for the franchise, and go with the complete re-interpretation of The Joker from scratch.

The problem I have with this concept is that it treats The Joker himself as a nonentity. Instead, it is Ledger-as-the-Joker we saw in TDK, and that is what makes it supposedly impossible to properly recast in a Nolan film. This inseparability between Ledger and the Joker actually ties the Joker himself in TDK solely to Ledger, and that I disagree with strongly.

The Joker in TDK was a fully realized, living and breathing personification of The Joker. And yes, Heath Ledger is the man who brought this character to life in front of the camera. But this Joker existed before cameras started rolling. He is derived directly from source material, identifiable in different regards within many different stories in the comics. He moved onto the pages of the script through a process that built him into a whole persona within the world Nolan created in BATMAN BEGINS. The creative team envisioned him, gave him a personality and motive and worldview, gave him words and thoughts. Costumers and makeup artists devised his appearance to reflect the man who was taking form on the written pages and the minds of the creative team.

Ledger played a role in this, a big one. He brought new dynamics and perspective to the character the creative team had built up, and he worked with the costumers and makeup artists as well. But the design of his appearance, how it reflected the inner workings of the man's mind as already taking firm shape on the written page and in Christopher Nolan's imaginings, is a character even before the flesh-and-blood man steps in to breath actual life into him.

To me, the Joker in TDK should be treated as a "real person". Consider that the events in TDK actually happened, portraying this man crafted by the writers and director and in consultation with artists of costume and makeup. Ledger portrayed this real person on screen, just as many actors have portrayed historical figures in adaptations of biographies or historical narratives.

The story continues after the jump!

Anthony Hopkins played Nixon in Oliver Stone's film of the same name. Later, Frank Langella portrayed Nixon in the film FROST/NIXON. Both gave great performances portraying the same person. But they each portrayed him at different periods in his life, under different circumstances and frame of mind, and amid very different and changing attitudes about the man in the events that transpired in each film.

Neither performance was simple mimicry of Nixon himself or of any previous performances. They did not rely on pat mannerisms. They got into the character of the man at the heart of the role, dug into his mind and then into their own for inspiration. They crafted characterizations arising from the situations and the real person of Nixon in those settings. These were quite different portrayals, each excellent and each true to the real persona of Nixon. Similarities existed in only some regards, because this was the same man they were each playing on screen and as a real man consistency in his character existed in each story, in the events and his reactions to them. This is how I think about The Joker. A new Nolan film about the same character, treated as a "real person", can absolutely be written. It would reflect how this man acted and what he thought and did, how he changed, over time. A new set of events, but the same man at a different time in different circumstances. The final step then becomes finding the best actor who can come in and consider this Joker a "real person" and give their own performance of him in the new story.

This avoids finding an "impersonator" or stepping in to try and create yet another brand new character. He exists already, he is alive in Nolan's world now. The man who stood in his shoes the first time is lost to us, and that is a tremendous loss, but it does not prevent another man from stepping into those shoes, because the character is still alive.

The Joker is there, waiting.

Recasting and bringing back the Joker is a very sensitive subject. We have no knowledge at this time that Nolan is considering any such thing, or would decide to do it even if he considers it. If Nolan does consider it, and chooses to leave The Joker out of a third Batman film, I will support that decision and happily await whatever story and characters he chooses to bring to the next film. There are, as we all know, plenty to choose from.

But if Nolan returns for a third film and considers a return of The Joker, I will support him in that decision as well, and it is now in fact the decision that I personally prefer. Because this will probably be Nolan's final film. And the fact is that The Joker will eventually return, it is simply a question of when. So I would like to see Nolan make the decision. Nolan helped create this Joker as a real person, and worked closely with Ledger to bring this character to life. That, in my view, makes him the one to choose the recasting. It would make the process one that ensures the next appearance by the Joker is portrayed by another artists interpreting the real person crafted for TDK, and that this person appears again on screen.

Without that, I feel that a new creative team will come in and that The Joker's next appearance will indeed be a completely new creation and person. Meaning The Joker, the real person so many people worked together so very hard to bring to life in TDK, will truly have died in every way. That would be another sad loss, and not one that I think Heath Ledger or anyone else would want.

If Nolan wants to pursue another Joker story, I feel he should. Moreover, I hope he does, so that the return of this character and the selection of Ledger's successor are handled by the man I feel is most qualified and the best choice to make those decisions. It does not mean we will be denied other great villains, nor does it mean an impersonation or any disrespect for Ledger's performance. It will happen eventually, it can be done right, and to me that makes it easy to say Nolan can bring The Joker back, and is the best man for the job.

Longtime BOF'er and site contributor Mark Hughes is a screenwriter living in Maryland.
He is an avid film fan and a longtime collector and reader of comics.

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