How could anyone who knows that Heath Ledger is dead (everyone) pretend to objectively evaluate Heath Ledger's performance in "The Dark Knight?"
I certainly can't. But I'm going to try, because the problem has been on my brain since I left the theater.
So here goes:
Heath Ledger is alive and well; he never died and won't die anytime soon for all I know. And I believe that, in his performance as The Joker in "The Dark Knight," he has showcased a range of talents that I never would have expected he possessed. He plays a very convincing murderous sociopath, a role I never would have imagined him pulling off with much success given his previous work. It's really neat that they took The Joker in such a dark direction because it made for a really interesting dynamic between Batman and The Joker. Oscar worthy? I guess, maybe. Either way it'll be cool to see what they do with The Joker in the next one.
Heath Ledger is gone; we're back to reality. And I believe that, in his performance as The Joker in "The Dark Knight," he has showcased a range of talents that I never would have expected he possessed. His presence is positively riveting whenever he is on the screen. I have never seen such a subtle, nuanced performance. I ended up wanting to see more of The Joker than Batman. And his lines near the end held an eery double meaning. In fact, his creepy character and his creepy lines and his creepy mannerisms were made a lot creepier by the fact that I know he's dead in real life. I caught myself more than once remembering that I was watching his last performance. I think that he's a deserving recipient of a posthumous Oscar.
The problem on my brain is that I believe that both of these evaluations are equally true. I don't think I'm the only one who can't objectively evaluate his performance. Almost every review I've read has lauded him with every possible adjective of praise. I believe his performance is remarkable. But if Heath had lived, I think we'd be taking some shine off of the apple.
History will likely remember this movie as Heath's last film, not the triumphant return of Christopher Nolan's dark knight. One of the guys I went to the film with immediately started mocking Christian Bale's over-the-top 'menacing growl,' and we laughed. Batman seemed less real this time, less human.
Beyond that complaint and a thirty-minute-too-long run time, I have nothing but praise for the movie. I predict that the box office report on Monday will prove that Batman has surpassed all competitors as the biggest earner of the summer.
Which will present two problems for the franchise going forward:
1. How can the producers of the next film leave The Joker out? The temptation for them will be to find someone to take over the role after the success this film is about to have. Why? Because that's how big studios think. If this film is as big as I think it will be, you can bet that there will be a lot of old men in suits next week brainstorming a short-list of candidates for the future Joker. They're not going to give a plugged nickel about character continuity or the hard-core fans. Mainstream fans don't care about continuity and the hard-core fans aren't the target audience anymore if The Dark Knight franchise is going to do as well as I think it will. You'll hear a lot of outcry if they try to bring The Joker back, but ultimately curiosity will win. And what if they got an interesting casting like a Johnny Depp, or a Sean Penn, who could redefine the role again?
2. How interesting will Batman be if they do leave The Joker out? Especially now that we've had a taste of how exciting and vital their dynamic can be? Is it time to trot out The Riddler? The Penguin? God forbid, Mr. Freeze again? The Joker is Batman's arch-nemesis, and the only villain in the mythology with as much depth as the protagonist. Batman the character is ultimately defined by the villains he faces. If it's back to jewel thieves and freeze rays, the Batman renaissance of the new millenium will have run its course.
When I brought up these questions to my friends after the movie, they disagreed. They thought that there would be no way to do it without Heath now that he had done it so masterfully. I definitely agree that there would be no way to do exactly that Joker again, and I definitely think that the studios would risk upsetting the core fans like my friends and I if they trotted out a sub-par replacement.
But I also know that these $100 million budgets don't pay for themselves, and if The Joker puts butts in the seats then we're likely going to get more of The Joker, whether it's The Joker we want or not.