Heath Ledger the joker

The Dark Knight co-writer Jonathan Nolan admits even he wasn't sure about Heath Ledger as The Joker

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Jul 18, 2018

The Dark Knight turns 10 years old this month, and so fans, critics, and filmmakers alike have all spent at least a little time revisiting one of the most influential superhero films ever made. It's an understandable instinct, and also an impossible thing to do without talking about the late Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning performance as The Joker in the film. Even now, a decade removed from the film's release, it remains one of the greatest comic book-inspired performances in film, and also one of the greatest moments of vindication for a superhero movie director.

Ledger was famously labeled a terrible choice for the Clown Prince of Crime when it was announced he was joining the film's cast, and the fan backlash to the decision remains one of the most infamous moments in the history of superhero movies. It's easier to decry casting decisions online now than it's ever been before, and yet even through a 2018 lens the swift and fierce response to Ledger's casting seems particularly intense. What's easier to forget looking back, though, is that the fans weren't the only people who had to be convinced. Other people making The Dark Knight had their doubts, too.

One of them was Westworld co-showrunner Jonathan Nolan, who co-wrote the film and was there alongside his brother, director Christopher Nolan, as he was trying to figure out the right approach for The Joker character that had been teased at the very end of Batman Begins. Nolan was recently part of a "genre roundtable" of creators for The Hollywood Reporter — which also included Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead), Simon Kinberg (X-Men: Dark Phoenix), Melissa Rosenberg (Jessica Jones), Shawn Levy (Stranger Things), Jason Blum (The First Purge), and Salim Akil (Black Lightning) — and the discussion turned to the pressure of fan expectations.

Levy admitted that the Stranger Things team spent "maybe 20 seconds" considering somehow reviving the character of Barb after she became a fan-favorite in Season 1 of that series, which led Nolan to tell his own story about learning a lesson in sticking to your guns despite fan outcry. It wasn't something he did himself, though. It was something he learned from watching his brother.

"I wrote The Dark Knight in 2005. In 2006, Chris came to try to figure out 'OK, we're gonna try to tackle Joker,' and [Jack] Nicholson owned the role ... That role felt, I mean, it was an enormous challenge for us, and Chris had a good meeting with Heath Ledger. And no one got it — I didn't get it, the studio didn't get it," Nolan said. "Everyone was coming at Chris and saying 'We don't see it.' And the fan community was … I mean, we were f**king pilloried for it. 'This is a disaster. This is the worst casting decision ever made.' And Chris just hunkered down and stuck to his guns, and just kept moving along. Right? Respectfully. It was a question of not giving the fans what they're asking for but what they want. Right? What they really want — which is, 'Let's find a really f**kin' serious actor, somebody who's going to come in here and just tear this role to pieces.'"

So, Ledger got the part, Nolan carried on, and an Academy Award-winning icon was born. For many fans and critics, it was a chance to admit they were pleasantly surprised by what ended up onscreen. For Christopher Nolan, it was the reward for standing by his decision. For Jonathan Nolan, it was a lesson in going with your gut.

"Beyond writing, casting is the most dangerous moment in every project, and the fans have extremely strong feelings," he said. "They know these characters. They think they know as well as you, and that's totally justified, but you've got to kinda stick to your guns."