Running Joker 

Dear Christopher Nolan,

Do you mind if I call you Chris?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Joker recently. Like many people, I was blown away by the performance Heath Ledger gave in your most recent Batman film. His sadistic portrayal of the Joker, and the complex ties he has to the Dark Knight, revitalized the comic book film as serious cinematic literature. Critics have been quick to praise your movie as more than just a summer blockbuster. It’s Heat with face paint. The Departed with rubber tights. The Passion of the Christ with a sense of humor.

(That last one might just be me.)

But I don’t really need to tell you that, do I? As you sit in your bathtub full of money, using your licensed Dark Knight shampoo, I’m sure you have your personal assistant read off your most recent achievements. You’ve got the fans on your side, pushing The Dark Knight to the top of the IMDB user ratings chart — beating such heavy hitters as The Godfather and Schindler’s List. And as critics warm up to the idea of Ledger being nominated for, or possibly winning, an Oscar, history seems to be on his side. The Academy loves this kind of unsettling performance … Javier Bardem, Forest Whitaker, and Charlize Theron all say hello.

So, yeah, rest on your laurels, but now you’re kind of in a sticky situation. What do you do with the Joker in the next installment of the Batman franchise? Do you recast the role and risk people hating you for messing with perfection? Or do you punt on all the dramatic tension that the Joker could add to your next movie? Imagine a Silence of the Lambs-esque prison sequence, with the Joker claiming to stay in Arkham only because he needs a vacation. I just did, and now I have a nosebleed.

After all, you wouldn’t be asking someone to reinvent the role. No, you would be casting someone to play Heath Ledger playing the Joker. Ledger’s successor could recreate his mannerisms, and, with you writing the dialogue, carry that character over to another film. There’s even a comic-book-movie precedent for this — Bryan Singer didn’t cast Brandon Routh to do his own take on Superman. He cast Routh to play Christopher Reeves playing Superman — and that worked out pretty well.

So you pick someone who can do what Ledger did, and while that might be hard, it’s far from impossible. You need an actor who looks a lot like Ledger, but not just a doppelgänger – this guy would need to have talent, too. Maybe someone around the same age, good-looking, a solid indie pedigree (you know, to keep the critics happy) and some action movies to boot, so he’s not a pain in the ass to direct.

Someone a lot like Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

(Look him up on IMDB. Go ahead. I’ll wait.)

Why Gordon-Levitt? For starters, you’ve got the physical resemblance. Gordon-Levitt is a few inches shorter and less muscular, but his facial details are eerily reminiscent of Ledger. Same long face, same half-smile, same scraggly mane of hair. Basically, if he is not already bombarded with offers to play Ledger in a dozen different biopics, it’s only because producers are waiting for that “too soon” phase to pass. Hell, as Ledger’s co-star in 10 Things I Hate About You, he might even have some insight into how the actor worked (if not, at least it’ll give the press something to Twitter about).

And, if you look at their bodies of work, Gordon-Levitt might be on course to be the better actor. Two years younger than Ledger, Gordon-Levitt has already accepted edgier roles than Ledger, proving he can definitely play dark and determined. Watch his character take several beatings in the 2005 gem Brick, and continue undeterred. Or watch him shoot up his own wedding presents in this year’s Stop-Loss, taking an almost (dare I say?) Joker-like pleasure in the destruction of his happy memories. And just for good measure, have I mentioned that he will be playing Cobra Commander in the 2009 G.I. Joe movie? This means he’s already experienced in playing the live-action, summer-blockbuster version of a cartoon arch-villain. Not a lot of actors can put that in their cover letters.

The bottom line, Chris, is that you’ve earned a little bit of creative leeway with the fans to do what you want to with the franchise. If you think that the Joker is done as a character, well, agree to disagree. But, if you do want him back for the next movie, give Gordon-Levitt a shot. I said earlier that any good actor could play Ledger’s Joker. That doesn’t mean that any good actor should.

To misappropriate the campaign slogan of Harvey Dent, I believe in Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Matthew Monagle



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