The makeup. The walk. The cockeyed posture and bubbling psychosis: For legions of Batman fans across the globe, Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker in "The Dark Knight" is no laughing matter. So why are so many people smiling?
"I love it," "Hellboy" director Guillermo del Toro gushed to MTV News. "Every time I see more of Heath Ledger's Joker, I like it more. That's a good sign because if something is going the wrong way, the more you see about it, the less you ingratiate yourself with it."
Del Toro isn't alone. Just days after the first extended "Dark Knight" trailer leaked online, fans and critics alike are singing the praises of Ledger's portrayal, which many are already calling a pitch-perfect dramatization of Batman's greatest nemesis, the Clown Prince of Crime.
It's a difficult role for any actor to pull off, say fans, a delicate balancing act that straddles the line between crazy and crazy-scary. That Ledger appears to pull it off so effortlessly is nothing less than a testament to director Chris Nolan's vision, "Batman: The Animated Series" producer and writer Paul Dini insisted.
"Heath Ledger's Joker seems perfectly suited to the dark Gotham City created by Christopher Nolan," Dini asserted. "He seems more street than any other version of the Joker, with his clownish visage recalling hastily applied graffiti paint rather than chemically dyed skin."
Dini is legendary among Batman aficionados for his work on the Emmy Award-winning "Batman: The Animated Series." The show's more famous canonical influences include an adopted redesign of Mr. Freeze (as well as a new back story for the super-villain) and the introduction of the Joker's demented sidekick, Harley Quinn — but it was his work with the Joker himself that often earned Dini the loudest praise. His version of the character (voiced by Mark Hamill) could turn on a dime, from twisted psychopath to demented prankster — always ready with a laugh or a gag for his enemies.
Dini sees very little of that schizophrenia in Ledger's performance, a quality that he believes makes the character that much more terrifying.
"His attitude is mordant and sardonic as opposed to manic," Dini reflected. "No goofy gags or puns for him. This Joker doesn't split sides ... he splits skulls."
As much of an influence Dini's noirish vision may have had on the darker themes of Nolan's Batman universe, no artist, perhaps, has made as big an impact on "Begins" and "Dark Knight" as Jeph Loeb, the legendary comics author of "Batman: The Long Halloween," a 13-issue limited series that examined the origins of Harvey "Two-Face" Dent and the rise of Batman's familiar rogues gallery after the fall of crime boss Carmine Falcone. By his own admission, Nolan credited the series as a powerful inspiration for his take on Batman.
The respect and admiration is mutual, Loeb said.
"I saw the trailer and loved it," he enthused. "I'm as big a fan of Nolan's and [writer David] Goyer as they are of me! They talked extensively about the influence of my work on both films — so what's there not to like?!"
In particular, Loeb singled out Ledger's Joker as particularly terrifying, contrasting it with previous incarnations of the character that might have been too "clowny."
"I was never a big Nicholson fan," Loeb said of Jack's work as the Joker in Tim Burton's "Batman." "[Ledger] however feels just about right. I eagerly anticipate more!"
"If any franchise can benefit from being grittier and darker, it's Batman," Del Toro added. "With this I find him really scary. I find him really, really edgy and scary."
With a scarier, grittier Joker on the loose in Gotham, what exactly is a crime-fighter to do?
Find out how the heck he got out in the first place, joked Adam West, best known to a whole generation of fans as TV's Batman.
"The Joker? Heath Ledger?" the icon playfully questioned. "I thought the Joker was still serving hard time in Gotham State Prison."
POW! BAM! Ledger's Joker arrives in all his glory July 18.
Check out everything we've got on "The Dark Knight."
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