Destroy All Monsters: The Joker Effect

Matt Brown, Columnist

The casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight has become the cure-all response to any outcries of disappointment about the casting of any major pop cultural characters in any major film, ever. (Heck, it nearly even worked on Batffleck.) Citing Heath Ledger's Joker as the ne plus ultra of out-of-the-box casting decisions works because that casting decision, itself, was based on such unassailably good reasoning.

When he cast Ledger as the Joker, Christopher Nolan was seeing ahead of Ledger's development curve as a movie star, instead of behind it. He was also seeing the foundation of accomplished physicality that underlay even Ledger's least interesting roles, which would pipeline directly into Nolan's intent for the character in The Dark Knight. The director correctly anticipated a perfect storm, that day in 2007 (albeit one with one more, wholly unpredicted and horrible, final movement). The result will loom over the genre filmmaking landscape for decades.

The great legacy of the Joker effect is that it provides solid ammunition for filmmakers and creative talent to hire established character actors, not movie stars, to play high-profile genre roles. It also provides incentive for those actors to take those roles. I'm sure there are a lot of actors in Hollywood who think, or want to think, they have a Joker in them: a performance interpretation so wildly original that it will help to define the genre.

This sort of thinking, on the part of both the actors and the directors, explains a whole lot of casting we've seen in the superhero space over the course of the six years since The Dark Knight. It explains (boo!) Mickey Rourke in Iron Man 2 and (yay!) Ben Kingsley in Iron Man 3.

It explains why you end up with a guy who is maybe the best actor alive, Michael Shannon, duking it out in a CGI super-suit in a movie that has no idea how to use him, while Shannon does his goddamndest to figure out a way through the madness. This is not, by any means, a perfect system.

When the Joker effect is working properly, you get brilliant blue-ocean casting strategy, actual star-making turns, like Tom Hiddleston's Loki in Thor - an instance where a genre director actually had the wherewithal to put a genuine unknown in the lead villain role of a major franchise picture, just because the actor was actually that good.

An interesting, but somewhat more worrying, side effect of the Joker effect is the other side of the coin: the design of the characters themselves. Ledger's Joker is not an incarnation of the character from the comic, in any form (although the comic incarnation has, of course, deftly shuffled in Ledger's direction since then). Like most of Nolan's bat-characters, Ledger's Joker is more of a real-world fever dream you might have if you glimpsed portions of the Joker's iconography without context, and then let your subconscious try to put the pieces together under the influence of Nyquil.

As a character design, it was an entirely canny move for The Dark Knight - creating a version of the Joker that fit the Chicago-Gotham landscape perfectly, while still being, if anything, scarier than the guy in the comic book - but it's important to remember that it was not a "faithful" adaptation in any way we can use the term.

Performances such as these are built more around the process of gaining a "take" on the character that can be articulated in the context of the film you're making, rather than remaining slavish to a perception of the importance of the source material, and I'm fine with it. When you don't do it, you get Christopher Eccleston as whatsisface in Thor: The Dark World, as unmemorable a comic book character on the big screen as I can recall in the decade-plus since Spider-Man.

Which, of course, brings me around to Jesse Eisenberg's casting, last week, as Lex Luthor in the Man of Steel sequel. As with any of the decisions made on the first Man of Steel film, if we are to remove from the equation the fact that Zack Snyder is incompetent*, the casting of the guy who played the guy from Facebook as the supervillain who defines the word has the faint whiff of against-the-grain genius about it.

I like Eisenberg a whole lot, and his casting in Batman vs. Superman is the first thing about the project that seems genuinely inspired. This ain't by any means the Luthor I grew up with, which is good: the Luthor I grew up with would (at best) be stale on the big screen, or (at worst) an outright failure.

I like that Eisenberg's casting veritably screams of the actor and the filmmakers having a "take" on Luthor that is far more evolved and conceptually original than the early stumping from the fanbase to have Bryan Cranston transplant his Heisenberg performance wholesale into Batman vs. Superman.

But I do hope the temptation to simply cast against type, and then run with it, is not becoming the governing factor in decisions like this. To return to the Ben Kingsley example above (spoilers!), once you have Trevor Slattery, the toast of Croydon, shucking the Mandarin robes to take the piss (well, in his case, the shit) out of the whole concept of supervillains, the game is kind of over on iconoclasm for iconoclasm's sake.

Repeating past successes ad nauseum is an unsustainable strategy; the reason casting Ledger worked so well in the first place was that it was smart, not rote. I can't see Eisenberg troubling Metropolis while dressed in a glowing Kryptonite super-suit, and hopefully, I'm not meant to. Casting against type for its own sake just shows how little you understand the world you're building. But here's hoping.

*unfortunately, we cannot remove Zack Snyder from this, or any, equation.


Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Twitter.

Around the Internet:
  • tman418

    At the end of the day, I guess we'll just have to wait to see the film before making a judgement. Hindsight is 20/20, but at the end of the day, NO ONE (except for maybe Nolan) knew that Heath Ledger would be that good. Did Heath Ledger NOT audition for the role?

    I admit completely that Affleck would not have been my 1st choice for Batman. But I think it's a cool idea. Now, I'm not saying that the role of Batman doesn't require good acting, but I can only imagine that the MoS sequel is going to be more about the action than anything else. And also, from what I've read, Snyder & Co. have said that the MoS 2 is going to be mainly a Superman film, so Affleck should have some time to perfect his role.

    But Eisenberg as Luthor? Eh, I feel like he's a bit too young for the role. And I cannot imagine that guy bald. Seriously, wasn't Bryan Cranston supposed to do the role?

    The truth is, DC & Warner Bros have no idea what they're doing with this live-action cinematic Justice League universe. They decided to do it only because of the success of The Avengers. According to Michael Shannon, all filming for Man of Steel (that required the cast members to be present) was finished by February 2012, months before Avengers came out in theaters. And it was only in post-production, with CGI, that they decided to tie Superman's universe with other DC Superheros (such as the WayneTech satellite that Zod and Superman destroy in orbit, etc).

    Another reason why I can tell that they didn't think things through is the fact that they delayed so much. They were clearly waiting for Christian Bale & Christopher Nolan to decide whether or not to use Batman from the Dark Knight series. MoS 2 was supposed to be a 2014 film, but now it's been pushed back by 2 years all because of this "Hey let's bring Batman in here" fiasco.

    Btw, any word on what they're doing with Green Lantern? No way in hell will Mr. Reynolds be allowed to come back and reprise the role. But is it too late for a reboot? Will he be in JL movie? Chances are if they reboot him, it's gonna be after the 1st JL movie.

  • Kjseo

    I love Snyder. Sucker Punch, I thought, combined novel, exciting filmmaking with a risky/daring storyline. I agree Michael Shannon wasn't utilized at his best in Man of Steel, though. I hope with the sequel they get William Hoy (Snyder's go-to editor) on board, because MoS was cut too generically.

  • Mr. Cavin

    Whoa, I disagree with every single thing! Just kidding.

    I would like to know where I'm supposed to go to get the same glowing estimation of Michael Shannon everybody else seems to have. I mean he's charismatic as all hell, sure, but all I've ever seen him articulate is wooden, explosively pressurized men with exasperating inner struggles; and while that demonstrates gravitas it doesn't demonstrate range.

  • Kurt

    Check out is utterly fantastic cameo in Jeff Nicols' MUD. Amazing.

  • Mr. Cavin

    Will do, thanks!

  • deanareeno

    You should also check out his performance as band manager Kim Fowley in The Runaways.

  • Yes. Yes. Yes. I don't have any issues with the Eisenberg casting. Of course, there's still the Snyder factor, so I'm keeping expectations in check.

  • Yojimbo

    I enjoyed 300 and the Dawn of the Dead remake.Watchmen should have not been filmed would have made a dynamite HBO series and Ozymandias was woefully miscast even though Matthew Goode is a good actor.

    As for Ledger's portrayal of the Joker being scarier than the comic books Matt please read or reread The killing Joke by Moore and Bolland.

  • Hiroaki Johnson

    Shouldn't forget RD Jr. While his comeback had been stewing for a while, it's not like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang did crushing numbers.

  • arturo

    Dawn Of The Dead remake was one of the best horror remakes in the past 20 years, 300 was good, i'm a huge fan of Watchmen (directors cut) Sucker Punch was silly but fun, and Man Of Steel was a solid attempt in the Superman cannon. So i don't have a problem with Zack Snyder and neither does Christopher Nolan. And i'm sure the Superman/Batman movie will be great, so i remain a fan and more than happy to put it out there..

  • Morphic

    Michael Shannon became a parody of himself in MOS. It's hard to come back from that. What I see going on here casting-wise is the suits pushing to break into some additional demographics (especially the female and the more eclectic 'geek' types that would not normally go and see, say an Ironman movie, but will go and see Eisenberg in anything remotely worthwhile). It's jut smart marketing. The sequel is already a guaranteed box office success (believe me they know their numbers extremely well) So I can see the line of thinking here. ...as for the actors, you would be foolish not to take the money and run with it. Especially anno 2014 where you are only part of the Hollywood elite when you are in a superhero franchise.

  • Zeto

    I rather prefer Jack Nicholson's Joker....

  • [A]

    I think you also prefer to read only the headlines..

  • Zeto

    I have read all the article and I agree 100% with it.

  • Ronald Swanson

    Your Troll Camouflage is simply a white sheet.

  • Zeto

    Do you like Ledger better? It's your choice. Not mine.

  • Michael_456123

    " if we are to remove from the equation the fact that Zack Snyder is incompetent*"

    This made my day.

  • Pa Kent Says Maybe

    Sure did. So-much so, it almost made up for all that Nolan ahead-of-the-curve nonsense in the previous paragraphs.

    Yeah, yeah. Nolan's so brilliant. Isn't he the one who gave Snyder the go-ahead in the first place?

  • [A]

    It's good to see someone, in a well-known movie site, calling Zack Snyder incompetent. That guy's got way too many fans around.. which is inexplicable.

  • I wouldn't call myself a fan of Zack Snyder, but I've generally liked all his films (even Sucker Punch).

  • Kurt

    it makes me bit of a black sheep, but I have to say that I have grown to quite like his big screen version of WATCHMEN. Otherwise, I tend to like the trailers and opening credit sequences for the rest of his work, and very little else.

  • [A]

    haha, yes, trailers and credit sequences, easily his best stuff. also, I think he's got a good ear for soundtracks. but that's about it

  • Zwanster

    Apart from the soundtrack in Watchmen, and Sucker Punch...

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