Script Written by Michael Wynands
The Best Villain of the Century
No one does the bad guy thing better than he! Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’ll be presenting you with The Best Villain of the Century.
In this video, we’ll be discussing our pick for the single greatest, most influential and iconic villain to have graced the big screen from the year 2000 to present. In keeping with our list of Top 20 Best Movie Villains of the Century So Far, that honor goes to Heath Ledger’s Joker, from Christoper Nolan’s 2008 film “The Dark Knight”.
The silver screen isn’t lacking larger-than-life villains, but in the last couple of decades, such characters have grown bolder than ever. Advancements in CGI have allowed evildoers to take on more diverse forms , while human villains seem to be competing with one another for the biggest onscreen presence - for better or worse. As far as the latter category of villain is concerned, it’s not a stretch to say that actors are likely chasing after Heath Ledger's Joker. A monumental performance that received widespread critical acclaim, this incarnation of the Joker has served, since 2008, as the villain by which all others are judged. So without further ado, let’s dive into why that is.
A villain’s impact is determined by two key factors: performance and material. We’ll talk more about Ledger’s performance later, but first we need to acknowledge the iconic status of the Joker. Even when pulling villains from various media, the Clown Prince of Crime often takes the crown - or at least lands in the top 3. Debuting in Batman #1 on April 25th, 1940, this character was meant to be killed off in the very same issue, but instead became the Caped Crusader’s archnemesis. With his elaborate schemes, disregard for human life, obsessive fixation with Batman and deviant psychology, he’s earned his place of prominence. And over the years, he’s found success not only in comics and on the big screen, but on television, in video games and beyond. Heck, the Joker’s even got his very own merchandising empire, which is something that very few villains can say.
Second only to the comics, cinema is the medium in which the Joker has made the biggest impact. And Heath Ledger isn’t alone in having delivered an iconic performance as the Clown Prince of Crime. Jack Nicholson’s take on the character is considered among the acting legend’s most memorable roles, while Joaquin Phoenix took home the Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in the 2019 “Joker” film. And yet, even against steep competition, Heath Ledger’s Joker is the one that we keep coming back to. An agent of chaos, a criminal mastermind, a violent psychopath and wildly unpredictable, he’s a dynamic villain without equal or precedent.
Part of this Joker’s appeal is that he’s such a departure from previous versions of the character. The scars, the long hair, and the messy makeup actually disappointed some comic book purists when the casting and character design were revealed in the lead up to the film’s release. But then again, everything about this Joker was risky! He’s got a dark sense of humor, but it’s a stark departure from the candy-colored, carnivalesque sight gags and over-the-top humor of his comic book counterpart. Like the comic book Joker, Heath Ledger’s Joker is disinterested in conventional criminal exploits. But whereas the comic book character seems to be driven solely by his own psychopathic whims, Ledger’s character is far more outspoken about his desire to spread chaos; he’s got a philosophy, however strange it may be. In short, the way Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan wrote the Joker was a major gamble, but one that ultimately paid off.
The Joker, as seen in the Dark Knight, is the perfect villainous package - or at least a version of it. He might not be physically formidable, but he’s otherwise as well-rounded as they come. He’s at once composed, clearly putting time and effort into crafting an identity for himself, but also wildly unpredictable. He’s a nihilist, and when you pair that with his violent inclinations, that makes him extremely dangerous. If he’s a dog chasing cars like claims, then he’s a rabid one; you don’t know what he’ll do next. This makes him utterly terrifying. And yet, he’s somehow charismatic too. For all his erratic behavior, this iteration of the Joker is a brilliant strategist and criminal mastermind. His plots might be more grounded and realistic than his comic book counterpart, but in terms of complexity, they do the source material proud. There’s method to his madness, sure, but artistry too. As far as villains go, his deviant psychology makes him about as creative as they come.
One could write volumes analyzing this particular iteration of the Joker; and that’s not something that you can say about many villains. While so many of his evildoer peers are content to be posturing, two-dimensional amalgamations of villainous tropes, Nolan’s Joker is flesh and blood. His complex psyche, however fractured, feels whole in terms of development. As terrifying an exercise as it might be, his mind is one you can comprehend. Joker’s motivations have a twisted logic shared by all great villains: the fundamental belief that what he’s doing is right. From his perspective, he’s liberating people from the shackles of an ordered society. But Nolan’s greatest feat is that he managed to make Joker feel this developed without ever fleshing out his backstory. Rarely, if ever, has a villain felt so complex while remaining shrouded in mystery.
Another factor that sets Heath Ledger’s Joker apart from the pack is that he’s one of the few villains who actually arguably wins. His victory might not have been as clear cut and obvious as that of Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War” but then again, neither were his objectives. Villains typically have concrete goals. World domination. A payday. But the Joker only ever sought to subvert the order of things in Gotham. Sure, the boats refused to blow each other up and he never drove Batman to kill him, but he nonetheless pushed the city into a state of chaos. Plus, he changed the city forever; not only did he corrupt its white knight, Harvey Dent, but forced Batman to become, if not an actual killer, then at least one by reputation.
Not only does Joker succeed where other villains fail, but he goes a step further by redeeming some of his profession’s most tired tropes. Most notably, he manages to make monologuing feel fresh and inspired rather than something to roll your eyes at. As this character proves, the evil monologue still has the power to send chills down your spine - they just need to be well-written and delivered by a captivating performer. Over a decade later, we may have collectively grown tired of Joker quotes, but the fact that they became so omnipresent in pop culture is a testament to just how effectively Ledger delivered these speeches.
And that brings us to our final point. The Dark Knight version of the Joker is a top-notch villain by design, but without the right actor to bring the character to life convincingly, it could have been a cringeworthy disaster. Ledger’s performance has rightfully been called among the greatest in the history of the medium. He overshadows Batman himself from the moment we’re introduced to him at the end of the bank heist. From the mannerisms, ticks, quirks, and voice, down to the very way he walks, everything about the character feels intentional on the part of Heath Ledger. As many have said, he didn’t just play the part, he fully inhabited it. Ledger tragically passed away shortly before the film’s release in 2008, but his unique and spellbinding performance as the Joker has only become all the more iconic for it having been his last.
For all these reasons and more, the Joker is truly the villain of the century.