To many film scholars and casual movie-goers, the proposed question is sacrilegious. In their minds there is no comprehensible way that the best comic book film ever made and arguably one of the greatest films of all time could be improved. From the gritty tone to the breath-taking set pieces, The Dark Knight has become a staple of modern cinema. One area of the film that is surely faultless is the casting of the two central characters. Christian Bale maintains the solid foundation he laid originally and a whole other praiseworthy article could be written on Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance. But it could have all been very different.
When Christopher Nolan began casting, he approached Ledger for the role of Bruce Wayne first. Ledger turned the opportunity down on the basis of it being just another comic book film. After being suitably impressed by Batman Begins, Ledger willingly accepted any role in The Dark Knight, and the rest, as they say, is history. Entertain the notion of a parallel universe… what if the two main roles had been reversed? Let’s consider the past performances of the respective actors, for example Christian Bale’s turn as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Put some white face-paint/green hair-dye on him and the film could easily be an origin story of the Joker. As he kills numerous people without any justified reason, the viewer is both repulsed and enticed by his murderous spree. It’s Bale’s compelling and intriguing persona that keeps the audience hungry to understand him, and this is comparable to the Joker’s unexplained motivation for anarchy. Alternatively, if there is one thing missing from Bale’s Batman, it is a sense of emotional vulnerability.
The anguish and regret of his parents’ death is permanently etched upon his demeanour, but at times this can remain on one note. Ledger would have brought an extra layer of complexity, enticing the viewer to question what is driving him. The lines between right and wrong would have been even more blurred, fully fleshing out the bleakness of The Dark Knight. With Brokeback Mountain, critics truly began to take notice of his versatility. Playing a character filled with inner turmoil, a hard false exterior and a constant longing for a lost love… sound familiar? Ultimately, what lingers in the furthest recesses of my mind is the image of a manic Bale Joker being confronted by an imposing Ledger Batman and it fills me with childish wonder.
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