Moviegoers and critics have short memories. So, once July 18th falls upon us, one can likely expect countless articles and reviews discussing Heath Ledger's Joker performance as something groundbreaking and different. Maybe it will be. Truth be told, it'll still likely have an annoying aftertaste, since I'm pretty sure that there are plenty of other actors who could have done something interesting with this iconic character without killing themselves in the process. But Legder is not the first person to play The Joker as a heartless mass murderer. Heck, even if The Dark Knight is the PG-13 bloodbath that some fans are hoping for (keep hoping - Chris Nolan's movies are all relatively restrained in their violence and he has hinted the same in interviews about this one), that in itself won't be groundbreaking either.
For all the hub-bub about how dark and violent The Dark Knight is supposed to be, we all forget how insanely violent the original Burton Batman was in 1989. We have an onscreen or mentioned off-screen body count near the triple digits, mostly all civilians and cops, and three scenes of mass civilian crowds being slaughtered for sport (the machine gun massacre at the city hall steps, the gassing of the museum, and the climactic gassing of the party goers). Throughout the running time, countless people are shot, stabbed, electrocuted, poisoned, and blown up. If we recall, the film caused a minor stir back in 1989 for its darkness, ghoulishness, and violence.
This was the first major comic book film to be rated PG-13 and there was much debate as to whether a film about Batman should be technically inappropriate for kids (remember, the PG-13 had only been around since 1985).
Ironically, short memories struck again, with the release of 1992's Batman Returns. That film caused a MAJOR debate about it's graphic violence, sexual content, and overall gloominess. All of these people had seemed to have forgotten that Burton's original wasn't exactly a remake of the 1960s TV show. That controversy had, in my opinion, earth-shattering repercussions for the film industry, but that's for another day.
Health Ledger is not the first Joker actor to portray him as a heartless mass murderer. Heck, if you count Mark Hamill* (still my favorite onscreen Joker, playing the role perfectly from 1992 to 2003), Ledger is the third. He may be terrific, but he'll have to do something more than kill people and laugh about it to be truly groundbreaking. And, so will the movie itself. Hopefully, both will prove true.
*Pointless trivia - Hamill barely killed anyone on the original Fox Batman: The Animated Series run (1992-1995), but played the character creepily enough for you to presume that he was bumping people off left and right offscreen (he did commit onscreen murder in the terrific 1993 theatrical film: Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm).
When the show went to WB (1997-1999), the gloves came off with the show's violence allotment and Joker and the other rogues started killing people onscreen. Heck, in the Batman/Superman cross-over 'World's Finest', he hijacked a giant Lexcorp plane and blew up about a dozen packed skyscrapers in downtown Metropolis.
And, truth be told, I'd be shocked if Ledger's Joker did anything as horrifyingly cruel as what Mark Hamill's Joker does to Tim Drake in the 2000 direct-to-DVD film Batman Beyond: Return Of The Joker (especially in the uncut version, which was released in 2002).