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Movie Legends Revealed: Did Ledger’s Death Alter Plans For Joker in ‘Dark Knight Rises’?

The Dark Knight

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: The Joker was going to appear in “The Dark Knight Rises” until Heath Ledger’s tragic death altered those plans.

Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in “The Dark Knight” highlights the trouble with overreacting to casting news before the film debuts. Tragically, before the film was released, Ledger passed away, leading his Academy Award to be presented posthumously. The character of the Joker died with Ledger, at least in the context of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. However, had Ledger not died, was the director planning to use the Joker in in the trilogy’s final film, “The Dark Knight Rises”?

As we have detailed many times over the years, rumors about would-be castings are quite common. As we noted recently, there’s still mystery about whether Christopher Walken’s character in “Batman Returns” was originally supposed to be Harvey Dent. Here, however, it would seem impossible not to spread rumors about the Joker’s possible future role in Batman films, as Nolan seemingly made a distinct point to keep the character alive at the end of “The Dark Knight.”

However, there are two very important points to consider when discussing Nolan’s plans for “The Dark Knight Rises.”


The first, and probably most important, is that there was no script written for “The Dark Knight Rises” at the time of Ledger’s death. There’s been significant confusion on this point, because David S. Goyer, who devised the story for both “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” did in fact write scripts for two Batman films featuring the Joker that would have followed “Batman Begins.” In 2005, he wrote about this possible third movie:

“The next one [the third movie] would have Batman enlisting the aid of Gordon…in bringing down the Joker…but not killing him, which is a mistake they made in the first one

This, then, is the primary basis for the legend that the Joker was set to star in the third Batman film before Ledger’s untimely death. However, that’s not accurate, because what ended up happening was that Nolan took Goyer’s plots for the two scripts and condensed them into a single story. For instance, Goyer wasn’t going to have Harvey Dent turn into Two-Face until the third film, which would feature the district attorney prosecuting the Joker in a sensational trial. Therefore, the “third” movie was really the second movie and thus, there was no script for a third Batman movie at the time of Ledger’s death.

The Dark KnightSecondly, at the time of the release of “The Dark Knight,” Nolan hadn’t committed to marking a third film. In fact, that was a driving force in condensing Goyer’s two film ideas, because he didn’t want the end to have loose threads. He wanted “The Dark Knight” to be able to serve as a final film if he ended there. Of course, the film was such a huge success that he pretty easily changed his mind. But even there, it wasn’t until December 2008 that Nolan actually sat down and came up with a story outline for the third film.

Do I think that the Joker would have appeared in Nolan’s final film had Ledger not died? I think that’s very likely. I just don’t believe there was ever a specific plan to bring the character back that was altered by Ledger’s death.

Therefore, the legend is…


Be sure to check out my archive of Movie Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of films. And click here for legends just about Batman!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is


  • RoadWarrior

    Sounds about right. Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow made appearances in both sequels following Batman Begins; it isn’t a stretch to conclude that a major villain like the Joker could’ve simply appeared for a few shots in the final film.

  • NoPantsMcLane

    I like to think that The Joker was the one person Bane was afraid to release because he would have been uncontrollable even for him so they just kept him locked up. And that’s why he didn’t show up in the last one.

  • Philip

    That’s about as clear as mud. I’m glad I didn’t waste my time watching any of that nonsense.

  • Greg Phillips

    The popular theory seems to have been that Joker would fill the role of Murphy’s Scarecrow in DKR, serving as the “judge” in the phony trial they were giving victims.

    But this seems to erase that possibility.

  • Chuck Staton

    I thought it was widely known that Heath Ledger’s Joker originally had a very small part in Dark Knight Rises.

  • toonfed

    I think the judgment scene with the scarecrow on Dark Knight Rises was written thinking in the joker.

  • Gregory A. Swarthout

    Except the above article eliminates that possibility.

  • toonfed

    yeah i know but i mean thinking like in “would it be cool if this parta were played by Ledger” Sorry my bad english :P

  • Kwame
  • NoPantsMcLane

    Haha that’s great!

  • RoadWarrior

    To my mind, having the general plotlines of the films condensed doesn’t necessarily remove a potential cameo, which is what the trial scenes amounted to.

  • Joey Johnson

    this is the one time that i absolutely disagree with your verdict. IMHO theres no such thing as a director that does a fantasy movie without having a trilogy in mind prior to pre-production. the plans may never had made it to paper in this case, so there was never an OFFICIAL plan to include joker, but i simply cannot believe there was no specific thought to bring him back. not even a conversation with nolan himself will change my mind

  • jdb1972

    I could swear I saw Goyer say that they had the Joker in mind for that scene. Whether that means just thematically or that they had the scene in mind even if the script wasn’t written, dunno.

  • AirDave

    I was disappointed with Harvey’s fate at the end of The Dark Knight.
    I was glad that I waited until it hit DVD to see The Dark Knight Rises. It was a huge disappointment. The story only works as a The Dark Knight Returns adaptation. The idea that after Dent’s death, Batman would retreat for eight years? Ugh!

  • red vector

    A disappointment and incoherent mess of a film. The idea that the army would open fire on a school bus full of kids is fucking ridiculous and sealing off a city the size of Gotham would be impossible even for the army.

    And I’m not buying that explanation at all and call it bullshit.

  • Will

    Thanks for the post! I love the dark knight trilogy and I love how they’re each of them amazing in their own right. They are the standard by which all other comicbook movies should be measured against IMHO

  • Big Ulf

    Batman didn’t fully retreat though – he was working in shadows for a good chunk of that time. Rises wasn’t a perfect film, but was still very solid.

  • Galactus123

    If I remember right at some Comic-Con or some other same kind of event someone asked about it from Jonathan Nolan(C Nolan’s brother and script writer). I don’t remember exactly what he said but I got idea that there were plans.

  • Red_Five_Standing_By

    That aspect of the story was stolen from No Man’s Land. A giant earthquake struck Gotham and, instead of fixing the city, the feds just threw up their hands and said, “Nope!” and so walled the city off.

  • toe_toe

    I don’t know if any of you have played Batman: Arkham Knight, but whilst it has its flaws one of the things I feel it got right in terms of story was the role of the Joker. Even in death it still ALWAYS comes back to him. He’s always the most dangerous, the most unpredictable, the most capable of fucking with Batman. He might not be the main antagonist (or the one with ‘the plaaaaannn’), but he always takes advantage of a situation to cause the most havoc possible.

    So I feel like a throwaway scene like the DKR judgement scene would almost have been a disservice to the Joker – no way would he be reduced to the sidelines like that. If Heath hadn’t of passed away I can imagine TDKR without Talia at all. Selina would take the most significant female role, fully taking on her role of duplicitous anti-hero (with us never quite knowing her full intentions, even at the end).

    Bane would have a different link to the League of Shadows other than Talia, or let’s face it, they needn’t have been involved at all. I always felt like the return of the League of Shadows didn’t quite make sense 100%, especially when the film gave us a reason for Talia to hate her father only for her to carry on his legacy anyway. So Bane would have held Gotham hostage with the Joker profiting from the madness to suit his own schemes, only to emerge as the true threat to Gotham when Bane is taken down (maybe killing Gordon or maiming a young Barbara in the process), ending in a showdown which results in the Jokers death.

    Maybe he finds a way to force Batman to kill him, indirectly perhaps, leading to both Bruce giving up the cape and cowl for good but also some kind peace for Gotham. His identity becomes common knowledge and he retreats into hiding, leaving behind potential heirs in his place (Robin/Blake) for when the city may need them and the trilogy gets a nice rounded ending – almost close to the ending that the film actually had with Blake, only with a more satisfying conclusion with all of the plot threads tied off.

  • alientraveller

    Nolan put it best in the book about the making of the trilogy that thinking about a film trilogy is like thinking about getting married and having children ie. que sera sera. Did he ever think he’d like to work with Ledger again on another possible Batman film? Definitely. But he couldn’t give it too much thought given he was so busy on TDK and also wanted to do something else (he of course chose Inception). So the implied notion Nolan had a plan for the third film before 2008 is pretty simplistic.

  • Chuck Frith

    Then why are you reading an article about it?

  • Craig Forshaw

    Aaron Eckhart, when asked about whether he would be coming back for The Dark Knight Rises (because the ending of The Dark Knight is actually retrospectively bad – most people I know where under the impression Harvey Dent had just been seriously hurt, and that Lucius Fox had quit Wayne Enterprises) said that he was under the impression that Nolan was planning on bringing Heath Ledger back in the next film.

    That is certainly enough to suggest that it was a “maybe” rather than a “false”.

  • Cameron

    Excellent point!

  • So Interesting

    You’re the most interesting person on the internet. No, the second most interesting person after AirDave. Very interesting people. Like, the most interesting. I wish we could all hang out more, you’re so interesting.

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  • HeadCandy

    They did it classy. An appearance by the joker would have been distracting and it would have marginalized the threat of the protagonists

  • KevinLockard

    I think he would have made a cameo somewhere throughout the film (probably a scene or two of him inside Arkham), but I doubt he would have been the central villain again.

  • Juan Opheau

    Given the reception to Joker in the second film, it feels like perhaps the writer thought of using Joker, knew that wouldn’t fly so good, and then thought of who would want to try next. Ledger was a big star for these films, but Murphy had a lotta loyalty for a hired actor, appearing in the first two films, and made sense appearing in the third as well.

  • yoppppppp

    The entire article plus commentary can be summed up in one word from this post: IMPLIED. Other posts also contain similar ideas such as SUGGESTED, GOT THE IDEA THAT… , UNDER THE IMPRESSION THAT… with the ultimate point being that this piece is based entirely on speculation that aims to figure out what Nolan had in mind without actually asking him, nor referring to other statements he’s made on this specific topic. Instead, we have impressions, ideas, notions and hypothetical theories. Now all those are great when arguing simply for the sake of debate (and this one is interesting and thoughtful), but it hardly qualifies as anything that could be declared as factually true or false. It is, however, a grand example of second-guessing by backing into the subject matter via fringe observations and by using a process of logical deduction to rule things in or out.

  • yoppppppp

    I couldn’t speak for Nolan or any known director, but to continue the speculative tone of this commentary, it seems to me that anyone in a key role on any film wouldn’t reveal past-present-future plans, for fear that it could act as a spoiler of sorts. Overall, doesn’t it make better marketing sense to be consistently vague, which then indirectly forces the curious public to see the film(s) in question, and to SPEND MONEY on theater tickets, pay-per-view services, DVDs, etc.)?? Let’s not forget that the film industry is just that — an industry. And as a business, it has always managed to show significant profits, even during our nation’s worst economic times. If we stick to the tried-and-true method of “follow the money,” it puts the whole purpose of movie trilogies and intended scripts/casts into perspective. No one is doing this for free (except maybe the ghost of Heath Ledger. RIP… he left a gaping hole in the current crop of movie stars who also are stellar actors, which likely is the unconscious truth that explains why so many years later we all wonder”what if” about a film he might have done).

  • Patrick

    I always pictured joker hijacking the bomb truck in DKR ruining band’s plans and forcing Batman to track him down. He’d be going around the city rather than through it. So that only a portion of the city would be taken out, and the rest would be left to panic.

  • Jeremy

    I love the references used in your comment, and perhaps they were wondering why someone would shoot DKR with Heaths Joker, before throwing him out of the main plot.

  • Adam Stewart

    The city is an island and the army don’t open fire on the schoolbus.

    God bless you! God bless everyone in your life!

  • Drock

    It’s obvious that the Joker would’ve been in the third film if there was always only gonna be 3 movies. But that’s the point people fail to see, they wouldn’t have ended the series at 3 if ledger hadn’t died. There wouldn’t have been that stupid 8 year absence of batman and the Joker would’ve been a regular player in the series. I know this is only my speculation but I truly feel that Nolan was thinking the dark knight series would be his go to series, his bread and butter if you will. He prolly would’ve done a batman film for every other movie he made. But he knew that his vision was permanently tarnished when Ledger died. It’s unfortunate but hopefully the DCU is good and makes us appreciate that things happen for a reason even if that seems dark in this instance

  • Peter

    Oh come on. I don’t care what Nolan says, or anyone else. It’s obvious they’re not going to tell the true plans for the third film, because it would just lessen people’s enjoyment of the current version. But that doesn’t mean no plan was there.

    The Joker would have a very prominent role in the third film. That character is the crown jewel of Batman’s universe. After the huge success of Nicholson and after the character became even more popular through cartoons, etc., it was absolutely obvious to both the studio and the fans that the real money is in The Joker.

    If you seriously think there were no plans to feature such a super-iconic villain in an important role in the third film, you’re just refusing to see the obvious.
    Why else would they have Joker say “I think you and I are destined to do this forever” in that sinister voice and have the camera zoom in on him as he was saying this particular line?

    This is not even a debate people. The only thing we can wonder about it what the plot would have been like had Ledger not died. Maybe Nolan will tell something more as time goes on.

  • Bruce Wayne

    Except that the above article isn’t an authority on the series, wasn’t written by anyone even remotely involved in the production and isn’t an authority on anything at all.

  • Gregory A. Swarthout

    I have no reason to doubt Brian Cronin’s research. If you do, please share.

  • Thomas Allan Mahoney

    Have you read a comic? Talia is the mother of the fourth/fifth (do you count stephanie? I do so i’d say fifth, bat’s counts her) Robin. Her is is on arrow. Ras should have been brought back to life if anything.

    Banes ties fine weird but it worked in context.

    Bane broke Batman’s back and Azreal took the cowl. Movie goers would be too confused and a single movie couldn’t do the knightfall saga. Again, they worked with time constraints and what they had.

    Jokers been brushed aside in a ton of books, some times hes not even in a panel and just mentioned *gasp*

    Many make good arguments Ras Al Ghul is bat’s arch enemy not joker.

    No sooner do we get a new batman….. and wait new joker already? Leto and Affleck will rock I believe that but it’s a point.

    Batman has too many good villains. As cliche as it is Joker is my fav.

    Thinking back after this artical, I don’t know if they couldn’t get eckhart or if they just wanted muprhy in all 3 films.

    Two face would have made more sense as a judge then scarecrow. Making a Joker trial would make sense. Don’t need more than that, if even that.

    Ledger was phenomonal but he is the least Joker of all Jokers on screen period. Romero murdered the role and Nicholson did a great modern Joker. Ledger they didn’t do perma white and didn’t make him clowny and didnt……..

    Nolan’s movies rock. They just aren’t comic batman. I’ll keep rewatching them and waiting for a real batman film on par with the 60’s show or maybe 89

  • Thomas Allan Mahoney

    Wasn’t Joker in the prelude to Knightfall? Thought he was, maybe not.

  • Thomas Allan Mahoney

    Never heard that. Could see Two-face though

  • Thomas Allan Mahoney

    So do a trilogy don’t bring up the lazurus pit and act like ras is dead…. Oh wait, they did that.

    So why would Joker NEED to be back? He lived? Name a time ras stayed dead.

    Yea, he’d have had a BRIEF cameo nothing more.

  • Thomas Allan Mahoney

    We were half lucky to get Rises. Nolan is an artist. Might have supervised or helped out. Goyer and his brother really did the script though so…..

    Ledger would have had a cameo as scarecrow (the only living villain throughout the films) had. He was the only one who lives would be weird not to do a quick 2 minute cameo. Like scarecrow in the beginning of tdk or the court stuff in tdkr

  • Thomas Allan Mahoney

    As prominent in the living villain from begins…….

    Nolan is legit. He isn’t a one trick pony. Love Ledger all people will……As much as nolan did which was a ton.

    That’s the only trilogy in his catologue. He almost didn’t do rises.

    Nolan is too much of an artist to repeat that way. He wouldn’t use the same villain twice if you paid him, and if ledger lived, i’d bet money warner would have tried to give him more money thinking ledger would bring in more people. I’d also bet my watch and warrant nolan would say no and do his own thing.

    Hell, with goyer and his brother doing more of the scrpit. Don’t remember which Jonathan worked on.

    Warner would say chris money for ledger! Chris Nolan would then say goyer! money to not use joker!

    Nolan would up warners pay to use joker to goyer not too is my belief.

    Unless the script was mind boggling. He’s a slave to film and god bless him. I also mean film. Hates digital movies.

    He’d never compromise his stubborn beliefs on movies, and reputation, he came close doing a sequel, then agreed for another and he almost didn’t. That’s why 3 took longer.

    Don’t say inception, unless you mention the prestige.

    He almost didn’t. Heath’s death, trying to avoid type cast which he kind of is now. No, no chance in hell would joker be the main. That would rob fans. He already did non batman batman movies, awesome films just not batman. Use the same villain twice? No no chance in hell other than a cameo like scarecrow

  • Drock

    I disagree, I think the Joker would’ve been a major player. Scarecrow is no Joker, not in the comics and certainly not in the films.

  • Peter

    Huh? Coherence, please?

  • Steve Wasko

    If he had, I could almost imagine him being like Hannibal Lecter, taunting and even advising Batman through cryptic manners, although remaining behind bars.

  • Prometheus

    Ledger’s death had to have affected any concept Nolan may have had for a third film. It certainly limited his options for the third film. The timing of it may not have affected the screenplay they were going to use, since it seems it wasn’t written until after Ledger’s death anyway, but Ledger’s absence certainly took some appealing story options away. I think, if they really had a strong concept for the third film involving the Joker, they could have made that film with someone else in the role. It would have been a stretch, but they could have done it.

  • Kevin Spencer

    No way to know because HE DIED. Pointless story.

  • Ernst Blofeld

    The can bring back the joker anytime they like. Michael Keaton would be perfect. Just check Beetlejuice. Oh the irony.

  • Egone Spangler

    I second that

  • Psycold

    This explains why TDKR was such a letdown compared to TDK.