The Real Reason Heath Ledger’s Joker Licked His Lips in ‘The Dark Knight’ Is Surprisingly Practical

The Joker is much more than just Batman’s arch-nemesis. In fact, four Academy Award winners have played the Clown Prince of Crime on the big screen. And two actors won Oscars for their Joker performances. But there’s something special about Heath Ledger‘s version in The Dark Knight.

Ledger passed away in January 2008, just six months before the movie’s release. Yet, his work remains a gold standard for movie villains. Ledger’s Joker instantly became the stuff of cinematic legend. But one of his Joker’s signature mannerisms actually has a much more humble beginning.

Heath Ledger at an 'I'm Not There' photocall in 2007
Heath Ledger at an ‘I’m Not There’ photocall in 2007 | ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images

Heath Ledger made history with his performance in ‘The Dark Knight’

Coming eight years after Batman & Robin killed the franchise, Batman Begins rebooted the character by stripping his world of comic book flourishes. Christopher Nolan’s movie is about as grounded as a Batman movie could get. And yet, Ledger’s chilling turn takes the realism of his Gotham City to another level.

Nearly 20 years had passed since Jack Nicholson took on the role. So Ledger knew he had huge shoes to fill already. But rather than providing a detailed origin story for the Joker, The Dark Knight gives him no backstory at all. In fact, Nolan’s story seems to conjure the self-proclaimed “agent of chaos” out of thin air. Suddenly, this force of nature just emerges to challenge Batman.

Fan theories abound about Ledger’s dark preparation for the role and the Joker’s presumed past in the movie. Ultimately though, the character’s own perspective is already twisted beyond recognition. Whatever the reason, the Joker’s nervous energy and physical tics paint a portrait of a man who can surprise even himself any moment. The embodiment of chaos come to life.

Ledger’s Joker actually licked his lips because of production issues

Of course, The Dark Knight itself is a masterclass in how to make a superhero sequel. Often compared to Michael Mann’s 1995 crime epic Heat, the movie remains one of DC Comics’ biggest hits. And the Joker stands as the first comic book character in history to be adapted into an Oscar-winning performance.

Fans are quick to point out the Joker’s manic energy, which manifests itself in a series of physical tics. The most notable of these, however, is how frequently he licks his lips. The action gives the Joker an animalistic quality, making him all the more menacing. But as revealed in the 2017 documentary I Am Heath Ledger, the truth is much less exciting.

The film, as pointed out by Digital Spy, reveals the lip-licking was Ledger’s way to try and keep his prosthetic scars from coming loose. Apparently, the make-up used to create the Joker’s infamous facial scars would begin to slip off when he talked. So whenever the Joker speaks, Ledger took that opportunity to wet his make-up to keep everything intact.


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Joaquin Phoenix paid homage to with his Oscar-winning Joker

Amazingly, Ledger’s Joker — lip-licking and all — has changed the way audiences see the character. While the Joker has always been one of Batman’s deadliest foes, he had never been portrayed with such ferocity before. Ledger’s performance rose the bar for what an on-screen Joker could be capable of.

And Joaquin Phoenix — a friend of Ledger’s, no less — paid homage to his fallen compatriot when it came time for him to star in Joker. Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck carries around a journal, much like Ledger kept on the set of The Dark Knight.

And he even licks his own lips during a climactic scene in Joker. Fans see these instances as homages to Ledger. Considering the legacy of his performance, it seems entirely plausible Phoenix was giving Ledger a hat-tip.