In the years following Heath Ledger's tragic and untimely death back in 2008, there have inevitably been countless questions raised about the ways the world would have differed had he lived. Whether in terms of his personal life -- his relationships with loved ones, say -- or his professional one -- the likely stellar career ahead of him -- it's not too hard to make out the outlines of absence that Ledger's death created.
For fans of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight series, however, one of those absences may be a little more keenly felt than the others -- since Ledger's death before the release of The Dark Knight precluded the possibility of him appearing in its sequel, 2012's The Dark Knight Rises. That in turn, though, raises one of the biggest questions in comic book-dom, namely:
Did Heath Ledger's Death Change Christopher Nolan's Plans for The Dark Knight Rises?
After all, The Joker was very pointedly left alive at the end of The Dark Knight, which -- combined with his central role in the cinematic Bat-mythos -- would very much seem to imply that Nolan had intended for him to feature in any sequel.
What's more, David S. Goyer, who came up with the story for both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, had this to say back in 2005 about a 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."
Which would, it seem, suggest that Nolan and co. always intended for The Joker to appear -- right?
Well, as it turns out, though, the situation is a whole lot more complicated than that. Specifically:
The Dark Knight Rises Hadn't Been Written Yet When Heath Ledger Died
The thing about that Goyer quote is that it comes from a time before The Dark Knight was fully plotted. Goyer's original pitch, in fact, was for The Dark Knight to focus on The Joker -- much as it ultimately did -- but for Two-Face to not appear until the final part of the trilogy. Instead, though, Nolan opted to condense much of Goyer's plan for a third film into The Dark Knight, thus eliminating any explicit plan for the Joker to return.
The reason for that decision?
Christopher Nolan Didn't Actually Want to Make The Dark Knight Rises
Nolan has always been famously reluctant to return for sequels, and before being given the hard sell after Batman Begins, had absolutely no intention of coming back to make a third movie in the series. That's why The Dark Knight has such a complete narrative arc, and leaves very little in the way of loose ends -- because Nolan had no real intention of returning to make a third movie.
So, Does That Mean That Heath Ledger Wouldn't Have Returned as The Joker?
Well, in short, no, it doesn't.
The immense box-office success of The Dark Knight -- combined with Ledger's critical and fan acclaim in the role of The Joker -- would almost certainly have resulted in Ledger being offered a role in The Dark Knight Rises, had he lived (replacing Scarecrow's small supporting role would have been an obvious fit, were the story to have remained the same). However, that doesn't mean that such an eventuality was ever actually planned for -- or that Nolan would necessarily have returned to direct.
In fact, it's entirely possible to imagine that Ledger would have opted to not return anyway -- with his passion for new and challenging projects perhaps making a sequel somewhat less than appealing, especially considering the draining nature of playing The Joker.
Sadly, though, he wasn't able to make that decision -- and we'll never truly know just what would have happened had he lived...