Each Friday for the next few months, we’ll be presenting “The Ultimate Summer Movie Guide,” honoring the greatest, goofiest and most memorable aspects of blockbuster seasons gone by. Maybe it will be a celebration of an iconic film or actor. Perhaps it will be a fond remembrance of a hallowed piece of pop culture detritus. Or, like today, it’ll be a salute to an indelible movie tagline: “Why So Serious?”
In theory, it shouldn’t be hard to sell a Batman movie. Since 1989, when Tim Burton’s Batman became that year’s biggest film, audiences have clamored for the Caped Crusader. Sure, 1997’s Batman & Robin was a fiasco, but Christopher Nolan had successfully rebooted the property eight years later with Batman Begins, which introduced Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne and, more importantly, imbued the property with a more thoughtful, somber tone. Forget the cutesy gadgets, silly puns and tongue-in-cheek irreverence: Batman Begins took Bruce’s tragic backstory and dark demons seriously, giving us a Gotham that felt appropriately solemn for a post-9/11 age. But even though reviews were glowing, Nolan’s first Batman film was only the year’s eighth-highest-grossing movie. (Both Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Wedding Crashers made more money.) If Warner Bros. wanted to fully revive the franchise, it would need to do something drastic.
Obviously, picking the Joker to be the principal bad guy for the sequel was a good start — the maniacal clown has always been Batman’s most beloved nemesis. But that didn’t mean it would be a slam-dunk. After all, Jack Nicholson had been a pretty memorable Joker in the 1989 film, even landing an Oscar nomination. Who could compete with that? Plus, Nolan’s choice of Heath Ledger wasn’t many people’s idea of a maniacal mass murderer. (God, you can’t even imagine how much the internet hated that casting back then.) How could the studio get everybody on board for this new, moodier Batman?
In 2020, “Why so serious?” has become a glib shorthand to indicate that a movie (or anything else) has decided to drop the frivolity and start getting real. But in 2007, a full year before The Dark Knight arrived in theaters, it was a provocative question that no one knew the answer to — but we all wanted to find out. In the process, Warner Bros. hatched the great summer movie tagline of the 21st century — the perfect way to market The Dark Knight’s dark brilliance and, eventually, set the agenda for event films for the next decade. It’s easy to make fun of “Why so serious?” now. But back then, it was chilling.
These days, we’re used to studios hyping up their blockbusters months in advance. Warner Bros., however, took that tendency to an aggressive new degree with The Dark Knight. In May 2007 — the film wouldn’t open until July 2008 — the studio began promoting the film through mysterious outdoor billboards that simply said, “Harvey Dent for district attorney” and “I believe in Harvey Dent.” Days later, fresh graffiti appeared on the billboards, Dent’s face marked up to look like a clown, the vandalism clearly meant to be the work of the Joker — that is, if you recognized that it was actor Aaron Eckhart in the ads or that you knew Dent was a character in the Batman universe.
That was just the start, too. A couple of months later, at San Diego’s Comic-Con, attendees were given marked-up dollar bills, George Washington’s face redone clown-style similarly to how Dent’s was. At the bottom of the bill was the evocative “Why so serious?” Curious convention-goers went to www.whysoserious.com, which, according to a 2018 Thrillist piece, “provided recruits … with a set of GPS coordinates for a specific location in the nearby Gaslamp Quarter and instructions to meet there at 10 a.m. ‘Our elite organization is expanding!’ read the website’s invitation-like poster, which gave a graffiti facelift to Uncle Sam.” When they arrived at the locale at the designated time, as one attendee later told Thrillist, “[W]e hear an airplane overhead and you looked up and a skywriter writes, ‘Ha Ha, Ha.’ And a phone number. Of course, immediately we’re all dialing the number.”
The number got you started on an interactive scavenger hunt that, like the campaign, was spearheaded by 42 Entertainment, a Burbank-based marketing company. In the Thrillist article, 42 Entertainment co-founder Susan Bonds acknowledged that the ambitious “Why So Serious?” campaign was done, in large part, because fanboys were unsure of this Ledger guy — then best known for his incredible, sensitive work in Brokeback Mountain — as the menacing Joker. “What [the studio] didn’t want was for someone on the streets of Chicago [where The Dark Knight was filmed] to catch a picture of Heath Ledger walking from his trailer to the set or at the end of the day of filming when his makeup may have been washed off,” she said, “They didn’t want someone to snap a picture. So they gave us a picture they had taken.”
The image became the first clue in 42 Entertainment’s viral contest — or alternate reality game as it was known. Wedding “Why so serious?” — a threatening but vague question — to that distorted, disturbing photo of Ledger as the Joker was central to Warner Bros.’ strategy to pivot audiences’ attitudes toward the actor. Soon, Dark Knight posters would emerge, with “Why so serious?” their constant tagline. We didn’t know what kind of Joker that Ledger would be, but the unruly, slightly demented campaign, paired with that catchphrase, suggested an unhinged villain far removed from the hammy showboat that Nicholson had played.
At a time when superhero movies were still relatively tame — this was an era of the good-natured Spider-Man films, the inspiring strength-in-community X-Men adventures and the snarky Iron Man — “Why so serious?” made this upcoming Dark Knight seem edgy. (Yes, “edgy” is a word that, when associated with superhero films, now makes everyone want to roll their eyes. But in 2007, it wasn’t yet a shtick. That would eventually change, though.)
Warner Bros.’ innovative marketing, which seemed like it was being orchestrated by the Joker himself, wasn’t independent of the actual movie — it was exactly how Nolan had conceived the character for The Dark Knight. “It was creating a sort of psychologically credible anarchist,” he would later say of his vision for the Clown Prince of Crime, “a force of anarchy, a force of chaos, a purposeless criminal, a psychopath. To me, that is the most frightening form of evil — the enemy who has no rules, the enemy who’s not out for anything, who can’t be understood, who can only be fought.”
The anticipation ended July 18, 2008, when the film premiered in U.S. theaters. Not only was Ledger a mesmerizing Joker — very much the “force of chaos” that Nolan described — but we got to finally understand what that mysterious tagline meant. It was part of one of the different variations of the Joker’s backstory that he tells during The Dark Knight, and the way Ledger said the phrase only further embedded it in our consciousness. Now, we knew how to pronounce it properly: “Why. Soooo. Seriousssss-sa!”
Of course, the impact of the film, the character, the performance and the catchphrase were all amplified by Ledger’s passing from an accidental overdose early in 2008. In death, the actor (whose casting had been initially derided) was now vindicated by The Dark Knight’s greatness. If anything, his dying added a morbid extra layer of unknowability to his portrayal — it stood on its own, without Ledger around to dissect or explain it. “Why so serious?” became a tribute to what Ledger had achieved. Plus, it was just a cool thing to say.
I don’t need to tell you what happened next, because you live in the same culture that I do. Not only was The Dark Knight the biggest movie of 2008, it won Ledger a posthumous Oscar. Meanwhile, “Why so serious?” developed a life of its own. Turns out, the catchphrase could be used to mean all types of things. When The Dark Knight failed to land a Best Picture nomination, Wired’s story was headlined, “Why So Serious? Oscars Snub Dark Knight for Top Awards” — the implication being that the voters were too stuffy to recognize a popcorn film as the work of art that it was.
It wasn’t long before the tagline jumped from movies to politics. Presidential candidate Barack Obama became the unwitting subject of a memorable Ledger-style poster in which the politician was made up like the Joker with the word “Socialism” emblazoned under his face, a dark riff on his “Hope” posters. Moreover, “Why so serious?” served as a handy, pithy rejoinder when discussing everything from humor-deficient politicians to candidate attack ads — even ultra-stiff modern classical-music concerts.
In the actual movie, “Why so serious?” was what Joker’s violent father allegedly told his scared son while slicing a smile into his face — it was an ironic, frightening comment said during an incredibly tense moment. But in the world outside the movie, the tagline became the public’s critique of anything too serious. Anybody who watched The Dark Knight was horrified by the expression, but once we left the theater, we made it an epithet for anything that tried to make us feel similarly.
Because The Dark Knight was such a hit, it encouraged other superhero films to explore dark, mournful storylines. A few years later, Superman was as glum as Batman — and not surprisingly, critics noticed, knocking 2013’s Man of Steel with a tart “Why so serious?” putdown again and again and again. Hollywood didn’t bother to notice that Nolan, Ledger and Bale had crafted a comic-book movie that was bolstered by three-dimensional characters and real feeling — instead, the word went out that everything had to be super-brooding because that meant depth. And so we got Zack Snyder’s ponderous DC films, particularly the joyless Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the R-rated Logan. Although the Marvel Cinematic Universe mostly trafficked in lighthearted heroics, as the Avengers’ battle with Thanos loomed, Infinity War and Endgame were marketed as weighty dramas with life-or-death stakes. For all its merits, The Dark Knight mostly just taught studios that audiences wouldn’t take superhero movies seriously if they weren’t significantly serious.
But as with most trends, what was once fresh soon became a parody of itself. In 2020, the “Why so serious?” mentality has calcified into a self-important brand of dude cinema in which characters don’t dare crack a smile and the sky is perpetually gray. Too often, intense emoting is equated with having something important to say, and the Joker (principally because of Ledger’s epochal performance) is now seen as a character of nearly Shakespearean grandeur. As much as I love Joker, even I acknowledge that the film is undercut by its own self-regard for how deep and dark it thinks it is. No wonder that plenty of critics happily revisited “Why so serious?” to bash not just the Joaquin Phoenix film but also the somber ethos that The Dark Knight wrought. A brilliant tagline had become a punchline — a pathetically bro-y signifier for great artistic merit.
If a movie is lucky, it will spawn a catchphrase that will be absorbed into the zeitgeist, giving the film a strange form of immortality. (“Who you gonna call?” “You stay classy, San Diego.” “Bye, Felicia.”) The Dark Knight has other memorable lines, but for better or worse, “Why so serious?” may be its epitaph. The film dared to see blockbusters as something more than lowest-common-denominator entertainment, questioning why they couldn’t be as moving, thought-provoking and engaging as any other form of cinema. Those ambitions paid off, showing the industry what was possible. The campaign behind the film was just as revolutionary. It’s easy to lay the cultural oversaturation of “Why so serious?” at The Dark Knight’s feet. But to me, the phrase is now just a sad illustration of how Hollywood learns all the wrong lessons from its game-changers.