From Christopher Nolan’s inaugural Batman film, it was evident that audiences were in for a groundbreaking experience. Christian Bale imbued Batman with a brooding, introspective quality that set it apart from earlier cinematic renditions. Yet, what Nolan’s Batman universe truly needed was a formidable adversary.
This was a time before the era of cinematic superhero universes; no MCU, no DCU—just Batman, Gotham, and arguably the most menacing Batman antagonist of all time: the Joker.
Upon selecting Heath Ledger as their Joker, prosthetics supervisor Conor O’Sullivan embarked on the task of bringing a Joker that was more scarred and malevolent than ever before. The result was a portrayal unlike anything seen in any previous DC film. But what served as O’Sullivan’s inspiration for the Joker’s distinctive appearance? Surprisingly, for a comic book adaptation, the answer is firmly rooted in reality.
“I was never provided with a concept or reason for the scarring before I began working on the design of the Joker’s scars,” he elucidated. “Once I had it in my mind that it was going to be scars, rather than a fixed smile, I immediately thought of the punk and skinhead era and some unsavory characters I had come across during this time.”
O’Sullivan detailed that during this period, assailants would inflict a particular type of wound known as the ‘Glasgow’ or ‘Chelsea smile’ on their victims. This involved making a cut from the corner of the victim’s mouth up to their ears, forming a crescent-shaped scar that mimicked a twisted grin.
“My references had to be authentic,” he added. “A delivery of fruit machines was made to the estate near my workshop and the man delivering them had a ‘Chelsea smile.’ I mustered the courage to ask him for a photo, and he shared the story of how he acquired his scars while being involved in a ‘dog fight’; needless to say, I didn’t press further, but the photos proved to be very useful references.”
Now, more than a decade later, it’s impossible to envision the Joker without conjuring images of his Glasgow smile. It’s the defining detail that propels Ledger’s Joker into the pantheon of cinema’s greatest villains. Additionally, it’s evident that this more scarred iteration of the Joker has left its mark on Barry Keoghan’s portrayal of the character, whom we encountered in the post-credit scene of ‘The Batman’.