Remember When Heath Ledger Said No to Being a Superhero?

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Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield, Toby Maguire—in all its iterations, the Spider-Man film series has attracted such notable a stable of actors that the character has become shorthand for the up-and-coming A-list. Which is why in the early 2000s, just as the franchise was about to be rebooted, Heath Ledger turned down the role, reportedly telling his agent, “It’s not for me. I would be taking someone else’s dream away.” It seems hard to believe that any actor wouldn’t be interested in the tent pole franchise. But Ledger had already successfully done the teenage heartthrob thing with 10 Things I Hate About You. Already in his early 20s, the actor possessed a keen Spidey-sense when it came to selecting projects. His dream was never stardom, just a career without stagnation.

Perhaps this was a moment of realization, as Ledger’s film choices only continued to diversify. While he would dip once more into the big-budget, heartthrob mode for 2001’s A Knight’s Tale, his had a brief career full of art house tent poles, including leads in Monster’s Ball, Lords of Dogtown, faux Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, and of course, Brokeback Mountain—which earned him a nomination at seemingly every 2005 awards ceremony. (“He was extraordinarily serious about the political issues surrounding the movie when it came out,” Jake Gyllenhaal, his co-star said. “A lot of times people would want to have fun and joke about it, and he was vehement about being serious, to the point where he didn’t really want to hear about anything that was being made fun of.”)

It’s with a touch of irony, given his reluctance to done Spider-Man’s iconic red jumpsuit, that Ledger found is most iconic role in The Joker. As The Dark Knight’s anti-hero, the actor, who passed away shortly after filming, created a character full of caked on makeup and cracked humanity. It was a performance so twisted and real, that it was hard not to root for the villain—even when all he wanted was to watch the world burn. Not only did his crazed take on the character earn him a posthumous Golden Globe and Academy Award, but led to fans‘ terrible realization that we were only gifted with a small portion of what could have been a long and brilliant career.

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