Big-screen psychopaths are a kind of close-knit brotherhood. They seem almost genetically linked in being (a) utterly consumed by a ferocious past, (b) possessing the usual smirky, self-amused personality and (c) their general indifference to common-ground values. I don’t know where villainy can go over the next 10 to 50 years, but I know it’s been in the same place for the previous 50. I’m not saying I’m fatigued with this, but will there ever be a new flavor along these lines?

Heath Ledger’s “Joker” in Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight

Robert Mitchum‘s nutso preacher in Charles Laughton‘s The Night of the Hunter (’55) was an early manifestation, and perhaps the first. Jack Nicholson‘s “Joker” in Tim Burton ‘s Batman was another big gong in this vein. Hannibal Lecter, to some extent. Anton Chigurh, certainly. And now another inhabiting, apparently, is on its way from Heath Ledger‘s “Joker” in Chris Nolan‘s The Dark Knight(7.18.08).

Consider this scene from the opening of Nolan’s upcoming Batman film, which was previewed last Sunday night in the IMAX format in Manhattan, and will be attached to general release prints of I Am Legend (opening 12.14). It’s been described in a 12.3 MTV piece by Josh Horowitz.

William Fichtner, playing a mob-front banker, is about to be dispatched by a masked Ledger at the climax of a bank job: “The criminals in this town used to believe in things,” Fichtner seethes. “Honor. Respect. What do you believe in?” He screams it again, louder: “What do you believe in?”

The mask comes off, and Ledger’s “grinning, scarred face” is revealed at last. “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you …” — a pause before the final word — “stranger.”

That line is a little too arch and cocky for Anton Chigurh to have said in No Country for Old Men, but it’s from the same nutter hym book. And I’m wondering again, without implying in any way that Ledger’s performance won’t be a huge kick in the pants, are we stuck with this kind of villain for the rest of our days? Is any actor or director or writer going to come along in five or ten years and do what Mitchum and Laughton did for the era of Davy Crockett, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Bill Haley and the Comets?