Thursday, July 17, 2008

Jack’s Wild Joker

At midnight tonight, The Dark Knight hits screens at theaters across the country. Finally. Buzz for Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins sequel has been considerable ever since photos of Heath Ledger’s Joker began pinging around cyberspace more than a year ago – long before the trailer was released – and it’s been at a fever pitch since Ledger’s death in January. Did the Joker role take such a toll on Ledger that it led to his drug overdose? Is his performance good enough to win him a posthumous Oscar? Is this the best comic book film of all time? People are already asking these questions and the movie technically isn’t out yet.

The paid critics have started to weigh in on such topics (not that I’ve read any reviews yet), but discussion of the film is just beginning. In the coming weeks you’re sure to read raves for Ledger and tributes. And some will suggest that the performance is a window to a tormented soul. And then others will criticize the picture and be accused of cluelessness, heartlessness, or of being contrarian just for the purpose of being contrarian (see: White, Armond). You know the drill. And so before this wave of Batmania overtakes us, I’d like to pause a moment to reflect on the previous portrayal of the Joker, by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman.

He’s a grinner, a lover and a sinner – and he sure does want to hurt someone. That might be the best way to describe Nicholson’s Joker. Or maybe it would be this word, which is lobbed at him during the film: crazy. Notice that villainous isn’t one of the first descriptors to come to mind. Nicholson’s Joker is a showman, an oddball, an evil clown. He’s the villain, sure, but only by default. And in Burton’s Batman the Joker’s sinister plot is a MacGuffin bigger than Gotham City. Batman isn’t about what the Joker will do. It’s about what the Joker is doing. Style is his substance.

To that end, Nicholson’s performance is brilliant – and no role, ever, has been better fit for the icon’s trademark (often grating) extreme Jackness. The genius of Burton’s film is that it dedicates more time to examining the twisted psyche of the Joker than it does to creating the legend of the hero. Which doesn’t mean that the Joker is ever really explained, because insanity can’t be defined. Watching the film again recently I noticed that a good percentage of the Joker’s dialogue is entirely nonsensical. Nicholson sells it so well that we hardly notice. The shabby writing feels almost clever.

Given the deluge of comic book movies in recent years, it’s becoming difficult to get excited about them. Superhero movies may have gotten bigger and flashier, but they haven’t gotten much better. For my money, the best superhero movie of the past decade is M Night Shyamalan’s genre twisting Unbreakable. A close second would be Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, which checks off all the comic book tenants without confining itself to the mold. And third would be Batman Begins.

So there’s reason to believe that The Dark Knight might indeed live up to – or at least withstand – its massive hype. I hope Ledger’s performance is a triumph deserving of high praise. But if the acclaim comes, I also wish that folks will remember that falling in love with Ledger’s grittier, edgier Joker doesn’t have to mean spurning Nicholson’s zanier one. If nothing else, between Cesar Romero’s classic clown and Ledger’s monster, Jack’s Joker is the bridge.

I suspect that Ledger’s Joker might be the most wicked comic book villain I’ve ever seen. I hope it terrifies me. Still, there’s something to be said for a nemesis so perverse that the only appropriate response is to stare back at it like this:

1 comment:

Richard Bellamy said...

I recently rewatched Tim Burton's Batman and I wasn't that impressed with Nicholson's performance.

Ledger gives a tremendous performance as the Joker - instilling inexorable dread and unsettling lunacy in every scene in which he appears.

I'm looking forward to the Cooler's review of The Dark Knight and Ledger's Joker - a combination Daniel Plainview/Chigurh for this year in film.