Saturday, July 19, 2008

Joker's Wild

Yesterday we saw THE DARK KNIGHT; and apparently we weren't alone. Estimates peg the latest Bat-movie at pulling in around $155 million this weekend, making for the best opening weekend ever for a film, and posturing DARK KNIGHT to go head-to-head with IRON MAN for top movie of the summer. (I find appropriate that these two armored billionaires should grapple mano-a-mano for supremecy. It's the old Marvel vs. DC battles all over again.)

[some mild SPOILERS coming up . . . ]

The one aspect of the DARK KNIGHT I found weak was the bat-suit. In several sequences, especially near the beginning of the film, when it is shown in the light it merely looks silly. I do appreciate the redesign of the bat-armor worked into the movie -- "You'd like to be able to turn your head?" quips armourer Lucius Fox -- but at this point the best design might be the simple look of the comics suit. If Batman is looking for flexible, why not a light mesh armor suit, perhaps of grey or black?

On the other hand, I liked the scenes near the end of the film where the filmakers finally gave Batman an excuse to sport the "blunked-out eyes" that have been his trademark in the comics for decades.

Those notes out of the way, I can see why the DARK KNIGHT is garnering the raves that it is. It shows that a filmmaker can bring to an urban superhero project the sort of bravura filmmaking usually reserved for films like THE FRENCH CONNECTION. Despite being confined to Gotham City, it is expansive, giving the impression that every decision and action the characters make affects millions. (Remember how, in Tim Burton's first Batman movie, Gotham City seemed to consist of about two blocks?) It echoes several moments in the comics, without actually directly copying any scenes from them -- although a scene near the end is very close to one in BATMAN: YEAR ONE. It shows that the third act of a superhero film can consist of more than the hero and villain tearing up the scenery as they pummel each other. (A common feature of IRON MAN and THE INCREDIBLE HULK.)

But the biggest takeaway from the film is Heath Ledger's bravura performance as The Joker -- a performance that would stand out even if it was not his last completed role before his untimely death.

I find fascinating that each of the three most memorable portrayals of the Joker -- Jack Nicholson's in 1989's BATMAN, Mark Hamill as the voice of the knave in BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES in the '90's, and Ledger in this film -- plays the character completely differently; and none quite duplicates the skeletal, grinning killer that either Bob Kane or Jerry Robinson (conflicting accounts) created in 1940, and which Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams redesigned in the seventies.

Ledger's portrayal eschews the dead-white skin, green hair and ruby lips as the character's permanent look; the filmmakers found more in keeping with their "realistic" take on the story that Ledger's character would be nuts enought to wear "war paint" makeup instead. His slow-burn delivery eschews the manic approach that Nicholson and Hamill took. And Ledger really does not smile very much (apart from the false "smile" his scars create), and doesn't give out with one of the Joker's chilling laughs until quite a way into the story.

Yet he hits upon the center of the character, as portrayed initially in the comics and from the '70's on: the Joker's sense of mystery, aided by his unreliable accounts of his origins; his monumental ego, justifying any horrific, large scale act just to satisfy his whims; his psychotic unpredictability; his cunning, here manifested in his mastery of strategy; and his attachment to Batman as his perfect straight man.

There will be other interpretations of the rivalry between Batman and the Joker in the future. They will likely be as different from this movie as the movie is different from what came before. One can only hope they'll be as original and yet as spot-on as this one.

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