I Love Batman (The Joker, not so much)

I know I generally talk about Indiana Jones, and I'll get back to that soon, but I wanted to pause and react to The Dark Knight, which I've just returned from seeing.

My review: Loved it, with one major reservation.

That reservation? I can't believe how terrible Heath Ledger's Joker was. Just absolutely so wrong for the movie that every time he showed up on screen it took me right out of the experience.

The strange part about my dissatisfaction with the character was how it, with a single exception, was the performance I had a problem with, not the writing. I'd imagine that if I'd had a chance to read the screenplay, I would have been incredibly excited about the movie. Almost everything the Joker does, nearly every line he says is a wonderful interpretation of the character. Mercurial, ultra-violent, utterly insane yet fiendishly clever - it's a perfect Joker, as scripted.

Then Ledger goes and underplays it to the point where he barely shows up onscreen. Seemingly thinking that there's no line of dialogue that can't be improved by mumbling it into his chest while shifting uncomfortably in his suit. I'm sure he was going for some kind of 'realism' in his performance, asking the question "What would the Joker really be like?" Sadly, this interpretation is based on a faulty premise: that someone like the Joker could exist in real life. Trying to ascribe actual mental disorders to the Joker is pointless because he exists beyond madness.

There's a larger than life quality to the Joker that's always impressed me. It's not just that he wants to wreak chaos and bring the world down all around him, he wants to turn doing all of that into a show. He wants to do it with style. More importantly, he enjoys it. Ledger's performance has him limping through every scene, shoulders sunk. I never got the sense that he was having fun even as everything was going according to plan. Here's the joker aiming an RPG out the side of a van, trying to blow up Harvey Dent - where was the laughter? Where was the glee?

Of course, this was the actor's choice, as well as the director's choice - it was just the wrong one. Yes, he's the modern idea of what a movie psycho should be, all snarls and jitters, with as little control over his body as he has over his mind, but it's nothing we haven't seen before. What the filmgoing audience has never experienced is the real Joker. Sure, Caesar Romero was entertaining, and it's always nice to watch Jack be Jack, but the Joker, the bizarre, remorseless, gleeful Joker still hasn't ever appeared on the big screen. The closest we've ever come is his appearance in the flashbacks of Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, although that wasn't even theatrically released, so I'll probably have to go to his brief cameo in Mask of the Phantasm, which suffered, like all depictions of the Joker do, with not being R-rated.

It's all there in the script, though. Great dialogue, wonderful schemes, more than enough room for an actor with some screen presence to really knock it out of the park. Instead, we have an actor who underplayed it to the point where I can barely remember his performance. The utter failure to understand how the character should be presented is right there in his first appearance. A group of guys in ratty, decrepit clown masks rob a bank and kill each other until their leader, the Joker, is the last one left alive. He tears off his ratty latex clown mask to reveal: a ratty clown makeup job. That's the surprise? That's the reveal? Why not just keep the mask on? Imagine the impact if he'd taken it off to reveal that, underneath was the pale skin and ruby lips of an actual clown? That instead of the Black Dahlia-style facial mutilation he just had the broad grin of a man who absolutely LOVED the mayhem he was causing?

Much as I loved the rest of the film, the terrible Joker performance leaves it, overall, a missed opportunity. Nowhere near the disaster that Superman Returns was, but just a shadow of the film that it could have been.

Now, about the mistake in writing - to go into it, I'll have to enter spoiler territory, which can be located one paragraph down.

At the end of the film, the Joker's plan is to demonstrate that everyone's just as savage and monstrous as him by forcing boatloads of people to blow one another up or face death themselves. This concept is lifted from Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, which, although the author has dismissed it as a middling, unimportant work, actually has something of a beautiful message. In it, the Joker does many awful things in an attempt to drive Jim Gordon insane, and prove that anyone can be turned into someone just like himself. At the end, he fails, and his faced with the possibility that humanity isn't as weak, pathetic, and cowardly as he is, which is a shattering moment to the character, and more of a comeuppance than one of Batman's beatings could ever deliver.

This film has a similar moment, when the people on the boats prove to have far more strength of character than he could ever imagine, and choose to face their own deaths rather than allow him to turn them into murderers. So what's the Joker's reaction? Nothing. Instead of a shattering moment, with the Joker having his entire worldview threatened and all his plans fall apart, he doesn't react at all. He just goes to set the bomb off himself. Of course, the Joker would do that after the heartbreak, but without the heartbreak, there;s no depth to the character. The entire film builds to this confrontation between Batman and the Joker, and there's no payoff, no vindication. What could have been a perfect moment slides by, the biggest missed opportunity in a movie full of them.

Oh, and in a final complaint, I was really annoyed that Batman refused to kill the Joker. In Batman Begins, Batman killed Liam Neeson, and he hadn't done anything worse than burning down Wayne Manor. But the Joker kills the only woman Batman ever loved, and suddenly he can't be bothered. For a moment, as Batman pitched Joker off the side of a building, I thought we'd get the ending we deserved. But no, Batman pulls out a grappling hook and saves Joker. Still, I hoped they were ramping up to a great moment - after all, what could be more powerful than the Joker making some comment about all the trouble Batman goes to to keep him alive, and Batman responding that the only reason he pulled the Joker back up is because he didn't want the Joker to die thinking that Batman had failed to save him - he wanted the Joker to die knowing that Batman had dropped him. And then he could have dropped the Joker, and everyone would have been happy. Sadly, it was not to be, and Batman leaves the mass-murdering psychopath alive to kill another day.

And then Batman drives across town and kills Two-Face.

Classy work, filmmakers.


Anonymous said...

Are you crazy? I mean are you really that out of touch with the film and Heath Ledger's acting complexities? Were you even watching the same film?

Southern Woods Woman said...

I've met murdering people similar to the Joker just not as dramatic and these people really are cowards. If we could see it, we would find the Joker has attempted suicide or seriously considered it several times in his life.

This Joker portrayal was very dark and similar to a combination of Charles Manson (mind control) , Satan (do as thou wilt) , and some third-world dictator (abuse of power) doing as he pleases with the sheeple because these kinds of lunatics know that when the party of life ends, all they have to look forward to is an eternity of separation and nothingness. They better have all the fun they can while here. The Joker is utmostly depraved in character.