"Why so serious?"The Joker
This, dear readers, is not your standard-issue, objective and unbiased movie review. No, it's an unrestrained fan gush. I'm a huge fan from way back in the days when I was a teeny tot about waist high when I watched my first Batman cartoon series and my consequent foray into its many comic books and graphic novels. But I'm not a Batman fan, mind you. Nuh uh.
I'm a Joker fan. He's my favourite villain, nay, favourite fictional character ever conceived in any medium in the history of arts and literature.
I have this thing for fictional sociopathic killers; Hannibal Lecter, Tom Ripley, Patrick Bateman, Anton Chigurh... the lot of 'em. They fascinate me because they are so far removed from what we refer to as the human rationality. They have a maligned way of seeing the world, and make choices which make no sense to anyone except to themselves. The sick morality by which they operate is monstrous by the standards which society approves of. That's why in the movies and books which tell their stories, they were never ever given the death sentence after their capture - it's because what they think and do aren't morally wrong. They are just so very different from us that we can no longer recognise the humanity in them any more. They make me want to be them, even for a minute, just to see what it feels like to be in their minds. It's a twisted obsession, I admit, but there's no denying its seduction.
And the Joker is the perfect personification of absolute divorcement from humanity. He is the ultimate joke of this universe - the one which no one gets.
The Dark Knight is the movie which I anticipated most in the year 2008 and for one very, very good reason. It's going to be the first true live adaptation of the Joker. Jack Nicholson was reported to be "furious" that he wasn't asked to play the Joker in this reincarnation but I can only heave a deep sigh of relief at that. He got to face the fact that he's ridiculously old and out of shape, that the 1989 Joker he portrayed is, to put it bluntly, not the Joker I recognise from the comics, and that he's an anus. The concept of the Joker was bastardised in that movie by that pretentious art school nut Burton (as much as I like his other films, I can never forgive him for Nicholson's Joker). The very point of the Joker is that he has no fixed agendas, motives or ultimate plans. Nicholson's Joker was motivated by revenge, of all lame things, and all the major themes surrounding the iconic clown were flushed down Burton's artsy toilet bowl.
So listen to me, a true Joker fan, when I tell you that The Dark Knight's Joker is the definitive Joker. He's the Joker everyone will remember when they talk about the Batman movies. Not Nicholson's.
Now we move on with my dissection of the movie, and more gushing on the Joker. No spoilers ahead, by the way. I'll dish under three main headings; The Story, This Joker, The Themes and The Special Fucking Effects.
I will say a few things about The Dark Knight's story, and to an extent, about it's prequel, Batman Begins.
It is the first Batman movie(s) written and directed by someone who actually understands the comics (Burton admitted that he doesn't read comic books at all), and it shows. The very backbone of The Dark Knight was borrowed from The Long Halloween (1996-1997), which talked of the pact made by District Attorney Harvey Dent, then-Captain Jim Gordon and Batman to clean Gotham City of its criminal elements and more importantly, of the tragic, tragic rise of Two Face. If you can only read one Batman comic book in this lifetime, The Long Halloween is that comic book. It portrays Batman at his detective story finest and almost completely paraded his entire rogue gallery through the run of the series. The phrase "I believe in Harvey Dent" which was used by Harvey Dent's campaign in the film, was said many times in the graphic novel.
The tension was prevalent throughout the almost 3 hour long movie and at the end of it, I felt exhausted and drained - but I mean that in the best way possible. The scary anarchic rampage of the Joker is suppose to make you feel that way. Still, I found myself wishing it was longer.
I NEED MOAR
There had been derision from the fandom when Heath Ledger was announced as the new face and voice of the Joker but as soon as the first teaser trailer for The Dark Knight came out, all doubts were completely drowned out by the manic, soul-chilling Joker laugh at the end of that trailer. 'Unrestrained' is the keyword here. It was the Joker laugh I had in my mind all along, and it was eerie how Heath completely nailed it. I was initially apprehensive of the decision to change the origin of the Joker's clown face from its original chemical disfigurement root to a faceful of caked make-up and Chelsea grin scars carved from the corner of his lips but when I first saw Heath Ledger's Joker on screen, he had my absolute approval. I couldn't see Heath Ledger at all underneath the psycho clown. He didn't play the Joker so much as disappear completely into the character. As for Nicholson's Joker, Nicholson was obnoxiously showing through all the time. He's just way too much of a ham.
By the way, you do know about that story of Heath Ledger locking himself up for a month in a hotel room and talking to himself using the Joker voice, right? He also kept a diary to record the Joker's demented and fractured thoughts. It really begs the question of how much the role messed him up and just how big is its contribution, if any, in leading to the actor's eventual demise.
In a way, the perma-smile scars on Heath's Joker's face is actually more true to spirit than what is superficially visible. The original Joker conceived by Bill Finger and Bob Kane in 1940 was based on the character of Gwynplaine in the silent movie, The Man Who Laughs (1928), which was in turn based on the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo (that French bloke who wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Gwynplaine's face was surgically mutilated into a permanent rictus grin by the order of King James II, so he can forever laugh at the folly of his father who offended the king.
And Heath's Joker actually scares me. He's twitchy and strung, and inspires the same fear that real-life crazy people scare us - mainly because we can't predict what made sense in their twisted minds to do next. Nicholson's Joker is so campy in comparison that he didn't even make me shudder - and I was just a little kid when I saw him, for Pete's sake!
Imagine yourself in Rachel Dawe's place.
Did I mention that Heath's Joker is also a freaking terrorist genius? He eclipsed everyone else so effortlessly. BatBale is a flat, one-note character beside him and this coming from a guy who thought that BatBale was the most complex and poignant Batman compared to all the other Batmans ever to grace the silver screen (I'm especially looking at you, BatNipple Clooney - why the fuck were there nipples on the Batsuit? To shoot bat-laser from? Fuck you, Joel Schumacher).
My only lament is that we will never see this Joker ever again. Heath Ledger, I'm telling you, will be the second person in history to receive a posthumous Oscar. It was a monumental performance.
I truly applaud Nolan's decision of not bothering with the Joker's origin story but instead, unleashed him directly on the citizens of Gotham City without warning like a freak force of nature - which he is, and in the movie, allusions were made about that theme in the Joker's own lines. The Dark Knight also centered on several other beloved themes in the Batman comic mythology which most pedestrian Batman fans have never had the exposure to, chiefly;
- The Opposition of Order (which Batman represents) and Chaos (the Joker, evidently). Batman operates under the burden of law and rules while the Joker, well, he can do any damn thing he please. This is why the Joker is such a great foil for Batman. Batman uses reason, logic and strict methods in fighting crime but when he's pitted against the Joker, all of that fails. Batman is helpless against the Joker. The Joker is not afraid of Batman's ninja scare tactics, like the other criminals in Gotham. The Joker has no motives or goals by which Batman can predict his moves and actions. In one comic book, the Scarecrow used his fear gas to see what the Joker's afraid of. It had no effects on Joker who then proceeded to beat the shit out of Scarecrow with a chair. As Alfred so eloquently put it in the movie, "Some men aren't looking for anything logical. Some men just want to watch the world burn." There's a beautiful shot near the end of the movie when Batman and the Joker have That Last Conversation which underlined this theme. See if you can spot it.
- One Bad Day Can Drive a Man Insane. It was the raison d'etre for The Killing Joke (1988) when The Joker broke out of Arkham Asylum, kidnapped Commissioner Gordon after shooting his daughter in the spine (paralysing her) and then forced Gordon to sit through a carnival ride where giant pictures of his wounded daughter in various stages of undress were shown to him. He wanted to prove that even the sanest man can go crazy like he did in the span of just one bad day. The comic book also gave a famous interpretation of the Joker's own "One Bad Day" origin story in the form of flashbacks but it was not definitive because as the Joker admitted himself; "Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another... If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!" This is brilliantly, yet subtly, depicted in the movie. You got to watch it to get it! Oh, and instead of Commissioner Jim Gordon, the victim of this theme in the movie is...
- The Joker Exists Because of Batman. It was implied at the end of the first movie by Gordon Oldman when he talked about "escalation", and in Heath's Joker own words, "You complete me." In one of the comics, when the Joker supposedly succeeded in murdering Batman, he became sane, fixed his face and led a normal life. When Batman came back, he mutilated his face and went insane again. In The Dark Knight Returns (1986), a catatonic Joker incarcerated in Arkham becomes animated only after Batman resumed his crime-fighting career after a lengthy retirement. You see, the Joker needs Batman. It is one of the most unique hero-villain relationship in the history of fiction.
- Batman is as Batshit Insane as the Joker. "See, to them, you're just a freak. Like me!" After all, how sane are you if you dress up as a bat to fight crime? I think The Killing Joke summed it best in a joke told to Batman by the Joker at the end of the comic after Batman defeated him, and offered to help him work out his insanity - an offer which the Joker refused; "See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum... and one night... one night they decide they don't like living in an asylum any more. They decide they’re going to escape! So they get up on to the roof, and there, just across the narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in moon light... stretching away to freedom. Now the first guy he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend daren't make the leap. Y'see he's afraid of falling... So then the first guy has an idea. He says "Hey! I have my flash light with me. I will shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk across the beam and join me." But the second guy just shakes his head. He says... he says "What do you think I am, crazy? You would turn it off when I was half way across." The comic ended with both Batman and the Joker laughing at that. What do you mean you don't get it?
This is almost a literature study, I know. I'm just that obsessed.
Besides all of the above, Nolan himself came up with a few gems of his own on the fragility of ordered society and on heroism. I won't spoil it for you but the conclusion of the movie totally blew me away. If there's a comic book movie which deserves an Oscar, it's this one. This is truly the most matured take on the genre I've ever seen. It made Iron Man (2008) and Ang Lee's Hulk (2003) look painfully juvenile in comparison.
However, I am sorry to report that Harvey Dent's line in the trailers - "You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain" - wasn't thematically significant. It's more of a foreshadowing, really.
The Special Fucking Effects.
One word: Batpod.
The way the Batpod was introduced in The Dark Knight ought to win an Oscar on its own. If there isn't a category for it, they ought to create one. Something along the lines of Most Bad Ass Debut of Some Cool Shit Gadget Award would do nicely. The whole freaking audience in the cineplex stood up and clapped hands when the Batpod came in and it took me heckuva lot of willpower just to stay in my seat and not join them. I rank the Batpod right up there with Heath's Joker in my list of reasons why you should watch The Dark Knight. Watch out for the wall-assisted direction reversal! And the truck-flipping! Bloody insane.
Batman's escape from Hong Kong also qualifies as one of the greatest moments in cinematic history. Wait, everything else which happened in Hong Kong is just as awesome. And when Batman leapt off the top of the skyscraper, you can practically feel the awesome jump out of the screen and make sweet, sweet love to you, leaving you pregnant with little baby awesomes.
Also, they almost went overboard with Two Face's scarred side. Almost. I kept myself from Googling a picture of that because I wanted to be surprised and when I saw it, God, it was worth the wait. It's very reminiscent of The Long Halloween version of Two Face and it will make your skin crawl;
I spent a good part of the night before reading reviews of The Dark Knight and I was so psyched to watch it that I decided to travel to the nearest cineplex, which is two hours away in Mangalore, the next day. My Community Medicine lecturer actually remarked twice about how I eager I seemed for the class to end. I practically ran to the bus station and instead of sleeping through the journey like I always did, I stayed awake and swam in the buzz of excitement which totally permeated every cell in my body. Right after the flick, I power-shopped for an outfit for my college's annual ball and hopped onto the next bus back, reaching Manipal at 6.00 pm - with only half an hour to bathe, spruce up and make my way to the Valley View Hotel where the ball was hosted. I actually planned to watch the movie on Sunday, today, but I just couldn't wait. I was so bushed that I actually fell asleep at times during the ball.
You know that great expectations often ruin the experience of anything, right *coughdeathlyhallowscough*? I can tell you that nothing in this world has greater expectations from me than The Dark Knight. It delivered everything I wanted. And so much more.
It's not just the best comic book movie ever, man. It's the best anything movie ever.
Score: ∞/10, baby.
P.S. All I need now is to watch the Watchmen movie, and I'll die a happy man. For the uninitiated, Watchmen is possibly one of the most beloved graphic novels of all time, and it completely deconstructed the superhero genre, and it's the only graphic novel to ever win the Hugo Award and also the only graphic novel to be on the Time Magazine's 2005 list of "The 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present". The film adaptation had been in development hell for the past 20 years. Here's its amazing, boner-inducing trailer and if you've read the Watchmen graphic novel, you'll recognise all the landmark scenes in this. Love the Smashing Pumpkin track. So appropriate. It is going to be fucking epic.
Rabid Joker fan,
k0k s3n w4i