Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Last Laugh

As he proved in Brokeback Mountain, Heath Ledger could carry a picture. But in the last stages of his short-lived career, he also proved time and again that his name did not always need to be the first one on the list in order to be memorable and steal a scene or two. He did it last year in I'm Not There, where he was one of the many performers who channeled the living spirit of Bob Dylan. Now, after his tragic passing earlier this year, he is doing it again: making The Dark Knight his very own with his demonic, impish portrayal of the Joker.

The Joker is the most popular villain in the Batman series. Going against the grain of Bob Kane, the creator of "The Bat-Man" for DC comics, Cesar Romero made the Joker a campy, nasty clown in the 1960s television series, and Jack Nicholson was highly praised when he played the villain as a buffoon with a decidedly deadly streak in Tim Burton's resurrection of the Batman story. Both Romero and Nicholson offered ideal characterizations of this character for their time and their particular venue. The campy TV series needed Romero's outlandishness, and although Nicholson was far deadlier and nastier than Romero could ever be, their styles were not too different and both sprang from the same clown college. They could have both ended up as washed-up performers at some third-rate big top in the sticks.

Heath Ledger's Joker inhabits another world. Although he has stepped inside the high-tech noir universe that Christopher Nolan has fashioned in this latest take of the Batman story, his low-tech crime wave contrasts brilliantly with the polished world of billionaire Bruce Wayne, and the space-age, computer driven, gadget-replete caped crusader alter ego thus making him the perfect villain outsider.

Visually, this incarnation of the Joker is truly a sight to either behold or, better yet, to turn your eyes away from. A Medusa-like sprout of dirty matted green locks hang limply on a ravaged face where slovenly-applied makeup barely hides more than just scarred tissue. This Joker's soul seems to have been hacked into deeper than his skin. Ledger finds the key to the character by delving into his tortured soul, and he comes up with truly brilliant acting results. What must have been the character's old habit of licking the wounds on the side of his face have now turned into an even nastier habit of darting his tongue in and out of his dirty, yellowed-teeth mouth. It's a great way of reminding the audience of his serpent-like qualities. If William F. Buckley, Jr. had mated with a reptile while on a Republican junket to Gotham City, probably the Joker would have been the result.

Heath Ledger's look for the Joker references the world of film that inspired the character. The Man Who Laughs, the 1928 silent classic based on a novel by Victor Hugo, is the genesis of this character. In that story a small boy's face is disfigured into a perpetual smile, pretty much mirroring the tale that the Joker relates of his disfigurement in this film. Further referencing other movies, my friend Skydin noted that Heath Ledger's visual conception of the Joker bears more than a passing resemblance to Brandon Lee in the film The Crow -- another movie where an actor met an untimely death (that time on the set of the film itself) and left behind the work for which he will arguably be best remembered.

In Tim Burton's movie, we witness how Jack Nicholson's Jack Napier becomes the Joker. In Nolan's film the Joker already is. In fact, it is the character of Harvey Dent, marvelously brought to life in a breakout performance by Aaron Eckhart, who undergoes a disturbing transformation from high profile District Attorney to disfigured-beyond-belief Two-Face: a deranged character whose penchant for throwing up a coin and leaving fate to chance might just make him get along really well with Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh in last year's No Country for Old Men.

Nonetheless, this does not make The Dark Knight a lopsided movie when it comes to its selection of villains. The story is well crafted and the late transformation of Harvey Dent does not feel like a late inclusion just for the sake of having yet another twist of plot. Unlike last summer's unfortunate Spider-Man 3, where the appearance of villain upon villain, late in the film, kept nullifying whatever had happened before, Two-Face and the Joker in this movie come together and share an unbelievable scene in a hospital. As a matter of fact, it is thanks to the tutelage of the Joker that Harvey Dent finally goes overboard and achieves true comic book villainy and fully transforms into a fiend.

The greatest aspect of Batman has always been that he is one of the best anti-heroes that has appeared in popular culture. As much a rebel and a criminal as he is righteous, this mysterious character, born out of the mire of Pulp novels and predating Hollywood "Film Noir" (his first appearance in DC Comics was in 1939!) by a few years, casts his longest shadow when America feels confused about itself and begins questioning its own values. Our very own War on Terror is the perfect landscape for Batman. At the end of this film there is a great scene between Batman and the Joker in which they dissect their roles of hero and villain. A similar scene, albeit less serious, occurs in Tim Burton's version, where both characters engage in a discussion of their doppelgänger existence.

But at the end of Burton's film, the Joker is disposed of, and Batman stands as a beacon for Gotham City to stand behind -- the perfect Ronald Reagan American hero to an America that was so full of itself (the film came out in Reagan's last year as president). In the last frames of Christopher Nolan's movie, Batman is a criminal on the run, the people of the city bewailing that they got the kind of hero that their society deserves. That's who we are! That's present day America.

Every hero-less American teenage kid (of whom there are millions) should adopt Batman as their hero. Why not! He is the hero we deserve.

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