Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Joker? Fo' rizzle?

By now the whole world has seen the photo of Heath Ledger's new Joker for Batman Begins 2: Batman Progresses. Released through guerilla web tactics that make it impossible to confirm that this picture is real, it's caused more consternation, debate, and blogging among us fanboys than we've seen since they gave Spider-Man moulded nipples. Wait, is that right?

First of all, I'm working on the assumption that this is in fact a real picture of the new Joker (sorry all you photoshop conspiracy theorists). And what I have to say is this: while I trust both Ledger and director Chris Nolan to make this work in its own way -- to make it scary and dramatically satisfying -- I have to admit disappointment. The Joker (as we know him) is important and interesting because he is Batman's alter-ego in every sense. The (traditional) Joker's perpetual grin and menacing brow may be scary, but he is a caricature of the Punch figure -- the fool. His sense of humor never wanes (unlike that of Batman, who has little or no sense of humor). His appearance is as bright and mirthful as Batman's is black and brooding, making the irony all the greater -- the colorful Joker stands for death and mayhem, while the dark Batman stands for justice and honor.

So, by giving Ledger the appearance they have, all of the symbolism and irony is lost. Personally, I find the scar make-up horrifying. It hints at a backstory of a man who was either tortured and disfigured (inside and out), or worse yet -- he mutilated himself (this could be the most deeply disturbing Hollywood serial killer in a long while). But the bottom line is, it's not The Joker. It's not Batman's antithesis. It's a literal, grimmer physical manifestation of Joker's inner ugliness. All the irony, and frankly all the fun, is absent.

But die-hard Begins fans will say that the new series is more believable -- more realistic -- and that this approach rocks. Ok, this psycho scarface may be more plausible in the world we live in, but that doesn't make it the best possible fiction.
To be honest, I'm not that into this "let's make a realistic comic book" approach. I have no problem with my superheroes and villains being elevated, exaggerated, and colorful. I say that as a comic reader. Using the word "realistic" is a bit pointless when talking about a man in a bat suit.
Look... Greek, Norse, and other mythologies are beautiful because the gods reflect all the foibles, failings, and strengths that man actually exhibits. But they are superhuman. No one can say that there is anything remotely realistic about a Thunder God, or a Gorgon, or a flying horse. I'm not the only one who sees comics as a kind of contemporary mythology, and so this is why I become wary of the attempt to turn fantasy into reality.

Now, by the same token, I detest representaions of these characters that stray too far from their reflection of real human emotions and spin into out-of-control exaggerations that have no dramatic merit. Schumacher's Batman films are travesties in my opinion, and I'll take Batman Begins over those any day. But I worry that Ledger's Joker will be as "real" as Schwarzenegger's Freeze is "surreal."
This cut-up face that speaks of a deeply disturbed mind is certainly plausible (John Wayne Gacy comes to mind), but is "real" better? For those who think so, then Joker: Portrait of a Serial Killer may be your bag. To me, it's an interesting exercise, but strays from the spirit of the characters.

Different comic writers and artists have manifested The Joker many different ways, but this is drastically different from anything I've seen before. I'm in no position to condemn change, so ultimately this interpretation may be a good thing, but man, is it different as hell. What I've always loved about Joker is that even at his most maniacal, he is funny. But I see nothing funny about this new picture. Hopefully Ledger has the humor up his sleeve somewhere.
The Joker (as we've known him) is always smiling! At least, that is his default state. Everything is funny to him, always. But that spirit is absent from this first publicity still. Of course, a still may not be indicative of the performance. But WB decided to go with this shot, and I kind of wish he were, in fact, smiling.

I'm not condemning this look unequivocally.
The inner workings of the character, the writing and performance, are certainly the most important things here, and so I'm ultimately saying, "Let's wait and see." Many comic purists have dismissed this new Joker completely and immediately. These are the same people who invariably point to some internet fan film or another as the only real Joker on film. Well, no offense to those earnest efforts, but there's more to a good film character than just copying the books (remember that great line in the first X-Men, "What did you expect, yellow spandex?"). You've got to go for the essential spirit of the character. Forget the details. On this note, I'll put in my votes for Cesar Romero on the Adam West Batman run and the Mark Hamill-voiced incarnation on the 90's Animated Series as the best examples of the sheer joyful sadism that is The Joker (I'll give Nicholson honorable mention).

All that said, I still stand by my initial reaction: this may work very well, and in a very new way, but I find something missing. It's not The Joker; it's a new guy called "The Joker." Looking at this picture, I don't see The Clown Prince of Crime... I see the Sick Twisted F#*% of Crime.
I applaud the fact that a major studio is doing something new, genuinely twisted, and creative with a character we've seen for decades. And to be fair, one must reserve final judgement until seeing the film. But right now, it seems weird, and not in a good way.

1 comment:

Yeagers said...

But Heath Ledger has such pillowy lips!

Had I known you would one day open a blog this way, I might have educated myself beyond half-heartedly flipping through Dark Knight Returns. My impression of the Joker has been prejudiced by Tim Burton (and, to a lesser extent, Batman: The Animated Series). In my mind, he will forever look like a heavily made-up Jack Torrance dancing to a super shitty Prince song. I think this is why a younger Joker will never sit well with me.

In any case, Heath is still conspicuously sweet-faced in spite of all the scarring. Perhaps this is where Chris Nolan expects us to dredge our irony from?

Fuck realism! Have you seen Dick Tracy?