After decades of trying and failing, trying and failing, failing and more failing, DC Comics have finally produced a movie that is entirely successful, and equal to or better than the most successful efforts from Marvel, who box-office-wise have been kicking their butts for a decade.
I didn’t have high hopes for this one going in. The Joker, as a villain, is seriously played out ...or so I thought. I was wrong.
When people look for fresh takes on overplayed characters, they often re-imagine them in new forms or settings. Like how Shakespeare productions often like to move old plays to new settings — put Hamlet on a spaceship or in fascist Italy or in an underground punk rock club. They did that with the Joker — instead of being a guy who turned white and green due to a chemical accident, he’s now just a guy who has scars and slathers himself with weird makeup. This could easily have been a complete failure, but they did something else. Instead of making the Joker a fiendishly clever master criminal with a gimmick, they made him something much more frightening. This Joker is essentially a terrorist. And not the kind of terrorist who has a political agenda and turns to terror in the hopes of advancing it. Someone for whom terror itself is the prime agenda. He doesn’t blow people up in order to gain power and wealth, he pursues power and wealth in order to blow people up. The movie illustrates this with a surprisingly effective scene in which, having acquired a huge pile of cash, he sets it on fire. When he threatens to blow up a hospital, his main goal in making the threat is superficially to extort something, but what he mainly seems to want is just to create even more panic and chaos than he would get by blowing up the hospital without warning.
Since the Joker is a terrorist, some have tried to read a conservative message about the War On Terror into this movie, as some do with 300. I don’t think that’s justified. For one thing, unlike 300 or 24, this movie is able to bring some actual sense of nuance to questions of how far we go in fighting evil. For another, although the word “terrorist” is used, the consistent metaphor that the movie uses for the Joker is to compare him to a vicious dog. (They even have him ride in a car with his head sticking out the window.) A normal terrorist works to serve a political agenda, but the Joker sometimes doesn’t seem to have any agenda at all — he’s simply acting on impulse, like an animal.
Alfred: “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
But maybe the key to what really makes this Joker scary is the already legendary performance by the late Heath Ledger. Because the character, despite not being white and green, is still pretty dang improbable outside of comic book reality. So the one thing that can make it stick is a great performance.
Actors have always loved villain roles, and so have audiences. And unfortunately, villain roles and over-the-top ham acting have always gone together. For me, even some of the most awarded and celebrated performances of villainy have been a bit too false and exaggerated. For instance, Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter. Or Malcolm McDowell as Alex, in the opening section of A Clockwork Orange. Both are, for me, too showy in their moustache twirling. What do I consider a really fine performance as a villain? How about Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith — a role in which an apparently emotionless surface persona gradually peels back to reveal an inferno of seething hate beneath. In my view, his performance (along with a terrific groundbreaking score) is what makes the otherwise overrated Matrix movies. And now I include Heath Ledger as The Joker.
The movie’s story and plotting are also excellent — far superior to its predecessor, Batman Begins. There’s a lot of story here, enough to burst the typical dumb action movie plot at the seams. It covers a lot of ground. There’s enough plot here for two movies... in particular, the subplot about Harvey Dent / “Two-face” could have sustained a film of its own, and I do feel that unfortunately that character is treated rather too briefly here. But though Two-face’s story is condensed, it’s solid, meaty drama.
The whole film is fairly solid drama. It’s not just about action (though there is a plentiful supply of that, and it isn’t all obscure and muddy like before), but about people making hard choices. The Joker delights in forcing people to choose between awful alternatives, and even without that, there are plenty of tough decisions to go around.
In this context, unfortunately, it’s Christian Bale’s Batman that starts to be the weak dramatic link. In the lesser Batman Begins, he was adequate for the ambitions of the picture; here, not so much. And god, that awful constiptated voice he uses when in costume.
At least the weakest link of the previous film, Katie Holmes, is gone. They replaced her with Maggie Gyllenhaal. It’s as if the Rachel Dawes character suddenly matured by ten years (and spent those years learning to act). If only she’d been in the first film... her scenes here might have worked much more richly with that to build on. And fortunately, Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon gets much better material this time, becoming a much more fully realized character than he was in the preceding film.
My one other complaint is Hans Zimmer’s score — a shapeless boring pablum of generic thudding and chugging “dramatic tension”. The film deserved something far richer and deeper.
On a final note, I’ll just say that it’s impressive how grisly they managed to make this while still getting a PG-13 rating. This is not any candy-colored lighthearted romp through the funny pages.