When Jack Nicholson took on the role of The Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman, his legend in movie villain history was sealed as one of the most deranged miscreants among cinematic rogues.
Nicholson won a Golden Globe award for his role as the hysterical evildoer. Over the years, that performance has become so much a part of the Batman movie ethos that it was rumoured that subsequent films on the caped vigilante would require more than one bad guy to compensate for Nicholson’s monumental absence from the frame. As it turns out, every film with the pointy-eared vigilante since then has had at least two bad guys in it.
No clash of titans can be memorable without a good villain. Take all your favourite Bond films, for example; the story, the capers, the scam-craft and the showdown are all the more intriguing for the baddie’s ability to puppeteer misdeeds with characteristic menace. His goons, his intricate traps, his unhinged views of the world and his insatiable appetite for death and destruction are paramount to making an audience cheer for the hero. It’s no different with The Dark Knight.
(clockwise from right) Heath Ledger, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Uma Thurman and Jack Nicholson all terrorized Gotham City.(Photographs by AFP; (Heath Ledger) Warner Bros.
If Batman is the dark knight of Gotham, The Joker is its evil harlequin. Both rely on their outward appearances to strike fear in their victims and while one is hell-bent against murder in the name of justice, the other is all about murder justified for the sake of murder. Both are extremely intelligent individuals and each is a sworn enemy of the other. As with Burton’s Batman, The Dark Knight underscores The Joker’s single-minded need to hunt out, challenge and destroy his enemy. The rest of Batman’s gallery of rogues always concern themselves with the usual fare—ill-gotten gains, chaos and world domination. If Batman gets trapped and/or killed along the way, that’s fine. The Joker’s sole driving force, however, is the desire to kill Batman. The more death, destruction and pandemonium that can be thrown into the mix, the better. It is this self-destructive streak in The Joker and his obsessive disposition towards facing off with the dark knight that make their pairing so compelling. Shoot now, think later.
Even before his untimely death, Heath Ledger’s portrayal of one of comicdom’s most chilling villains set the press and blog pages on fire. Kevin Smith, director of the cult classic Clerks, wrote on his blog after seeing an early screening of the film, “Heath Ledger didn’t so much give a performance as he disappeared completely into the role; I know I’m not the first to suggest this, but he’ll likely get at least an Oscar nod (if not the win) for Best Supporting Actor... Nolan and crew have created something close to a masterpiece.”
In a portentous moment, the actor even said it was the most fun he would ever have playing a role. With The Dark Knight set to herald the return of one of moviedom’s most loved and hated bad guys, Ledger’s portrayal of the painted evildoer is likely to keep box-office tills ringing for several months well past its worldwide release date of 18 July. In fact, the new, improved and born-again Joker has caused such frenzy that its plastic doll sold out on the first day of sales in the US.
So, what’s this fascination with the bad guy all about? How is it that The Joker’s wild-eyed and grimacing doll sold out so fast while nothing was heard of the friendly neighbourhood Batman doll?
Because the world simply loves a good villain.
And the Batman stories teem with good villains. The Joker, Penguin, Two-Face, The Riddler and Catwoman have all become agents of evildoing that resonate with us as much as the Green Goblin or Darth Vader does. In Burton’s follow-up, Batman Returns (1992), The Penguin and Catwoman were introduced to Batman’s panoply of problems. One was as repulsive as the other was seductive and the interplay of the three principal characters worked wonders in embellishing a good caped crusader story. The heady mix of evildoing, black leather and of a Gothic Gotham City brought movie fans flocking to Batman Returns.
It is at this point that most moviegoers will struggle to remember what happened next in the world of Batman or Batman villains. Joel Schumacher ignited a luminous bomb on the sets of Gotham City with Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997), turning the Batman franchise into a debate on batsuit nipples. What people do remember, however, is that Batman Forever’s saving grace was the touch of master-class accorded to it by Jim Carrey as The Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face. The pairing of the two Hollywood virtuosos with their Laurel-and-Hardy chemistry, and hand-wringing diabolique, carried the audience through most of Forever with side-splitting effect.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said of Batman & Robin. When Schumacher took the success of Forever to be an approval of his 1960s-TV-series-reinvented-for-the-1990s formula, he took the mix a trip too far, and landed the Batman story choking in a bottomless drain of bad jokes, double entendres and a bunch of villains you’d sooner laugh at than cower from. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Uma Thurman have had their flashes of brilliance, but not in this film. A gut-curdling script served up with a Mardi Gras-fuelled Gotham City, three nondescript villains (Mr Freeze, Poison Ivy and Bane) and three less-than-memorable heroes (Batman, Robin and Batgirl) sent the Batman franchise into rigor mortis. With Batman & Robin , even the villains couldn’t save Batman.
Thankfully, all that’s behind us. Christopher Nolan resurrected the Batman story with his hugely successful Batman Begins (2005), which saw Bruce Wayne return to his origins. It explores his challenges of balancing a normal life by day with that of crime-fighting in a silly suit by night. The film was action-packed, gritty and powerfully endearing.
This summer, The Dark Knight is set to explode across our screens with the same hair-raising car chases, skyscraper plummets and the sort of grisly fisticuffs that should make us flinch in our seats. The trailers and sneak previews of the film show a Gotham that looks a lot more like everyday Manhattan than a Mardi Gras or Beetlejuice set. Gone are the smokescreens and sleight of hand. Get ready for a more-Hummer-than-Stingray Batmobile, a love interest that’s Maggie Gylenhall and not Elle Macpherson, flesh and blood characters, and a seedy and maggot infested underworld that’s reminiscent of The Sopranos. Welcome to Gotham City, the way it was intended.
And what about The Joker? Will The Dark Knight usher in a new legend in Ledger’s dark clown of Gotham? Will the shroud of mystique around Nicholson’s hell-raising and leering jester from Batman finally have its place in clown heaven? From the trailers, Ledger’s Joker is a stuttering, cackling and dishevelled caricature whose runny eye make-up and patchy facepaint place him deftly between the worlds of comic-page Technicolor and real-time alleyway nightmares.
Although Two-Face makes an appearance in this film, the world is holding its breath for a performance of sublime schizophrenic tyranny from Ledger—and one that might finally mute the croaking cackle of Nicholson’s Joker from the closing scenes of Burton’s Batman.
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