Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Professor and the Madman

Wow. The Dark Knight was one of the few movies in recent years that had excited me enough to warrant me seeing it on opening day. That anticipation was paid off in spades.

Heath Ledger was transcendent in his role as the Joker. His interpretation and depiction of the insane villain was one of the most enthralling I’d ever watched, which makes his passing all the more tragic. Sadly, before this I’d never paid much attention to him as an actor. Working with Mel Gibson in The Patriot sort of condemned him for me.

The Joker has always been the definitive adversary to Batman. I once found that puzzling. Here you have a hero steeped in dark, serious, noir stylization, yet he gets paired with a (frankly) hokey concept villian. Think about it: the “world's greatest detective” faces off against a man with a giant, red-lipped grin in a purple suit using killer hand-buzzers and acid spewing flowers?

Batman has been developed over the decades into a meticulous strategist, utilizing technology and science to overcome anyone he faces. He’s bested seemingly more powerful characters, even Superman when such clashes occurred.

So I had assumed that the Joker’s pairing with Batman as an unfortunate result of the campy tone that dominated the 70’s comics, culminating in the Adam West television series.

It wasn’t until I read the graphic novel, Arkham Asylum, that I began to understand the Joker’s potential as a valid antagonist. Even while purchasing the book, the book store employee commented that this was the first story that ever made her frightened of the Joker. I had only been drawn to the book because of it’s artistic, collage styling and poetic narration which was completely different than the typical comic fare.

The story places Batman, trapped in the insane asylum where all of his captured villains have broken free and taken over. The Joker was featured sparingly, but just enough for me to realize that the guy was seriously homicidal and insane.

Which is why he is the perfect foil for Batman, the Yin to Batman’s Yang. The Joker has no rhyme or reason to his actions. He breeds in chaos and madness, not for money or power or comic book typical world domination aspirations, but simply for chaos and madness. He is the complete antithesis of Batman, the detective who believes that there is always an answer through science and logic.

For a well done documentation of the Joker’s many incarnations check out this write up on Comic Book Resources.

As for the rest of the movie, I will agree with other reviews that this is one of the best comic book movies ever made. Unlike X-men or Spiderman, this movie is steeped in realism. There’s no need to suspend belief so that men can cling to walls or shoot laser beams out of their eyes.

Although I felt the last act started to get convoluted and faltered a bit, the movie as a whole was gripping. I felt tense with anticipation throughout the whole film. There were a few gripes here and there, but minor. I wasn’t a huge fan of Maggie Gyllenhaal but she was light years more tolerable than Katie Holmes.

Aaron Eckhart's portrayal of Harvey Dent was well done. I enjoyed the build up of his character and how it mirrored Batman's role in Gotham. The filmmakers seemed to fully understand how his role poetically fit in with the theme of the story. I was thinking that they were building up his character for the next sequel so was surprised that it was paid off in this film. Maybe because of that expectation, I felt that it was a bit rushed and shoe-horned in. The development of Dent’s story was well handled but I think that the result was a letdown and not executed as perfectly as it could have been. The main antagonist of the film was the Joker and it was obvious to me that this hurt Two-Face’s tragic resolution. I applaud the filmmaker’s ability to intertwine the two villains’ stories though.

It was a great match of villains story-wise. Two-Face’s back story is so explicit that it took nearly the entire film to depict. Whereas the Joker had no real insight into his progression. As another masterful move, the filmmaker’s heightened each character by contrasting them with each other. Two-Face has always been propelled by his origin: a great hero that has fallen so far into evil. The Joker's motivations are based on madness that he needs no history, and in the many decades since his introduction, still has no definitive origin.

There will be the inevitable comparisons to all of the previous Bat-films. I have to say that as a kid, I loved Tim Burton's movies, but can admit today that they haven’t aged well at all. The visual style he created still appeals to me, especially the depiction of Gotham City so I kept wanting to see parts of it in Nolan’s films. But I also realize that the current films are much more grounded in our reality and that a realistic city backdrop fits in visually. Danny Elfman’s score in the Burton films is still iconic Batman for me. Otherwise, Nolan’s films surpass the previous attempts in every way. I didn’t even bother with Batman and Robin so can’t comment there.

The story with The Dark Knight is still Heath Ledger’s amazing performance, which will unfortunately be forever linked with his tragic death. If he winds up getting nominated for an Oscar (which I think he should) I can imagine there will be chatter about it only be spurred on by his passing. That will be very upsetting because I can’t recall in recent history such a powerful and mesmerizing performance.

Bravo, Heath.

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