Monday, January 7, 2013

BATMAN: THE SERIES (1966-1968), BATMAN (1989), THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

Batman: The Series (1966-1968), Batman (1989), The Dark Knight (2008)

Joker…Joker… Joker

It’s interesting that the only two Superhero movies on any of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die lists are both Batman movies. And it is no accident that both of the Batman movies listed have the same supervillain: The Joker.

I grew up watching the campy but endearing Batman television series. One of its many pleasures was the villain of the week. We had the waddling Penguin, The constantly giggling Riddler, the sexy Catwoman and many, many other guest bad guys or gals visit Gotham City during the three year run of the show. But I’ve got to admit, that despite the infectious laugh of the Riddler, that weird quacking noise the Penguin made and the obvious charms of Julie Newmar in the Catwoman outfit, the one that stood out the most was The Joker.

Cesar Romero was kind of a second tier Latin lover leading man during the 1930’s and 1940’s, but I really only think of him as The Joker. Bright green hair, white face makeup painted right over Romero’s moustache and that purple suit were The Joker’s signatures and this pretty much cemented into my head how The Joker was supposed to be. The way Romero drew out his words, “Yeeees, Batman,” the way he clapped his gloved hands together in rapid succession and of course that laugh, (Hoo hoo hoo hoo)were all signatures. I also liked the scenes when the Joker traded fisticuffs with the caped crusader and a stuntman for Romero in a Joker’s getup would get really get it! Biff! Kapow! Splaat!

The impression of the television show (as well as the comic books) was pretty strong and I really didn’t think anyone could make a successful Batman movie that wasn’t camp. Then Tim Burton brought his Batman to the screen in 1989. I don’t have any direct proof of this statement, but my guess is that it was the most hyped movie ever up until that time. At least it seemed that way. When it was announced that the Joker was going to be the villain, there was clearly only one choice for the role: Jack Nicholson.

Some have said about Burton’s Batman, that it should actually have been called The Joker and it is really just as much about him as Batman.

In this Batman, Jack Napier is a criminal long before he becomes The Joker. We find out later that Jack was the one that killed Bruce Wayne’s parents("Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight"). It is during an altercation with Batman that Jack falls into acid, which disfigures him and turns him into The Joker. Nicholson’s Joker is hammy, but scary. He’s full of one-liners, (“Where does he get those wonderful toys?” “Those are my balloons. He stole my balloons! Why didn't anyone tell me he had one of those... things?") He even compares their respective origins with Batman during their final scene ("Give me a break! I was a kid when I killed your parents. When I say 'I made you' you gotta say 'you made me.' How childish can you get?"). IDespite the oddity of seeing Nicholson prance around to Prince songs, Nicholson’s Joker works, and Batman's initial return to the screen was a success. Subsequent films were popular, but as the Batmen kept changing (Michael Keaton to Val Kilmer to George Clooney) and the villains became a little less compelling (Arnold Schwarenaggers’ endless cold related puns from Batman and Robin), the series eventually died.

Christopher Nolan brought the series back in 2005 with the film Batman Begins, based on The Dark Knight graphic novels by Frank Miller. Nolan’s films are bleaker than the Burton inspired series and are about as far away from the original Batman television show as you can get. But it’s the second film, The Dark Knight that is included on the 1001 list. What sets it apart from Batman Begins? The obvious answer is that villain of villains: The Joker. But unlike the casting of Jack Nicholson in the previous series, the casting of Heath Ledger seemed a bit odd. You mean one of the gay cowboys from Brokeback Mountain as The Joker? Obviously, Nolan or whoever cast Ledger in the part knew what they were doing. In the Burton Batman, you might really like what Nicholson does with The Joker, but you never forget that it’s Nicholson’s Joker. In The Dark Knight, I don’t think of it being Ledger’s Joker, that’s just the freaking Joker! Unlike Nicholson’s Joker, The Dark Knight’s Joker has no past, no origin story, no traditional criminal motivation and no previous connection with Batman/Bruce Wayne. He is a terrorist, pure and simple whose modus operandi is identified by Alfred the butler in that some people just want to see the world burn. That is what makes this the scariest Joker of all.

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