Heath Ledger is no longer my fourth favorite Joker. That’s because I no longer accept that the character he plays is, in any substantive way, the Joker.
Another year, another movie wrap-up. Here’s the list of all 2008 releases I tramped down to the multimegaplex to watch. As always, films are listed in terms of domestic box-office because I’m lazy and therefore cribbing from the yearly summary at Box Office Mojo.
- The Dark Knight
- Iron Man
- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
- Quantum of Solace
- The Incredible Hulk
- Get Smart
- Tropic Thunder
- Hellboy II: The Golden Army
- Forgetting Sarah Marshall
- Baby Mama
- Burn After Reading
- Speed Racer
- Star Wars: The Clone Wars
That’s fifteen, two down from last year. And only five of the top 10, also down two. Maybe I should’ve seen Hancock and Madagascar 2? Eh, maybe not.
Going into 2008, a lot of folks–including myself–were seeing the potential for another 1982, a banner year for filmic geekdom. Certainly, there were a great many prominent genre efforts, despite Star Trek and Harry Potter being pushed back into 2009 for reasons known only to movie marketers.
I suspect that for many geeks and geeks-in-training, it was every bit as big as ’82. Theater clean-up crews are still wiping up the spooge deposited at screenings of The Dark Knight, the bestest movie EVER. Similarly, Iron Man had folks falling over each other on the way to the microphone to proclaim its sublime charms.
For me, 2008 was a little bet “meh.”
First, let’s get The Dark Knight out of the way. It’s telling that I not only didn’t run out and buy the DVD on its day of release (which you can damn well bet I did for Speed Racer), but I didn’t even put it on my Christmas list. Ultimately, I did receive a copy as a holiday gift, and I do intend to give it another whirl.
My relative lack of enthusiasm for The Dark Knight is for much the same reason as my muted reaction to the regenerated James Bond series: it just didn’t give me what I wanted from the franchise. Like Quantum of Solace, I respect the level of talent involved, as well as the need to curb the excesses of the past, but at the end of the day I guess I’m just not ready for a complete reinvention. For me, Dark Knight was only a superhero movie in that someone wore a cape; it was closer in feel to a modern crime drama or even a Silence of the Lambs-style thriller. And I’m sorry, but Heath Ledger is my fourth favorite Joker.
Iron Man was another one that had both fanboys and regular critics touching themselves, but again I struggled to see what the fuss was about. I did actually ask for this one at Christmas, and watched it a second time over the holiday break. And don’t get me wrong, it’s an enjoyable film. Robert Downey Jr. is having fun, and it shows. On a second viewing, I still found it to suffer from a relative paucity of Iron Man; there are long stretches in which not much happens, and even the final fight is fairly brief. I actually found The Incredible Hulk a bit more satisfying as a superhero film.
The “meh” continued with Indiana Jones and Hellboy II. I enjoyed them, but neither knocked my socks off. I do think that public reaction to Indiana Jones was a bit harsh in that everyone seemed to be anticipating another Raiders of the Lost Ark rather than another Last Crusade. And all the indignation about “nuking the fridge” seemed more about trying to invent a new “jump the shark” meme than a legitimate criticism of a series that has always reveled in unbelievable moments. Back in the day, my dad complained mightily about Indiana Jones getting pulled under that truck in Raiders, and I recall similar audience reactions to Indy using a rubber raft to escape a crashing plane in Temple of Doom. The real problem with Crystal Skull was that damned crystal skull.
Another Lucasfilm release was Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which amounted to little more than a cash-grab culled from the weekly animated series. One thing that has become clear is that for as much bitching as we old-school fans do about the prequels, for today’s kids this is Star Wars, and they love it.
The other entry in the computer-animated space robot sweepstakes was WALL-E, which was a sheer delight, start to finish. I don’t go to enough movies to confidently claim that any of them is the “best of” a given year, but WALL-E was the best that I saw.
Long-time readers will of course know that I absolutely loved Speed Racer. And hey, there are at least two of us: Richard Corliss over at Time magazine put it on his top 10 list. It reminded me of another film I adored, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, not only because of its entirely green-screened sets and hyper-unreality, but because in both cases audiences just didn’t seem to care. A lot of folks who were perfectly okay with the likes of Transformers suddenly demanded complex plots and realistic characters from their popcorn flicks. Whatever. I think that blogger Chris Sims summed it up best when he chalked up its poor reception to people who actively hated joy.
Cloverfield was another movie made expressly for me. Despite my ongoing hassle with Hasbro over my duplicate Cloverfield monster, I really liked this modern take on the venerable giant monster movie subgenre.
I saw a few good comedies this year. Forgetting Sarah Marshall had a lot of good moments–especially the climactic Dracula puppet musical–but I could’ve done without having to see Jason Segal’s junk. Tropic Thunder was ridiculous fun, with Robert Downey Jr. once again the big draw, though no moment was funnier than one featuring Ben Stiller and his would-be adopted “son”. Despite my well-documented love of Tina Fey, I felt that Baby Mama went a bit flat, and wasn’t nearly as good as Mean Girls. Get Smart managed not to tread upon my affection for the original TV series, and I felt that both Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway acquitted themselves in the roles created by Don Adams and Barbara Feldon. Finally there was Burn After Reading, which alternated between hilarious and too weird for words.
Can’t say that there’s a lot I’m looking forward to in 2009, aside from the aforementioned Star Trek and Harry Potter (and it must be said that this is my least favorite story in the Potter series). Land of the Lost is on my radar, though the inclusion of Will Ferrell makes me wonder what they’re going for; at least it appears to include old-school Sleestak. Terminator: Salvation has my interest, if only because it’ll finally pay off the future war we’ve been promised since the original film. And the new Wolverine flick looks promising; while I don’t have the Wolverine love that most comics fans do, I’ll admit that Hugh Jackman was a lot of fun in the previous X-Men films. Oh, and Watchmen, assuming it actually comes out.
Setting: A movie studio executive’s office.
Executive #1: I’ve got an idea! Let’s make a feature film version of The X-Files!
Executive #2: The X-Files? Wasn’t that canceled?
Executive #3: Six years ago.
Executive #2: And hasn’t it been about nine years since anyone cared about it?
Executive #3: Yep.
Executive #2: Plus, didn’t we already make that movie?
Executive #1: Sure, but this one will be completely different!
Executives #2 and #3: How so?
Executive #1: Well, remember all that stuff about aliens?
Executive #2: You mean the central premise of the TV show and the first movie.
Executive #1: Yes. But, come on, everyone knows that “mythology” didn’t make any fucking sense in the end. And we want to make this flick accessible to a general audience.
Executive #3: The people who weren’t interested in The X-Files during its nine-year TV run.
Executive #1: Of course! Because nothing gets people to plunk down eight bucks for a movie ticket like a tie-in to a long-dead show that they never watched when it was free.
Executive #2: Hey, didn’t the series end on something of a cliffhanger?
Executive #3: I think that the aliens were going to destroy the world in 2012…or something. I lost track, or possibly fell asleep.
Executive #1: Erm…yes, but alien invasion films are expensive and shit.
Executive #2: Plus, that’s just so Spielberg.
Executive #1: Right, so we’re going to completely fail to follow up that dangling end of the world plot line and make one of those “monster of the week” episodes that the fans liked so much.
Executive #2: The fans that we’re not pitching this toward.
Executive #3: Oh, I remember those stories: the flukeman, the squeezy-guy, the killer cockroaches. Those were cool!
Executive #2: So, it’s gonna be about the flukeman?
Executive #1: No, no, nothing like that. Instead, we’ll make it more like one of the other episodes. You know, the ones that were pretty much like every generic horror film that’s come out in the last six years.
Executive #2: Umm…
Executive #1: Plus, we’ll market the film in such a vague manner that no one will have any idea what it’s about. Except that it features Mulder and Scully.
Executive #3: Those two characters that appeared in the TV show that the people we’re trying to attract didn’t watch.
Executive #1: Okay, I sense that you’re not really getting it. How about this? We end the film with Mulder and Scully…
Executive #2: The people that the summer movie audience doesn’t care about…
Executive #1: …and they wave at the camera!
Executive #3: Wait! Doesn’t that pretty much fly in the face of the show’s dark, pessimistic mien?
Executive #1: Mien? Isn’t that a pretentious word for a movie executive?
Executive #3: Sorry.
Executive #2: Getting back to that “waving” thing, wouldn’t it also be unbearably cheesy?
Executive #1: Yes…but…we’ll put Scully in a bikini!
Executives #2 and #3: Brilliant! We’re sold!
Executive #3: So, when should we release it?
Executive #1: I was thinking that the best time would be the weekend immediately after the premiere of The Dark Knight.
Executive #2: You mean, the summer’s most anticipated geek fest?
Executive #3: Starring America’s favorite recently-deceased actor in an acclaimed, head-turning performance?
Executive #1: That’s the one!
Executives #2 and #3: Genius!
Folks are all in a lather over The Dark Knight. Over on the Invincible Super-Blog, comics blogger extraordinaire Chris Sims sums it up with a two-word review: “Fucking Awesome.” I don’t intend to dispute that, but I do take issue with the sentiment expressed by one of those who commented on his post:
But Ledger is the joker (sic). Not the most convincing joker, not the definitive joker, not even the best joker. He just simply is the joker.
No, this is the Joker.
And this is the Joker.
And this is most certainly the Joker.
I don’t know what this is…
…but it’s not the Joker.
Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I am guilty of the sin of hypocrisy, as I have regularly railed against those who would whine that Spider-Man shouldn’t have organic webshooters or that Bumblebee should be a Volkswagen, yet I would myself get my panties in a bunch about Heath Ledger not being a legitimate Joker. I’m also guilty of pretending to be a Catholic, but hear me out anyway.
The trademark of the Joker isn’t his white skin, green hair or poor dress sense, but his rictus grin. His look was originally based on Conrad Veidt’s makeup in the silent film The Man Who Laughs. Like Veidt’s character, the Joker’s mouth is unnaturally wide and permanently frozen in a parody of amusement. And his preferred method of murder is a lethal toxin that draws up the lips in a similar mocking grimace.
So, right off the bat I’ve got a problem with Ledger’s Joker, whose smile is merely suggested by facial scarring and a wide smear of red makeup, and who never once leaves his victims laughing to death. I could accept it as a valid alternate-universe interpretation of the character–the film equivalent of one of DC Comics’ Elseworlds books–but the real deal?
The Joker, as portrayed in The Dark Knight, is supposed to be an avatar of anarchy. Yet his plans are intricate and meticulous; he spends most of the film four steps ahead of everyone. His actions aren’t random or mercurial, they’re thought through and designed to make a point. Since when does The Joker have a point?
Robbing banks and knifing people is beneath him. This is a character who once attempted to copyright fish. The Joker is motivated by irrationality and a sick sense of humor. By contrast, the villain seen in The Dark Knight rarely goes for a laugh. (Admittedly, the “faulty detonator” scene was pretty funny, and the flaming fire truck was a nice visual gag. But those were exceptions.)
That’s not to say that the film is bad. Honestly, it’s got an awful lot going for it, including a well-crafted plot that if anything is perhaps a bit overdeveloped. Its themes are convincingly followed through. The pacing of individual scenes is excellent, even though the overall movie is too long. (Two-Face enters the story very late. I would’ve cut the entire subplot about the investigator who attempts to reveal Batman’s identity, which is never fully resolved. It’s also redundant, as the Joker’s attempt to coerce ordinary people to become murderers is repeated more effectively later on.)
The Dark Knight does an awful lot right, including Two-Face’s reliance on random chance and the curious relationship between Batman and the Joker, eternally locked in combat yet each unwilling to kill the other. Contrast to Tim Burton’s film, which had Bats launching air-to-ground missiles at the Joker’s head.
It also had several punch-the-air moments, and an uplifting, inspirational scene that was welcome if oddly out-of-place in what was otherwise an unrelenting orgy of bullets to the head. (I mean, Jesus, wasn’t there any better plan for luring the Joker into the open than running a gauntlet that saw dozens of cops butchered?)
But all this talk of an Oscar for Heath Ledger? Really? He was good enough, I guess, but I don’t see what’s so spectacular about the performance. Most of the time, I thought he was channeling Christian Slater.
Must be the laughing gas.
Yesterday, I attempted to argue with the readers of Kevin Church’s comics blog (click on the comments to read the exchange) that the depiction of the Joker in the Dark Knight trailer is lacking an essential Jokerly quality. What I subsequently learned:
1) Do not, even jokingly, be dismissive of the movie Casino Royale.
2) Spider-Man 2 would’ve been taken much more seriously if the filmmakers had ignored all those previous depictions of Dr. Octopus as a scientist with four mechanical arms and just made him a thug with some switchblades.