One of the guest contributors over on the side, there?
Been a while since I posted, but some recent discussion of The Dark Knight and the mention of Ledger’s Joker Halloween costume, plus some comments discussion here regarding genre (not to mention: the upcoming Oscars), got me thinking. So I thought I’d crosspost the following here and on my blog. But I also wanted to say hi first, so there wouldn’t be any confusion. That out of the way:
Not long ago, I went to a Philly bar called Eulogy with my best friend. This bar is a Belgian sort of pub one feature of which is a private room with a table like a coffin, and this best friend is a guy earning his master’s in literature but who also moonlights as a keyboardist in one band and a lead guitarist in another, which I hope will intimate the overall atmosphere. If only because my buddy and I have the conversation where we discuss Derrida but totally admit to neither ever reading or understanding the guy.
Over the course of (several) fine Belgian beers (Rochefort 10 ftw!), we started talking about Heath Ledger and The Dark Knight. Now, what you have to know, straight off, is that while we’re good buddies, he and I rarely agree on anything related to either music or movies. We both like music in general and good music in particular, but we have very different definitions as to what that exactly means.
So, Heath Ledger. The Dark Knight.
I didn’t love the movie. I’ve read many people claim that the reason it’s so great is because Christopher Nolan, moreso than directing a good superhero movie, managed to make a good movie, overall, but I’m not sure. See, I think that what really happened is that Nolan managed to make a good crime movie out of superhero material, because I can’t agree it was overall a good movie; it’s at least twenty minutes to half an hour too long, the final twenty minutes to half an hour of which seem composed of a philosophical treatise on the nature of good and evil telegraphed through dialog to the audience because Nolan suddenly got scared his audience hadn’t picked up what he was saying. Still, I will admit I originally thought it was badly structured, but I’ve since realized it’s not, that the plot turns when it’s supposed to for the most part (given 3-act structure and 140 minutes, the first plot point should come about 35 minutes in, with another midpoint beat and then a second plot point, each coming 35 minutes after the previous).
Also: when did Two-Face debut? In the comics, I mean. He’s been around at least long enough that Tommy Lee Jones played him nearly a decade ago, but yet he lasts, like, fifteen minutes in this flick? Wtf? I suppose it’s possible Nolan was lolzing us and will bring Two-Face back for The Dark Knight Returns or The Dark Knight Again or The Dark Knight Lightens Up a Bit, Because, Seriously, Why So Serious?, but either way, I think Nolan blows his villain load by using two who merely serve as thematic foils to Batman/Bruce Wayne, rather than any story use.
Because I think that’s the problem I have with the Joker (and with Ledger’s portrayal of him). While he claims to both want chaos and have no plan (and I realize that his claim of the latter probably serves the former), I think that the two villains clash in a way that the Scarecrow and Liam Neeson didn’t in Batman Begins. The first movie was about Batman and how he foiled the plans of Neeson, whose subsidiary was the Scarecrow; this movie is not just about Batman anymore. It’s about Gotham City and heroes and good and evil (as Nolan seems to want so dearly for us to see). It’s almost like Nolan had the exact opposite problem as the brothers Wachowski: while the second two Matrix movies probably should have been combined into a single flick, Nolan probably should have taken his time with this story and let the second installment become two.
(which, too, would have solved the problem Warner Bros. now faces, because, sorry to be callous about it, but who’s going to play the Joker now?)
Can the Joker desire chaos but have no plan? I’m not sure it works both ways, but given a little more fleshing out, Nolan might have proven it can and does. As it stands, though, the problem with the Joker is that he’s merely the foil or the anti-self or the whatever-opposite of Batman. He’s reactionary, really, and I’m trying to come up with great characters who have been solely reactionary but not really succeeding. He wants chaos, but only seems to want chaos because other people have plans he doesn’t like.
(of course, the major argument there is there’s no such thing as order, anyway, given that the natural tendency of all things is toward disorder/entropy. Had the Joker taken any science courses, he might realize that life exists despite chaos, in which case he might file for unemployment by reason of redundance)
Given all that, Ledger arguably did the best job he could with a somewhat otherwise limited role; I’m not sure he’s the only reason The Dark Knight wasn’t a typical superhero movie, but he might have been. That and his premature death are, I think, a large part of the reason his performance has gotten the acclaim it has. Which might seem cynical or even callous, I fear, but the thing is, I keep thinking of his performance in Brokeback Mountain. Now, I didn’t like Brokeback; in fact, I shut it off after fifteen or twenty minutes, because I was bored out of my skull. And I think that The Dark Knight, despite its flaws, is a movie far superior to Brokeback if only because the latter commits the cardinal sin of movies, which is that it’s not at all entertaining, but still, I watch Ledger as Joker and I just don’t think his performance there is nearly as good as he was in Brokeback Mountain. In Brokeback, he wanted something (namely: Gyllenhaal) but yet restrained himself, and in that restraint is all the subtlety and craft that I thought the Joker lacked. The Joker seemed wall-to-wall Id. Creepy thrift-store drugged-out rockstar more likely to front an emo band, sure, and entertaining to at least the degree you expect him to be onstage lamenting about how nothing actually has meaning, but just being crazy-villain guy seems to require little effort. I mean, in some ways, it strikes me that his role was of the just-add-alcohol variety; skip all the inhibitions and the performance executes itself.
Do I think he’ll win (not that you asked)? I don’t know if it’s important, at this point, if only because I think there’s too great a disconnect between good movies and critically acclaimed, award-winning movies. And why do I think that?
Because the one thing my buddy and I could agree on, over those fine Belgian beers, was that Ironman might well have been the best movie all year, and Robert Downey, Jr. has always knocked every performance he’s ever given straight out of the park. I mean, the fact that he doesn’t have an Oscar yet is nearly as big a travesty as that Zodiac went completely ignored last year, and if he got one this year for being “the dude playin’ the dude disguised as another dude,” I wouldn’t argue. I’d say he could then dedicate it to Ledger, but didn’t Daniel Day-Lewis already do that last year?
All that said, I might also just be bitter. I still wish Nolan had cast Christian Bale as the Joker, too, because I think that would have been awesome.