I’ll get the obvious out of the way first. Heath Ledger was absolutely amazing as the Joker. Compared to Ledger’s performance, Jack Nicholson’s take on the premier Batman villain was a ludicrous showcase of ham fisted showboating, and with all due respect to Cesar Romero, the role of the Joker belongs to Ledger now and, likely, forever.
Also, there will be spoilers in this “review.”
Okay, that’s out of the way, although I’ll revisit it somewhat later.
Director Christopher Nolan successfully restarted the Batman franchise with the excellent Batman Begins a few years ago. He did it the way it should have been done: he pretended George Clooney was still on The Facts Of Life and that Jim Carrey had never been let anywhere near a green suit festooned with question marks. It was a Jedi mind trick of epic proportions: “There were never nipples on the bat suit.” And jeez, it worked. Christian Bale took over the role of Batman as if Michael Keaton was hamming it up in Beetlejuice: The Revenge.
The casting was perfect. For starters, Christian Bale is an actor. Michael Keaton is a character. Liam Neeson played the terrorist Ra’s Al Ghul with all of the understatement that Danny DeVito left in his trailer. The dude who played the Scarecrow was creepy and believable. He was NOT Howard Stern, who was rumored to be the man in the scarecrow mask for the aborted fifth movie in the original run. Not being Howard Stern is usually enough, but in this case the actor was excellent. His name escapes me, which probably means I won’t be on his Christmas card list, but I’m too lazy to go to IMDB right now. I write on the fly, you know.
But the tone of the first movie was darker and more serious. This was a movie based on a comic book, but the cast and crew treated it with respect. There’s the difference. The first series of Bat flicks had melted into an annoying goo of hammy acting and knowing winks at an audience the cast and crew assumed were all like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.
Now comes The Dark Knight, easily the greatest comic book movie ever made. The majority of the cast is lifted from the first movie, with the exception of Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing a way-too-young Katie Holmes. I’ll spare you the intricacies of the plot. The mob doesn’t like Batman and hire The Joker to do away with him. That will suffice. At it’s core, it is still a comic book, not Tolstoy.
Enter the Joker, the character that elevates the movie into something more. Unlike Nicholson’s take of the villain as a petty thief who takes a colorful chemical bath and then rises to become a crime boss, Ledger’s version is The Joker as Anarchist. In the original Tim Burton-helmed Batman, Joker wanted revenge against Batman. In Nolan’s hands The Joker wants “to see the world burn” as Alfred (Michael Caine) so eloquently puts it. He is not driven by profit. When he does get his hands on the Mob’s money he burns it.
What drives The Joker is the desire to see the rest of humanity brought down to his level. Ledger’s joker is possibly the most nihilistic villain ever to grace the silver screen. He doesn’t want to kill Batman. He wants to be killed by Batman. He seeks to force Batman to break his pledge against killing. In Joker’s world, humanity is fierce and animalistic, hiding under a thin veneer of civilization. Blow up a few buildings and watch the people turn on each other.
In the case of Gotham City’s crusading District Attorney and all-around good guy Harvey Dent (the excellent Aaron Eckhart), Joker succeeds. Kill his girlfriend, and horribly disfigure a guy while attempting to blow him up…well, you can certainly damage sanity. And by the time Dent ends up in the hospital he is clearly a man in whose sanity has been stretched. But it is when the Joker shows up at the hospital and reasons with Dent that the sanity snaps and Dent becomes the villain Two-Face (you won’t even remember Tommy Lee Jones’s version after this, I promise). In effect, the Joker finds the good guy when he’s seriously down, and convinces him to stay there. Then he blows up the hospital because that’s the kind of guy the Joker is. The fact that he does it while wearing a nurse’s uniform is more chilling. The fact that his remote control has a glitch and the Joker is clearly annoyed (not mad or hyperventilating, just annoyed) as he continuously hits the red detonation button is downright frightening. It is too bad that Two-Face will not be around for the next movie. Eckhart played him with the cool insanity that fits the role, not the leering, laughing hamminess of Jones.
The movie has much to say about humanity. The Joker is thwarted in his schemes but, more importantly, he fails to turn citizen against citizen. He even fails to turn hardened convicts against ordinary citizens. Joker is the Id writ large. He is the badass that many convicts pretend to be. But when face to face with anarchy, when confronted with a man for whom the truth is whatever he wishes it to be, when dealing with true madness, even the worst convicts suddenly realize the benefits of a system of law and order. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s a concept that seems beyond the limited intellect of those who sport the Anarchy “A” on their clothes, or those people who think that there are no objective standards of truth. These are people who have never looked The Joker in the eye.