July 13, 2008

Will Ledger’s Joker Be the Next in a Long Line of Great Gotham Villains?

People are talking about "The Dark Knight," but they're not talking about Batman.

That's no slur on Christian Bale, whose brooding performance as gentleman superhero Bruce Wayne gave a soulful center to "Batman Begins," and who'll reprise the role in Christopher Nolan's sequel (opening in Seattle theaters late-night Thursday). But "The Dark Knight," and the buzz that surrounds it, looks to be all about the Joker -- which is to say, all about Heath Ledger.

Part of this is, of course, because of the aura of tragedy surrounding the performance, which was the 28-year-old Australian actor's final completed film before his death in January of an accidental prescription-drug overdose. But the anticipation began well before Ledger's death, with the release of the film's trailer in late 2007. Ledger's was the flat, eerily crackling voice we heard in the trailer's opening scenes, and his face -- caked with grotesque, smudged makeup -- was the one seared into our memories.

And isn't that the way the "Batman" movies usually go, with the villains stealing focus -- often deliciously -- from the hero? Originally created by comic-book author Bob Kane, Bruce Wayne is a taciturn fellow even for a superhero, while his diabolic foes ooze with personality: the Joker, the Riddler, Catwoman, the Penguin. And, cackling from the big screen, they stayed with us, even as the man in the Batcape faded away.

Prior to Ledger taking on the role, Jack Nicholson played the Joker in the 1989 "Batman," directed by Tim Burton. In precisely applied makeup (Ledger's look, in the new film, is deliberately and wildly different) and foppish purple suits, he was always recognizably Nicholson but fit the role like a charm. Grinning, preening and prancing in that hey-I'm-Jaaaack way, he was a colorful magnet for our eyes. "You're insane!" accuses damsel-in-distress Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger). The Nicholson eyebrows head skyward. "I thought I was a Pisces," he leers.

Michael Keaton's low-key Bruce Wayne didn't stand a chance against such theatrics, and he had an even bigger challenge in Burton's 1992 "Batman Returns": two over-the-top villains, inspired by the animal kingdom. Danny DeVito's oily Penguin, grayish fish goo drooling from his lips, hissed his way through the movie in top hat and frock coat -- a grotesque figure furious with the world that had rejected him. Michelle Pfeiffer's mousy secretary Selina Kyle felt "so much yummier" in her Catwoman guise, an S&M-ish shiny black catsuit, complete with hand stitching and metal claws. It's a wonderfully slinky performance, right down to the way Catwoman practically yawns all of her lines. "Life's a bitch," she says disinterestedly, "now so am I."

Even in the dark days of the Batman franchise (otherwise known as the Joel Schumacher era) the villains brought a bit of fun. In 1995's "Batman Forever," with a glum Val Kilmer in the title role, Jim Carrey nattered maniacally as the Riddler, and Tommy Lee Jones glowered as Two-Face. 1997 brought George Clooney (in a career low point -- and you know he's still getting ribbed about that Batsuit) as the hero of "Batman & Robin," fighting against the perpetually unintelligible Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman's slinky Poison Ivy.

A new jolt of life for the series came eight years later, with Nolan's "Batman Begins." With co-screenwriter David S. Goyer, Nolan created a story that for the first time allowed Bruce/Batman to take center stage. Though a couple of villains stalked the movie's edges (particularly Cillian Murphy's creepy but underused Scarecrow), Bale took hold of the movie as a new kind of Batman -- no longer an enigma but a man with a history. A favorite with both audiences and critics, "Batman Begins" offered a chance for Nolan to start fresh, ignoring previous incarnations of the characters.

And so we come to the Joker again. Based on the movie's trailers, nobody will be thinking of Nicholson as they watch Ledger in the role. Not only is he decades younger, but the entire look is different: creepy rather than showy, slouchy and a bit vulnerable rather than bombastic, small-voiced yet strangely demonic. Unlike Nicholson, Ledger -- an Oscar nominee and breakout star for "Brokeback Mountain" -- was the kind of actor who disappeared into a role, and many won't recognize him here; not just because of the makeup but the weirdly meandering voice, complete with odd little spaces between his words, as if he's enjoying the attention and wants to draw it out.

Whether Ledger's Joker will be the performance of the year (many are already prematurely talking Oscar; see related story), or just another fine characterization from a young talent already sadly missed, remains to be seen. But if he neatly steals "The Dark Knight" from its Batcaped hero, he's participating in a long tradition. "This city deserves a better class of criminal," purrs the Joker in the trailer, with his sloppily painted-on grin. The ever-beleaguered Gotham just might be about to get one.