Friday, June 01, 2007

Heath Ledger's Joker


You've probably seen this already - Heath Ledger as The Joker in next summer's The Dark Knight. I've delayed responding to it because I was just sort of made...uncomfortable?

Am I alone in thinking that this is wrong, though? And not just wrong, but wrong, wrong, wrong.

The immediate problem, to my mind, is that this Joker seems to lack the very neurotic vanity that nearly ever other incarnation suffers from. As many have suggested, there's something so neurotic about him that suggests he's hyper-rational - not one hair is out of place, his suit always looks 'just so', and his various plans to kill Batman are meticulous in the Rube Goldberg sense. Such a Joker is also purely a sadist - he gets off on the pain he causes others, not on his own, and is only captured because he enjoys the pain more than the victory. He would prefer to allow his victims some small victory so that he can put them through hell one more time. But that Joker is not the one we see in this picture.

We could also argue that the Joker is the death-drive given human form, and that he represents both Batman's and his own secret desire to enjoin in a ritual of repetitive trauma until one or both dies - the superbeing's tacit realization that they can't survive every battle, that the whole struggle is just a big joke that will end with their death. Joker's very ordered appearance, though perhaps no longer neurotic (though I can't see why these two interpretations are mutually exclusive), is an element of this highly ritualized performance. There's something masochistic about this kind of Joker - he desires to lose to Batman, to be captured, maybe even more than he desires causing him pain. This is self-inflicted pain, sure, but only in the most abstract sense - he wants to be defeated by his mirror-image.

The implication that the Joker has carved up his own face (or is celebrating his scarring somehow), just doesn't fit either model for me. It suggests some sort of unspecific psychopathology, a sadomasochist in the most superficial sense - and that's simply boring.

12 comments:

Geoff Klock said...

Dude, yeah. Spot on.

Tim said...

You make a very good point. But the thing is, the previous movie version of Joker--despite Jack Nicholson giving a great performance--was very slapstick-ish. IMHO, it would be difficult to give the kind of deep definition of character we see in comic books when you put it on film. A feature only goes on for so long, and you have to take into account the common perception of Joker as just some raving, laughing, murderous lunatic. Movie producers' main conrcern is to make as much money as possible, anyway.

Just my two cents. ^_^

neilshyminsky said...

Hi Tim - while that's an explanation, I don't think it's a good explanation. (And while Jack was a bit silly, well, the Joker is somewhat campy.) Film has done justice to plenty of complex sociopaths and neurotics, and its not as if they require loads of time to develop him. Subtlety is also an art - and Heath Ledger's Joker looks as subtle as a PETA ad.

Even a simpler presentation of the Joker could be nonetheless nuanced and provocative. I'm thinking of something along the lines of 'The Killing Joke', which lacks a lot of the nuance that I'd prefer in an examination of the Joker's psychology, but is clever and twisted - the Joker's 'one bad day' thesis - in a way that would translate well and easily to the screen.

Anonymous said...

that dosnt make sense! in the comic book he was scarred in acid this seems more true to the comic

Anonymous said...

It's sad that he will be unable to see the out-come of his latest role! RIP Heath...

Anonymous said...

Joker and any other characters from this Film is under the interpretation of the one making it.. coz after all, if thats how you see joker, not every one sees him that way.. i would prefer joker to be a medieval type jester always crouching and creepy than the one i usually see..

we all have our own interpretations, and somehow, the new Joker is for the new millenia.. even Marvel characters get a revamp.. why shouldnt DC do it?

lets not keep our imaginations closed and open up to other new ideas from someone else..

just coz we dont see it that way means its wrong wrong wrong..

neilshyminsky said...

Anonymous: While you're right in the most general sense - that we're all welcome to our own interpretation - this doesn't preclude one interpretation being more right than another. Which is to say that an interpretation is only as valid as the argument that you can muster to justify it.

The 'medieval-type jester' that you've mentioned, for instance, doesn't strike me as something that's terribly well supported by the Joker's textual history. The version of the Joker that I'm privileging, on the other hand, is the one that was popularized by people like Alan Moore and Frank Miller, and the 90s cartoon to a lesser extent. It has a certain authority to it - in fact, I'd say that it is the authoritative Joker - and so passes itself off more easily as the 'right' Joker.

Should, of course, Heath Ledger's Joker prove to be a brilliant version, it could easily challenge the legitimacy of the version I prefer. So my mind remains open to that extent.

Anonymous said...

this is funny, because upon the movie being released and having watched it, you've pretty much described to a 'T' the Joker that the Nolan boys and Ledger were going after and captured beautifully... every piece of personality and habitual action that you have thrown out here was touched on in one way or another. So I guess all I can say is kudos on knowing your Joker so well, but at the same time maybe judging books by their covers isn't your thing, and you shouldn't immediately jump to conclusions on how a character will be presented based solely on a single picture.

neilshyminsky said...

anonymous: I'm still not sure that full credit goes to the Nolans. It's possible that their writing of Joker is intentionally ironic, but it's also possible that they genuinely intend for the Joker to represent 'anarchy'. This is a banal metaphor, though, and his neurotic attention to meticulous planning seems to undercut the idea that he's anarchic. But, again, the philosophizing in this movie is mostly so painfully explicit that I'm not sure they were intentionally undercutting themselves.

As for 'judging books by their covers', that's simply unavoidable - we use trailers, commercials, reviews, and promotional materials as a guide to what we might like and dislike all the time. I still dislike the unkemptness of his Joker, but I like character enough to ignore it.

On the other hand, I said way back in April that despite my reservations "my mind remains open," and I think that's really all that one can reasonably do.

Anonymous said...

i think they wanted to portray the joker in a more chaotic way. in a more "i dont give a shit about what they think" way. ive seen the movie the day it got out and i was blown away by heath ledger's performance. R.I.P.
personnaly im very happy with the adaption that they made to the joker.
he truly looks like a psycho who shows not even a bit of remorse for what he does but francly, in the movie, he has strong opinions about the world that i respect

neilshyminsky said...

anonymous: He isn't an "i don't give a shit about what they think" kind of Joker, though. The Joker needs back-channeling and an audience - his plan was to turn the uncorruptable Harvey Dent, yes, but it was also to shatter the city's spirit. And Batman managed to rob him of that by covering up for Dent. So he may not give a shit in any sort of normal sense, but he lives off of people's pain - and that's certainly giving a shit of a sort.

Constantine said...

Finally someone who have the guts and express a different opinion! To tell the truth, I was also not so sutisfied with the whole movie. Lack of goth elements and picture, Cristian Bale was indifferent and boring. Joker was the only character I liked the most but still there was something missing..Thank you for posting your opinion.