Saturday, July 26, 2008

the joker=crazy delicious!

I used to collect X Men trading cards—it was THE thing to do in elementary school—and I followed all the comic book heroes on TV more or less, but Batman was my favourite. I absolutely loved Batman Begins for all the right reasons (the acting, the writing, the sets, the stunts, the whole frame of the moral and psychological underpinnings). But I also loved it for superficial or shall we shall subconscious reasons—you can read what I wrote about that in these entries. 1, 2

I was quite embarrassed to find that after watching the first film, much as I loved and still love Christian Bale, I really fell victim to absolute obsession with Cillian Murphy’s character Dr. Jonathan Crane, aka the Scarecrow. Seeing as how was flooded with Cranefics, I surmised I wasn’t alone—but I did feel a bit ridiculous succumbing to such a weird obsession. (Hey, at least I never wrote any Red Eye fics.) So I did my self-indulgent thing and wrote my Cranefics, which, fair enough, are some of the most praised things I’ve ever done on (though it’s a bit like preaching to the choir). I guess the writing that came out of the obsession, as well as my discovering Cillian Murphy who is a great actor anyway, means the thing wasn’t wholly bad. So I was looking forward to seeing The Dark Knight and totally unconcerned that the same thing would happen again. Well. Read on.

I read a really excellent review of the film on Simon’s blog. He made an interesting point I wouldn’t even have thought about, and I’m usually the first one to blow the whistle about this: with the exception of Rachel Dawes, there are very few female characters in the film. While this would normally bother me, I believe my mind drew the parallels right away with Master and Commander, and the naval world of the early 19th century was, male dominated for obvious reasons. The Dark Knight doesn’t have that genre restrictive immunity, but like that film, it’s all about the violence and not about the sex. Which is an interesting concept in itself for a big blockbuster type movie.

I’ll try not to spoil things for you, but the film is even better than its predecessor, which was so well-made in my opinion (and critics and the public agreed). Though it does go on a bit and could use some tightening, the majority of it makes me green with envy as I wish I could write something that worked so well. It’s a wonderful lesson in how good drama works: a careful balance of rewarding the audience with what it expects and baffling it by pulling the rug out from under it. How do you open a movie? Like this one. I can just see the scenes on the screenplay flying by in my mind, how crisp, not a word wasted, all of it no doubt translating well into storyboards. It helps, of course, that Christopher Nolan writes AND directs, but so he should.

It does worry me a bit at how cool I found it, since it is a film about violence, some of it quite disturbing. But like its predecessor, that’s what makes it unique—the psychology of it gets under your skin as much as a slowly turning screw. The first film had a lot of setting up to do, focusing on the (reinvented) backstory and the iconography of a man who dresses up in black, wears a mask, and pretends to be a bat: to inspire and combat fear. The first film was about fear. That’s why Scarecrow made such a good villain. The second film is similar but it makes much out of chaos and why THAT scares us more than anything. The ancient order in the first film responsible, so they said, for the fall of Rome and the Black Death, operated somewhat similarly, but their long term goal (I think) was to preserve humanity, or at least the best specimens of humanity. The Joker here, as he explains, is a free agent who likes to introduce a wrench into people’s notions of safety, just for fun. If he has another motive, it isn’t explained—which seriously freaks Batman/Bruce out. (After all, his parents’ death was senseless but the rationale was robbery to feed a homeless man.) “I’m a like a dog chasing cars,” says the Joker. “I wouldn’t know what to do if I got my hands on one, but that’s what I do.”

I think the film is really intelligent, despite all the explosions. Gotham DA Harvey Dent (whose end fans will see coming and will find him the more poignant for it) notes that you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. The Joker also brings up the fact that no one is bothered when a gangbanger dies or troops get blown up in Iraq, it’s the unexpected deaths that get our attention (though one could argue back to him that our brains are limited in their comprehension of death as a finite concept, so to focus on every single death in our lives would cause us to self-destruct).

With the Joker and Harvey Dent both having significant roles in this story, Batman/Bruce takes something of a back seat, though I suppose you could compare it to Captain Jack’s reticence in the first series of Torchwood. If the movie was three hours long, perhaps there would have been more Bruce time, but I think in general it succeeded in cramming all the incidental characters in. Including the absolutely fabulous Gary Oldman as Gordon (and man, there is a huge shock in store for you but I won’t spoil it!). While I think Rachel Dawes is brave, she doesn’t seem particularly fleshed out in the film. Much to my delight, Cillian is back for a short cameo as the Scarecrow—though not nearly enough for the rabid fan in me. Doctor Who fans will be pleased to note that Eric Roberts plays a mob boss. Michael Caine is ever dependable, and there’s a pretty impressive sequence in Hong Kong.

In watching the film, I got to wondering how the Doctor would react if placed in the Gotham City environment. There’s so much violence and bloodshed and a very different mentality from even the present Doctor’s darkest outings. Can you imagine putting the Doctor and the Joker in a locked room together for an hour? The Doctor shares with Batman the penance of working for the greater good while always having to make sacrifices. Though the Doctor might not approve of Bruce’s violent methods, I think he would understand his ideals.

The Joker’s insanity, on the other hand, made me think briefly of Erik the Phantom in the book. If you read the Kay version, Erik’s madness is at least partially caused by morphine overdose, but both versions seem to present a man who has absolutely gone off the deep end. So the performance aspects were similar. However, Erik always had a motive, at least I think: he loved Christine and wanted her. The Joker had no such motive. But that brings to mind another literary parallel, a bit more far-fetched, admittedly: Milton’s Satan. Why does he fall? Why does he leave Heaven for Hell and Pandemonium (Milton’s word, by the way; pan= all + demons)? Greed? Jealousy? Or just spite? Because Milton’s Satan has always been accused of being seductive to the reader, especially in light of the rather insipid portraits Milton (deliberately) gives us of God the Father and God the Son, and because Blake actually thought Satan was the hero of Paradise Lost, he does tend to both repel and attract the reader at the same time. Which is how I felt about the Joker. He was easily the funniest character in the film, but the laughter in the theatre was uncertain, self-conscious. He was like a train wreck: you couldn’t bring yourself to look away.

There is such hype over Heath Ledger’s performance I didn’t want to blindly follow any lemmings off a cliff, but I literally haven’t been able to think about anything else. I feel a bit tainted, as the whole media fixation reeks a bit of dragging out the dead to entertain us, making us no better than our Roman gladiatorial forebears. For James Dean at this point, it’s not only acceptable but considered good taste. But this—my mind says it’s weird and morbid. I knew the first place to turn was to see if I’d gauged the general mood of teeny bopper fandom correctly. And I had. There were over 500 Batman-related pieces of fan fic. And the truth is, these are mostly girls my age and younger, who intellectually or otherwise are getting off on a fictional character who cuts people up with knives and who is, to put it mildly, a psychopath! So was Erik, so was Heathcliff. I’m attracted and I’m repelled.

The thing about the Batman stories are that all the characters are very twisted, angsty and torn. These aren’t sunbeam superheroes. True, there is a trend to try to justify all the villains in the movies by making them victims of childhood trauma, etc., which, ha, I myself emulated in my Cranefics. The Dark Knight acknowledges and makes fun of this tendency by making the Joker a completely unreliable narrator. “Do you wanna know how I got my scars?” And he has a different story for every mood. I sometimes worry that because I’m a “nice” person I lack the psychological depth to write really interesting characters that don’t end up being a projection of myself. I have a hard time writing characters who act contrary to what I would myself do, or, harder still, writing characters who break all the rules. So, if nothing else, I can try to emulate the film in that respect.

Okay, I think I’ve written enough. The title is from a review of a fic on

Should you be interested:
Cold Shower
The Pajama Game

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