Saturday, August 8, 2009

Who's Your Favorite Joker?

I recently watched "The Dark Knight" for at least the fifth time. It's the character of the Joker that compels me to keep dropping that DVD into my player's tray over and over again.

My daughter watched with me and, as we watched, I made some comment comparing Heath Ledger's Joker to Jack Nicholson's. That was when Jessica pointed out that she had never seen Tim Burton's "Batman" and, therefore, had never seen Jack Nicholson's portrayal of the Joker either. This problem proved easy enough to rectify, as Tim Burton's take on the Caped Crusader also holds a place in our DVD collection. I only was surprised that Jessica had never seen fit to watch it. And so, Jessica and I watched Tim Burton's "Batman", starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson.

When the film was over, I asked Jessica which Joker she liked better; Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson. To my surprise, she preferred Jack Nicholson's Joker. After some consideration, I have to say that agree with her.

In my opinion, Jack Nicholson's Joker is, on the whole, more faithful to the comic book villain than is Heath Ledger's. To begin with, the look is definitely closer to that of the Joker portrayed in comic books. Beyond that, Nicholson's Joker is simply ... well ... funnier than Ledger's.

Heath Ledger's joker is, arguably, the scariest, most sinister take on the Joker to date. He not only kills people, he messes with their minds. He endangers the lives of two people (Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes) and then forces those who care about them to choose which one lives and which one dies. He turns his victims against each other, such as when he rigs two passenger-laden ferries with explosives and then gives each of the detonators to the people aboard the other ferry.

And he knows no fear. He walks into a meeting of underworld bosses from whom he's just stolen millions of dollars and calls them all impotent for letting the Batman erode their power and control. When they attempt to turn on him, he produces a live hand grenade and makes good his escape. He endures a brutal interrogation by the Batman and simply laughs while being beaten. He can't be controlled by the threat of physical pain. After mutilating Harvey Dent, he hands him a loaded gun, giving Dent the opportunity to kill him there and then. He is cold, remorseless and absolutely insane.

His motives are a mystery. He incinerates an Asian kingpin by burning the pile of cash atop which he sits, so he's clearly not interested in money. He compares himself to a dog chasing cars down the street; "I wouldn't know what to do if I ever caught one!" The story of how he got his facial scars changes with each telling. He appears to take pleasure from the misery of others for its own sake.

For all this, however, he's really not very funny. The Joker, as his name suggests, should be a clown; a prankster. Ledger's Joker uses few gags and doesn't crack many jokes. He doesn't even laugh all that much. The closest he comes to a gag is when he offers to show the underworld bosses a "magic trick" and then makes a pencil "disappear" by driving it into the forehead of one of the bodyguards.

None of this is intended as a criticism of Ledger's portrayal of the villain. Both Ledger and director Chris Nolan clearly intended to offer the audience a darker, grittier, more sinister Joker, and in this they succeeded marvelously. I only question whether this portrayal is in keeping with the original character concept.

Jack Nicholson's Joker is much truer to his moniker. He's bristling with gags, from his megawatt joy buzzer to his acid-spewing lapel flower to his handgun with the ridiculously long barrel to his classic telescopic boxing glove. He also boasts a much more amusing repertoire of whimsical one-liners than does Ledger.

"Never rub another man's rhubarb!"

"Can somebody tell me what kind of world we live in where a man dressed up as a bat gets all my press?"

"This town needs an enema!"

"Where does he get those wonderful toys?"

"I'm gonna need a minute or two alone, boys!" (right after shooting his most trusted henchman).

And Nicholson's Joker laughs. From his maniacal laughter after first seeing his own disfigured face in a mirror to his gleeful cackling as he takes his vengeance on Boss Grissom, electrocutes an uncooperative crime boss, terrorizes Vicky Vale and wreaks general havoc throughout Gotham City, there's nary a moment when Nicholson's Joker isn't yucking it up. Even after his fatal plummet at the end of the film, an electronic novelty gadget in his breast pocket manages to keep laughing for him.

Yet, for all of his maniacal humor, Nicholson's Joker still manages to come across as dangerous, insane and frightening. Most of his gadgets are lethal. Even his telescopic boxing glove hits with enough force to destroy a TV set. Scenes such as the one in which he sits in the midst of a collage of newspaper and magazine clippings lamenting "So much to do, so little time" reveal the depths of his insanity. And there are brief moments when he stops clowning around just long enough to let the audience catch a glimpse of his mean streak, such as the scene in which he briefly loses his smile, assumes a dead earnest expression and declares "Wait'll they get a load of me."

Yes, all things considered, I have to conclude that Jack Nicholson's Joker is much more faithful to the comic book vision without seeming campy or ridiculous and, on that basis, I prefer this portrayal of the character over Heath Ledger's.

How about you? Which Joker do you prefer? Nicholson or Ledger? Or perhaps you're an old-timer who likes Cesar Romero's Joker. I would argue that Romero's Joker, like Nicholson's, is truer to the comic book character than is Ledger's. Romero's Joker is, of course, a little campier than Nicholson's but that's because the "Batman" television series for which he was created was itself much sillier and campier than the more recent films. One might even argue that Romero's Joker was the most credible character in the show if only because, as the Joker, one expects him to be silly, unlike Batman and his sidekick.

Let's take a vote. Leave a comment stating which of the three Jokers is your favorite and, if you like, a short explanation as to why.


Tubes said...

Don't have a favourite..
Romero's when I was a kid, the others would have been too scary.
Nicholson's was good as you pointed out. But Ledger's was an interesting change which I also liked....They all came to me at the right time in the right order...

Martin said...

Despite Candy's assertions (left on your answering machine) that Jack Nicholson is best, I have to give my vote to Cesar Romero. How could anything compete with 60s Batman ... come on!