Tuesday, July 22, 2008

THE JOKER'S WILD (BUT IS HE TOO DARK?)

Yesterday Dave and I went to an afternoon matinee of The Dark Knight. It's not the kind of movie I normally would go to see, as I tend to prefer serious Oscar-season fare over summer blockbusters. But with Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker generating major Oscar talk, Knight unexpectedly qualifies as both.

I preferred director Tim Burton's first two Batman movies. As impressed as I was with Ledger, I recall being more so by Jack Nicholson's iconic take on the Joker in the first film, and I feel that Ledger's performance was greatly inspired by Nicholson's--to a far greater degree than people are acknowledging. Also, Batman and Batman Returns were actually entertaining. Nicholson's Joker and Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman were both sufficiently menacing, and I never had to close my eyes.

I have a problem with spending nearly three hours squirming in my seat, looking at the action through my fingers because of a villain who casually brandishes knives in front of his victims' throats. Once, I can live with. Twice, you're testing my patience. But over and over and over? Although the movie sagged whenever Ledger wasn't onscreen (let's face it: Christian Bale is easy on the eyes, but he lacks real star quality--not that any actor cast as Batman needs it), I found myself dreading his every reappearance.

I get it, I get it. The superhero-movie experience is supposed to be like watching a live-action video game. There was one moment during one of the most confusing car chases I've ever seen in which two young boys reacted to the onscreen action as if it were coming from their PlayStation. I found the implications here to be incredibly disturbing and irresponsible, and the fact that the movie is rated PG-13 underscores everything that is wrong with this scene. Is it okay for teenagers to be exposed--and desensitized--to such casual violence? Is it okay for them to see a young boy being held at gunpoint and thrown from a roof? And we're surprised when a teen in California stands up in the middle of a classroom, points a gun at a gay classmate (because he's gay) and pulls the trigger?

Two-plus hours of non-stop violence warrants a mere PG-13, but a penis gets you an R, if not an NC-17? Go figure. Maybe I'm too squeamish when it comes to violence, but too much of it prevented me from fully enjoying Heath Ledger's performance. He'll get an Oscar nomination, no doubt about it. Do I think he'd be such a shoo-in if he were still alive? Probably not. And I'm certain the film would have done half the box-office business and received three-quarters of the positive reviews. We'll never know for sure. I only wish this great dead actor's swan song wasn't so mired in...death.
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