BATMAN ON FILM, 'The Dark Knight Fansite!' Est. 1998.

OPINION

Battle of The Jokers!
Author: Cary Ashby
January 19, 2087

Ladies and gentlemen, members of the BOF community, welcome to Bob Kane Arena in downtown Gotham City! Tonight's bout is The Great Joker Challenge!

In one corner is a middle-aged, charismatic, three-time Oscar winner. Coming in at five-foot nine and three-quarters, it's Manhattan's own - Jack Nicholson!

In the other corner, is a mysterious young buck from Down Under. At six-foot one, is Australia's own chameleon actor - Heath Ledger!

This battle for silver screen supremacy could go the distance. There is no gruesome Dark Knight in sight and members of the Gotham's Finest have been barred at the door. It's up to the onscreen performances of these two actors; their fate is in your hands.

Now: Let's - get - ready - to - RUMBLE!

“The Jack-Joker”

Jack Nicholson fans were delighted when they learned that director Tim Burton had cast the iconic thesb as The Joker in BATMAN. The announcement, made sometime in 1988, got people even more giddy about FINALLY seeing the "Batman" film become a reality.

To this day, many fans say "Jack" nailed the Clown Prince of Crime. ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY recently called Nicholson's work "the definitive performance." Others have said the portrayal is like Nicholson playing Nicholson as The Joker.

The 1989 Joker's origin seems to borrow both from the villain's DETECTIVE COMICS # 168 origin as The Red Hood as well as Alan Moore's graphic novel, THE KILLING JOKE. Known as Jack Napier, the gangster obviously has an infatuation with playing cards as he shuffles them while watching the telecast of DA Harvey Dent announcing his war on organized crime early in the film.

The snazzy dresser who keeps a corrupt cop on the payroll reluctantly takes on the assignment of hitting Axis Criminals. The Batman interrupts the heist and when a bullet ricochets off the hero's gauntlet, it hits Napier's cheek. The Batman -- seemingly -- is unable to hold onto the gangster's hand and Napier plunges into a vat of chemicals. A hasty backstreet surgery on Napier's disfigured face later and The Joker is born.

The Joker's first move is to shoot Napier's boss, Carl Grissom, at his penthouse, effectively taking over the gangster's territory. "Winged freak terrorizes," The Joker mutters at seeing a headline about the Batman, "wait till they get a load of me."

Next, The Joker publicly murders one of Grissom's rivals by throwing a quill into his neck. In his first public appearance, the charismatic villain's lips are painted to look very pouty, one of several variations of looks the Jack-Joker uses for unknown reasons throughout the movie.

During a closed door meeting to tell Gotham's crime bosses he's taking over, The Joker fries one mobster to a crisp after he dares to question him. Soon, he puts Smilex into a combination of health care and beauty products - which, when combined, causes the victim to die laughing with a smile on his or her face.

Already having taken Grissom's lover from him, The Joker later has Alicia's face disfigured for the sake of an art experiment. He has since become infatuated with Bruce Wayne's girlfriend, photographer Vicki Vale, and lures her to an art museum, where he and his henchmen deface dozens of paintings and sculptures. Here The Joker attempts to pass himself off as more normal looking by adding flesh-colored makeup to his pasty, white face.

The Joker's next big plan involves spreading Smilex throughout Gotham, releasing the toxin using oversized balloons during the city's birthday celebration. After The Batman "steals" the balloons using the Batwing, The Joker shoots the aircraft down and takes Vale to Gotham Cathedral. He even unexpectedly shoots his right-hand henchman -- with his own gun. Batman confronts The Joker and his henchmen there, with the villain dying after a several thousand foot drop.

CARY'S TAKE: This Joker certainly has a wicked sense of humor. In fact, the Jack-Joker seems more interested in reciting "sound bite"-type one-liners than tormenting Gotham City, and in turn, Batman. (This is as much a fault of the screenplay as it is Nicholson's performance.)

The actor recently shared Burton's vision of The Joker in a MTV interview: "Tim said (he) should have a humorous dark side to him." For the record, Burton blatantly ignores years of comics continuity by conveniently making the pre-Joker Napier the person who killed Bruce Wayne's parents.

The Jack-Joker basically seems to kill only because it amuses him -- which I guess doesn't stray too far from the comics -- not because it's part of a grand scheme. There is no doubt Nicholson's Joker is cold-blooded killer; he just takes too much joy in it to be taken seriously.

Nicholson nails the character's wacky, devious side. Sadly, the deadly, truly dangerous, aspect of The Joker's comic book roots is missing. The original version is twisted and lethal. Though the comics Joker commits crimes only he thinks are funny, there is much more dangerous side to the villain than simply having "a humorous dark side to him."

Ultimately, the Jack-Joker is so much fun to watch that Batman -- the title character, for goodness sake -- gets the short end of the Batpole.

“The Heath-Joker”

Compared to the news of Nicholson's casting, fans were downright puzzled in July 2006 when director Chris Nolan announced Heath Ledger would play The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT. Fanboys quickly panned Nolan's choice, saying he was a popular "pretty boy" with not enough strong, serious performances to make him worthy of taking on the TDK Joker.

I think I can speak for all fans when I say nobody saw it coming. The controversy heightened quickly shortly after the casting announcement when Ledger said he thought comic book films were dumb and admitted to not being a comic book fan.

Things stayed pretty quiet until early November of this year. Ledger told media outlets "I locked himself away in a hotel room for six weeks" to come up with a "psychology," laugh, posture and voice for The Joker. The actor also read various comics related to the TDK script, which include BATMAN #1 [which featured the first two appearances of The Joker - Jett] and THE KILLING JOKE. Ledger also said the actual daily performances were grueling and left him exhausted.

When Ledger gave NEW YORK TIMES reporter Sarah Lyall a tour of his rented North London apartment in early November, she found the actor's "Joker diary," which Ledger began about December 2006. The diary includes important information related to The Joker's backstory and things he finds humorous, such as AIDS.

Fans started talking more and more after the July 2007 release of the TDK teaser trailer which included this Joker voice-over: "Starting tonight, people will die. I'm a man of my word." Ledger's laugh at the end is downright bone chilling.

Until the full-length trailer was released in mid-December of ‘07, fans had to rely on feedback from Ledger's co-stars to get any insight into how he would handle The Joker.

Christian Bale had this to say: "It's a much more anarchic, punk rock, almost junkie version of it. He's that kind of psycho kid that just will do anything and has absolutely no conscience and morals. There's a bit of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE there, a bit of Sid Vicious, a whole lot of great, anarchic personalities blended within The Joker."

Sir Michael Caine (Alfred) went on record to say Ledger takes The Joker in a different direction than Nicholson, who played him as "a clown figure…a benign but wicked, maybe a killer, old uncle." Caine described the Heath-Joker as "like a really scary psychopath." Ledger's co-star said he hadn't met Ledger before rehearsing their first scene together and forgot his lines when he saw his performance.

Then came the TDK trailer as well as the prologue. And fans were blown away -- and praised Ledger.

The TDK synopsis already tells us The Joker is in the middle of Gotham's mob war. Lt. Jim Gordon, in BATMAN BEGINS, has said The Joker has a "taste for the theatrical" and is involved in robbery and murder. But what kind of insight does the trailer provide?

The Joker considers himself "a freak." But he's a mysterious figure, since cops can't find any ID on him when he's in custody. He apparently likes to use knives -- lots of them, if the latex-gloved hand lining them up on a table are The Joker's. The villain, however, is OK using other weapons, including a grenade launcher and a machine gun. The Heath-Joker likes his possible victims to have some "fight" in them and also has no problems threatening Police Commissioner Loeb.

And of course, The Joker leaves his calling card and likes blowing up buildings.

CARY'S TAKE: Ledger's obsessive-like preparation is impressive. Even before I saw any TDK footage, I had my complete faith in Nolan confirmed after hearing all the comments about the new Joker.

From a costuming perspective, the TDK version looks every bit like The Joker should. The muted shades of purple and green fit in nicely with the realistic, gritty Gotham City that Nolan has created. Like many people, I was taken aback when I saw the first close-up shot of the Heath-Joker, but I think that served its purpose: to shock fans and get them talking.

The greasy, stringy green hair is a departure from the Jack-Joker and comics, where the villain's hair is rarely out of place. When you combine the unkempt hair with the imperfect red smile and ragged fingernails, the new Joker looks like a creepy lunatic.

And what can I say about Ledger's performance that hasn't been said before? Even after only seeing 2-plus minutes of footage, I think he's on his way to owning The Joker in no way another previous actor has.

The trailer may have more Joker footage than Batman, but I don't expect a repeat of the 1989 character development fiasco. Bale's Batman is just as intimidating as The Joker. Keep in mind, the producers have given us only a tease; we'll have to wait for the "TDK money shots" when we see the entire film.

Like any of the legendary Joker comics stories, I have no doubt Nolan, Ledger, Bale and Co. will bring us another instant classic with TDK.

Ultimately, this Joker could make Hannibal Lecter cower. And I can't wait to be just as terrified.

BOF contributor Cary Ashby writes a twice-monthly comic book column for the "Norwalk Reflector." He is the newspaper’s crime reporter. Cary has an extensive collection of Batman comics and has been an avid fan for nearly 30 years. He can be reached via e-mail at cashby@norwalkreflector.com.

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