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Screen Themes: Joker vs The Dark Knight

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It’s time to put on makeup, it’s time to light the lights; it’s time for entertainment editor John Turnbull to check out the latest incarnation of the Joker and compare him to the gold standard (so far)…

Joker (2019)

Directed by Todd Phillips

Make no mistake, Joker is not a movie suitable for kids. It’s not that it’s violent (although it is), or that it’s psychologically disturbing (ditto), but rather that it’s so deliberately paced that all but the most patient youth will be bored to distraction. Telling the tale of aspiring standup comedian Arthur Fleck, Joker is dark, compelling and, occasionally, hilarious — if you have a taste for jet-black humour.

In the world of comic book movies, origin stories are a dime a dozen, but Joker is something special. Driven by a career-best performance from Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, Joker skirts a fine line between sensitive examination of a man suffering serious mental illness and nihilistic revenge fantasy. Phoenix is spectacular as the broken and increasingly desperate Arthur, sent into a spiral of self-loathing and hate by the callous actions of talk-show host Murray Franklin, played with weary relish by Robert De Niro.

I’m calling it now; Best Actor Oscar for Joaquin Phoenix at the 2020 Academy Awards. While the awards themselves are a bit of a joke, it will be amusing to see Phoenix go up against co-star DeNiro (for The Irishman) and former Batman Christian Bale (for Ford v Ferrari) and beat them both with a manic laugh.

It is somewhat mind-boggling to me that the same person directed both Joker and all 3 Hangover movies. It would be fair to say that Todd Phillips has grown as a director, but it would be equally fair to say that most of that development has come from the school of ‘try to look as much like a Martin Scorsese film as possible’. But it definitely works…

The Dark Knight (2008)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Now that the aforementioned Christian Bale’s gravel-voiced Batman has been replaced by a sparkly vampire, it’s easy to look back on the Nolan trilogy as Batman at its finest. Upon rewatching Dark Knight, however, I was surprised that some elements don’t hold up very well, particularly the absolute incompetence of the Gotham police force. Sure, we get that Batman is meant to be the hero, but the cops in this movie make Stormtroppers look like consummate professionals.

Much like in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, the Joker is a far more compelling character than either Batman or Bruce Wayne, but Heath Ledger brings a far more malevolent energy to the role than Jack Nicholson, who was pretty much just playing himself. From the moment he appears on screen, Ledger’s Joker is an enigma. We don’t know his name, we don’t know his motive and his origin story changes every time he tells it. If I had one criticism, it’s that for a character called the Joker, he doesn’t actually laugh very much.

Significantly better than the deeply silly Dark Knight Rises, this movie shows a lot of promise, but misses the opportunity for the occasional moment of levity. I’m not asking for Adam West and the Bat Dance, but Dark Knight is a pretty dreary movie. Heath Ledger is the standout performer mainly because he threw everything he had into the performance – you can’t exactly see Aaron Eckhart staying up at night agonizing over his performance as Harvey Dent, while Maggie Gyllenhaal’s flat performance as Rachel often makes you wish for the B-level dramatics of Katie Holmes. On the other hand, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine bring a level of gravitas to the proceedings, but you get the definite impression that they might just be there for the paycheck.

The Verdict

In the ranking of (serious) Batmen, Christian Bale probably still holds the number one position, followed by Michael Keaton, Ben Affleck, Val Kilmer and George Clooney. Adam West is clearly the most fun Batman, although special mention should go to Will Arnett’s Lego Batman.

Ranking the Jokers is a little harder, as each actor brings a very different interpretation to the role. Cesar Romero was a camp clown, Jack Nicholson was Jack Nicholson in face paint and Jared Leto was a Soundcloud gangster. The fact that Joker was Heath Ledger’s final role (don’t get me started on that Dr Parnassus rubbish) can’t help but impact how that performance is remembered. Was he the best Joker to date? Absolutely. Is that still the case? I’m not so sure.

Joaquin Phoenix takes what could have been a B-list comic book movie and turns it into a deeply engaging and disturbing cinema experience. Worth seeing on the big screen to appreciate the sheer physicality of Phoenix’s performance, Joker is a movie that you will not soon forget.

Joker: 9/10

The Dark Knight: 8/10

 

 
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