BATBOY EXPLAINS IT ALL FOR YOU
THE SUMMER OF THE CLOWN
Article by Jason Ellsworth
I am standing in the bathroom of a Loews movie theatre, washing my hands. I have just finished seeing ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ for the third time in theatres. Getting to this particular one was not easy – my brother and I were already rushed for time, driving through the incredibly odd occurrence of a downpour in the middle of a sunny, August, Los Angeles day, when we were rear-ended. We had no concern for our car – only concern for missing the chance to once again see our beloved Batman on the big screen for what would probably be the last time (or at least until they inevitably re-release it in theatres).
My excitement had peaked after the second viewing, either because I finally saw it in IMAX that time, or because Christopher Nolan tends to make incredibly dense films that certainly don’t mesh with casual viewing. You could study them as much as you do college courses, and with ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, much like with ‘The Dark Knight’, I gleefully noted that my comprehension of the story made leaps and bounds the second time around. Because of this fact, I have spent the hours leading up to the third viewing exhaustively arguing about the film on Facebook, reading biographies of the characters on Wikipedia, and digging in even deeper to one of my most horrific and geek-tastic obsessions, reading reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.
Well, back in the summer of 2008, I, like almost everyone else in the USA, became obsessed with Heath Ledger’s take on The Joker. I perhaps took it a bit further, as can be evidenced by a look through my bedroom: two movie posters with The Joker, a painting my brother did for my birthday of The Joker, a t-shirt bearing his image, an action figure adorning the top of my book shelf, and Joker Chuck Taylor All-Stars (OK, in fairness, those have the image of the old comic book Joker on them, not Heath’s, but you get the idea).
Like everyone else, I thought ‘The Dark Knight’ was the greatest thing since sliced bread. So when it was announced that a third one would be happening (essentially inevitable, as fans and Mr. Nolan alike would no doubt be haunted for years that the series wasn’t made into a full on trilogy), I had a stronger purpose. There was a question, as a movie geek, that I desperately wanted to know: would Mr. Nolan be able to do what up to this point seemed to be impossible with movie trilogies, that is, make a good, better, best series of films, with each one topping the last?
Everyone with half a geek brain knows that what is arguably THE trilogy (bring it, Lord of the Rings fans), the original ‘Star Wars’ (let’s not talk about the new ones, which after a few years to marinade seem like digital crap with dialogue so bad that I have to believe Lucas has a future writing teen soap operas), has a clear stand out when it comes to popular consensus, which, with art, is the closest thing we have to truth. ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ is the crowning achievement of the trilogy and woe is the person who tries to dispute that fact.
Now, sidetrack with me for a second if you will and let’s quickly break down the art of trilogies and why the second one may always have an unfair advantage. The first movie comes out and has novelty on its side – you’re creating an entirely new world (or in the case of ‘Batman Begins’, re-envisioning) and introducing the audience to something they haven’t seen before. At this point, you might not even have a thought in your mind about creating other movies after this, you’re just eager to get your vision out to the world. So it hits and boom! They’ve never seen anything like this before (or once again, they’ve never seen this take on this world before, if you’re working with a pre-existing character) and so they have the joy of something new.
So it’s a success and you decide to do a second one. Now you need to apply the sequel-itis formula, something that is responsible whether the sequel is horrific or soars. Bigger. Badder. Better. The first movie, but MORE SO! We have to top it! So with some learning experience under your belt from the first one, and a better understanding of your world and characters, you set out to outdo yourself. Now, if you’re planning on, or even flirting a bit, with the idea of a third movie, you have a unique opportunity to end your movie without having to truly end it. You can leave things unresolved or leave people with a bit of a cliffhanger. This perhaps, is why ‘Empire’ is so adored. How often do you get to see a movie end with everything in darkness? Hollywood execs pop boners for happy, crowd-pleasing endings. Actually, more so than that, they demand them, so a dark ending comes across as different and perhaps a bit ballsy. You may remember Kevin Smith’s dissection of this in the first ‘Clerks’, when Dante says that ‘Empire’ has a down ending and that’s what life is – a serious of down endings.
Now we arrive at the third one. You did the first one, people liked it, you did the second one, and people said you actually topped yourself, now what? Now you have to make it the first AND second movie, but MORE SO! You have to top the previous two, which of course, in many cases, leads to even worse cases of sequel-itis (uh…MORE explosions?). In addition to that, you’re doing a trilogy and this is the third one, so now, in the complete antithesis of the ending of your second movie, you have to neatly and satisfyingly wrap everything up. So, after an overview, we can see that in the first one you have the irritation of having to bring the audience into this world that you, the creator, already know so well, and in the third, the irritation of having to conclude things. That second movie though? Have things go to hell for your characters! We’re right in the middle of things now, the meat of the sandwich, no boring introduction and no need for a wrap up, so go crazy! OK, remember all that, as I didn’t just go all film school on you for no reason; it will be worked into the rest of this.
So, picture all that swirling through my head and now you can see how I was waiting with baited breath to find out that answer to the original question. Could Christopher Nolan finally make the good, better, best trilogy? Well, you’re certainly obsessive enough about it, tell us the answer Batboy!
After all my viewings and ruminations, what I have come up with is this: he didn’t do it. However, what I truly believe he did do was make a trilogy of complete consistency. The crew, for the most part, was exactly the same throughout all three movies: same writers, stars, and director, and the films stand next to one another as complete equals, all emotional, tense, exciting, dark and action-packed chapters of one giant story telling the tale of a man trying to become a symbol against evil.
After reading the reviews and hearing the conversations, however, that is definitely not how the trilogy will be remembered. It will, like “Star Wars”, forever have its middle movie stick out as the best one. So, this paper is an attempt to fight that image, to break down what happened with ‘The Dark Knight’ and maybe give you a better understanding of why you’d be so quick to jump to the conclusion that it was the stand out.
‘The Dark Knight’ was such a massive success in so many ways, that it’s hard to think back to the time before it. It’s become a classic of our culture (stick that sentence in your head and let it bounce around) and would have you think that excitement has always been high surrounding Nolan’s Batman films.
But if you think back to ‘Batman Begins’, it was met with some skepticism at first. Nolan wasn’t that established yet, at least in terms of being a household name, having only ‘Memento’ and ‘Insomnia’, dark and complex thrillers, under his belt. While I remember ‘Memento’ having a buzz around it for being mind-bending, neither of these really took off. So handing him possibly the biggest comic book character of all time was met with some doubt. I myself remember seeing the first look at the new Batmobile, all military and techie, with none of the comic book stylings and wondering ‘What the hell is this?’
The movie had a $48 million opening weekend, which certainly isn’t bad, but, in terms of massive comic book adaptation blockbusters, it’s really not much (certainly even more so when you compare it to the next two films record breaking $158 and $160 opening weekends, now at numbers three and four on the all time opening weekend chart). Most of it was probably due to the strength of the Batman name. The movie was well received by critics (it seemed like Nolan got this dark entity), and it wound up with a total gross of $205 million (again, certainly not bad, but not legendary, as it’s chart position of #120 on the all time grosses list will show).
It wasn’t until the second film that things changed. The ending of ‘Begins’ baited us by promising The Joker and the casting of Heath Ledger, then most known for being a cowboy who was giving it to Jake Gyllenhaal, left people scratching their heads. It seemed like such a weird choice. Of course every hater or doubter would be violently silenced upon seeing the film and the brilliance of Heath’s interpretation. In order to understand the effect that happened, we need to really think back to that summer. What happened was much bigger than just a movie. I’d like to take you back to that Loews movie theatre bathroom I mentioned in the first sentence.
So as I’m washing my hands, I look up at the bathroom mirrors and realize that Loews has decided to show their love of the art and culture of cinema by having famous and classic movie lines printed on the top of the mirrors. There were two big mirrors side by side and one quote on each. The two quotes? “May the Force Be With You” and “Why So Serious?”
Think about that for a second, because as I took that in, I realized that I could sculpt my whole argument for this essay around just those mirrors. This bathroom scene is pivotal in understanding what actually happened with ‘The Dark Knight’ and more so than that, Heath Ledger’s Joker.
People will always have opinions and no matter how great something is perceived to be, you can always find someone who will hate or dismiss it. But what you can’t deny is cultural impact. Let’s look at the Star Wars line: EVERYONE knows “May the Force Be With You”. I don’t care if you hate Star Wars and think it’s the nerdiest thing ever: at the very least that line makes a little bell of recognition go off in your head. All types, young and old, whether they say it honestly, ironically, or just as a reference, know it. It has made a massive dent in our culture and will always be a part of it. And, as shown by it’s inclusion next to it on the mirror, “Why So Serious?” reached that level.
That is a HUGE accomplishment. Not one single line uttered by any other villain throughout The Dark Knight Trilogy, and probably not even any of The Joker’s other lines (maybe you could argue for ‘You wanna know how I got these scars’ but not really, it’s close but no cigar) have a snowball’s chance in hell of achieving the same cultural significance. Or, going back to the example, you’ll never see one of Bane or Scarecrow’s lines up on a Loews mirror.
That’s what happened with Heath’s Joker – it was a once in a lifetime occurrence, that beautiful moment when an actor takes a role out of the cinema and into the annals of pop culture legend. It’s a very special thing to be a part of, and one that can blind your vision to the equality of the three movies. Let’s look at some of the things that, for better or for worse, gave ‘The Dark Knight’ an unfair advantage.
First off is the simple inclusion of The Joker, easily, beyond a shadow of the doubt, the most popular and known of all the Batman villains. Going back to my rant about “May the Force Be With You”, EVERYONE knows The Joker. Your grandma knows about The Joker. Early on, Nolan established that he wanted to have a more realistic, darker and grittier version of Batman, and you can see this in his choice of villains for the first movie.
There’s an old joke, and you’ll have to forgive me for not knowing where I got it from, perhaps it just floats around in general, that ‘you only like Batman because he has the best villains’. It’s true. Never has there been such an awesome cornucopia of colorful, over the top, visually striking, interesting villains. Batman is the constant throughout any Batman movie (obviously) so to a degree, your enjoyment of a Batman movie is heavily dependant on the selection of the villain to go up against him (let that kick around in your mind a bit as well).
So when he brought out Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul for ‘Batman Begins’, it was a bit of a disappointment after years of things like Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Danny DeVito’s Penguin, and Jim Carrey’s Riddler. The pop wasn’t there, especially with Scarecrow being just a normal guy with a mask (albeit a mask that did look amazingly badass when he was wearing it, with just the right amount of spooky for what was a burlap sack), and Ra’s Al Ghul having almost no visual pop whatsoever (and even myself, a geek who is definitely the target audience for these movies, had to go ‘Who?’ to this much lesser-known character). This is not to down either character or the performance of the actors portraying them. Cillian Murphy and Liam Neeson are both amazing actors who did a great job with the characters. It was just a bit of culture shock, if you will, coming off of the Batman villains that we were used to.
In fact, looking at the other villains, Nolan usually went straight for the hardcore comic book geek’s heart. With the exception of Catwoman, most of these selections of villains are for the die-hard Batman fan. The kid in the comic book store was probably overcome with gawking delight upon seeing Bane emerge as the final villain, immediately wondering if he’d break Batman’s back, but the casual viewer might be left looking up info on who Bane is as I did with Ra’s Al Ghul.
So with that, right off the bat (hey, a pun!) ‘The Dark Knight’ had two things working for it: one, the most known villain of all time, and two, an extra appetite for that villain and his undeniably gaudy comic book style after the toned down approach of the first movie. We knew Nolan was trying to make a more realistic world, so how would he approach a character with a purple suit, bright green hair, and a white face? We were all waiting with baited breath, and I have a memory of a slightly quizzical, slightly doubtful and slightly excited “Hmm…” upon first seeing a picture of the new look with the now iconic scars.
The news of Heath’s casting spread, and as we were all wondering how it would turn out, something happened that was horrible in terms of real life, but would become the type of thing you couldn’t even imagine in your wildest dreams, that you couldn’t even pay for, in terms of marketing success.
I have a specific memory of being at my grandma’s house as a young kid and seeing on MTV that Tupac Shakur had just died. My first thought was shock, but shock specifically because I’d been seeing him on TV so much lately. That seems to be how death works for humans: think of the cliché response of “I just saw him/her!” upon hearing of someone’s passing. So when you’re six months away from the hotly anticipated release of a giant studio summer blockbuster about one of the most iconic characters of all time, and the actor who was helping build the anticipation by taking on another iconic character dies, it feels huge.
“What?! But he’s about to be in this big movie! It hasn’t even come out yet and HE’S DEAD???”
The tragedy of Heath’s death gave an earth-shattering sense of urgency to his performance as The Joker. However it went, THIS was going to be his last performance of all time. The swan song. Now the already building anticipation has doubled. Once the reviews started coming in and the film starting screening, and word got out that his performance was brilliant, electrifying, mesmerizing, terrifying, and other words ending with ‘fying’, the craziness tripled. Now when you were going to see the movie, you were watching a ghost up on screen, the freshly deceased shoved right front and center into your face, and a ghost giving the performance of his life, a display of acting craft so amazing and captivating to watch that it made his death seem ever harsher.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance that Heath Ledger’s death had on the cultural impact of ‘The Dark Knight’. While his performance would obviously still have been well received, his death, as The Joker said to Batman ‘changed things’. How exactly did the one-two punch of the brilliance of his performance and his death give you an experience that summer that will never leave your mind and will probably make you say ‘The Dark Knight’ is the best? Let’s see.
As I discussed, our culture in general has things that have reached a certain level and can’t be denied, and one of the ripest places to pluck these from is the cinema. Oftentimes, we come to know of these things when they have already been established. Sure, it’s commonplace now, maybe even irritatingly dated or cliché, to say “High five!” in the Borat voice, but I was there when that character was being born into the history books.
When I went to see “Borat”, the hype was reaching ridiculous levels. The theatre was packed on opening night and from the very first time that mustachioed bastard spoke, the audience was rolling (this says something about preconditioning after media hype, but that’s an essay unto itself). I’ll still never forget the experience of looking around during the naked wrestling scene and watching an entire theatre full of people just go bananas. They were flipping out and I enjoyed it more for the sociology than the scene on screen! When we left the packed theatre, we heard about Borat on the radio and went home to see him on multiple channels as we watched TV. This wasn’t just us going to a movie on a Friday night; we were part of a happening! Everyone knew that this character was going to be quoted for years to come and become a part of our cultural lexicon, and here we were witnessing the birth!
Think of the giant shark first popping out of the water as Chief Brody is chumming the waters in ‘Jaws’. Think of the alien baby bursting out of someone’s chest in the first ‘Alien’. Think of Darth Vader saying, “Luke, I am your father.” You know these moments. It seems like you’ve known them your whole life. Most of you have probably never had the surprise that was supposed to go along with them. You’ve known exactly what that shark looks like, you’re waiting for the alien to burst out, and you’ve probably quoted the father line ad nauseam for one reason or another. BUT WHAT ABOUT THE GLORIOUS SENSE OF SHOCK AND SURPRISE THAT WERE SUPPOSED TO GO WITH THEM? You missed it.
Not with ‘The Dark Knight’. Boy, wasn’t that scene with the pencil just mind-blowingly awesome? Wasn’t that the exact kind of moment we pay to go see movies for? Haven’t you quoted “How about a magic trick?” at some point? Don’t you think that years from now the surprise of the scene will be ruined for young kids who were quoting it and hearing about it before they ever saw the movie?
BUT NOT YOU! YOU WERE THERE IN THE THEATRE NOT KNOWING WHAT WAS ABOUT TO HAPPEN AND BAM! “It’s gone!” AND THE WHOLE THEATRE FLIPPED OUT AND YOU WERE THERE FOR THE BIRTH, THE FIRST VIEWING OF AN ICONIC CINEMATIC AND CULTURAL MOMENT BEFORE IT WAS ROBBED OF THE SURPRISE BY ITS OWN OMNIPRESENCE!
That’s what all of us experienced that summer. The birth of an icon. If you go to Venice Beach, Hot Topic, or any other of hundreds of places, you will see people and characters who’s image has become as much of a recognizable stamp as the Pepsi logo. Jim Morrison. John Lennon. Jack Nicholson in ‘The Shining’. Kurt Cobain. The Dude from ‘The Big Lebowski’. And so on. They’re on t-shirts, there are paintings of them, people get tattoos of them, and they are immortal. Now Heath’s Joker is one of them. Go walk down Venice Beach; he’ll be right there next to Jim Morrison’s rock god eyes. Because of this, he spawned an obsession that was separate from ‘The Dark Knight’.
Watching the movie, you almost have to separate the two experiences. One is the actual movie, the plot and progression of it, and two is the pure thrill you get every time the Joker electrifies the screen. Not everyone can tell you all the specific plot points of the movie, the workings of the criminal underworld, what happened with all the mob’s money, Commissioner Gordon’s plot to fake his death, etc., but everyone remembers the pencil trick, the stories about the scars, the interrogation scene, the burning pile of money. It takes a real fan to list all the specific details of such a complex story, but now, as with the original version of the character, even your grandma knows about Heath Ledger’s Joker.
The movies are all consistent. As I watched ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ that last time, I noticed the same effect of a massive plot for destruction going down, and then a cut away to the villain orchestrating it. So you’re watching, realizing you’re about to see a football field blow up, and then you cut to Bane commenting on the ‘lovely voice’ of the child singing the national anthem. Same as ‘The Dark Knight’ except people were so enamored by the Joker, that when he would appear, it was an extra, more forceful ‘WHOOO!’ But the epic destruction, the emotional journey of Bruce, the themes of fighting for Gotham’s salvation, the testing of the endurance of a hero trying to rise against it, these are all constants. It’s just the extra punch of The Joker.
‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is a perfect conclusion to the trilogy. Even just dabbling into screenwriting a bit, I can see that from a technical standpoint it ends beautifully. I believe it may surpass ‘The Dark Knight’ in sheer epic-ness. The Joker wanted control of the city, and he was getting close to it as the panic spread towards the end, but there’s a ton of ‘Rises’ where the whole city actually IS under Bane’s martial law. Tom Hardy did an amazing job with Bane. He’s physically imposing and fun to look at, he’s a genuine threat (and more physically threatening this time, The Joker was all about his nutty devotion to mentally breaking Batman, but didn’t stand a chance in a real fight) and he came up with a voice for him that could almost be as iconic and fun to imitate as The Joker’s.
Going back to the trilogy theory, with ‘The Dark Knight’ we didn’t have any expectations of this being the end. It was just a follow up to a movie that snuck up on us. With everything I just talked about happening, Mr. Nolan had a ton of pressure on his shoulders going into this one that it would have to not only top one of the most impactful movies of all time, but would also have to tie up all the loose ends of this story that he’d been working on for seven years. Remember, you walked out of ‘The Dark Knight’ thinking that there was more to come (the ending all but guaranteed that). You walked out of ‘Rises’ knowing that it was the absolute end, that nothing else would come and you had to be happy with what had happened.
So a very common comment is that ‘It was good, but not as good as ‘The Dark Knight’’. I’ve heard it time and time again from reviewers and fans. But it’s unfair when it was impossible to go into the situation without expectations. When you went to see ‘The Dark Knight’ you only had the good, but not legendary success of ‘Batman Begins’ hanging over your head. When you went to see ‘Rises’, it was like going to see one of the Beatles’ attempts at a new band – the past will cast a huge, unavoidable shadow over the whole thing.
While it’s important to state how perfectly ‘Rises’ ended the whole thing, this is not meant to be a movie review of it, so I won’t go into more specifics (OK, maybe one, tell me that the part where Bane says ‘Search him, then I will kill you’ in such a matter of fact voice doesn’t give any of The Joker’s lines a run for their money as the sickest line in the whole trilogy). My point here is to try to open your eyes as to why you’re actually making your statement.
As we move forward, and the years tick by, and The Dark Knight Trilogy takes its place alongside the great and classic movie trilogies, ‘The Dark Knight’ will be the stand out film in popular opinion. There is no doubt about that. It will be ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ of the trilogy now and for all time, and I’m not naïve enough to think this rambling master thesis of geek knowledge will change that in any way, shape or form.
Now please don’t misunderstand. As one of the biggest Joker-obsessed nerds EVER, I certainly don’t mean to take anything away from the accomplishment of Heath’s superior performance or the near-perfect vibe of the movie as a whole. I just want you to see, that maybe, just maybe, when you say ‘The Dark Knight’ was the best movie, or that ‘Rises’ was good, but not as good, you were a bit mislead by that magical summer a few years back, when we all were put under the spell of a homicidal clown who ended up doing just what he did on screen, descending upon our culture and forever changing it.