To my mind, Jack Nicholson was this Academy Award winning-actor who appeared in films that were as distanced from comic books, as adult was from child. What is he doing in Batman? — I thought when the movie released years ago. Nicholson had an edginess that today’s Leonardo DiCaprio would probably need more life and living to acquire. It was a serious, self assured, room filling-edginess unravelling at relaxed pace. Not the capricious restlessness that became DiCaprio’s trademark.

While DiCaprio is edgy himself, Nicholson puts others on edge. One could easily imagine Nicholson in roles that tapped this talent. Evil was possible, but comic book-evil? That was probably the test in Tim Burton’s 1989 film. Nicholson’s Joker left us with an unforgettable impression of his versatility. He proved that our comfort in the human smile stops short of a leer. The role went down in Hollywood history as one of their greatest screen villains. It seemed as though Nicholson’s Joker wouldn’t be bettered in the Batman franchise.

Real

Heath Ledger proved that wrong. The Dark Knight became a cult film. Director Christopher Nolan deserves credit for the tweaks that made this 2008 film so impactful. Perhaps the biggest impact was courtesy that continued trend from Batman Begins — Nolan’s avoidance of an artificial, digitally shaped Gotham City.

Contemporary America became the caped superhero’s play ground. It was as much steel, glass and money as it was rust, dismal alleys and bleak civilisation. Christian Bale’s Batman was suitably vulnerable, often getting visibly frustrated by the toughness and persistence of evil. At best, Batman could be a temporary wall to evil’s relentless onslaught. He couldn’t be a Superman, energetically saving a much gentler Earth from Lex Luther & Co. The Joker also changed.

Ledger’s Joker was nothing like Nicholson’s. Where Nicholson had portrayed the character keeping its apartness in comic book-world intact, Ledger erased the distinction. His Joker felt human. He was almost tragic, mentally diseased, blabbering and walking like a lunatic amidst a chaos he had unleashed and treated as his destined creativity. Although you viewed it as film, the Joker reminded so much of the state of the world with delusional minds committing suicide attacks and a terrorism that left normal citizens puzzled as to why people behaved so.

Where Nicholson’s Joker had made comic book drawings come alive, Ledger and Nolan made him hauntingly mental. Evil was merely the wrong side of a coin in everyone’s head. Which way would you flip? Where Nicholson got nominated for the Golden Globe and BAFTA awards without winning any, Ledger won a posthumous Oscar besides the Golden Globe, BAFTA and Screen Actors Guild Award. No actor playing a comic book character had won an Oscar. Ledger was the first. The Joker is Gotham City’s only Oscar winner.

And more real

Last week in Colorado, 12 people were killed and over 50 injured, when a young man later described by his pastor as an introvert and “a good student’’ who “took pride in his academic abilities”, opened fire at a midnight screening of Nolan’s latest Batman offering, The Dark Knight Rises. News reports said that the gunman, his hair dyed orange-red, identified himself with the Joker. Ironically, if you scan Hollywood history, some in the industry have supported gun-owning. Wonder what they think, or would have thought, of blood spilt at a film screening. As for me — I can’t help noticing the suddenly blurred edges of comic book-fiction and reality. What made James Holmes do a Joker?

(The author is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

(This article was published on July 24, 2012)
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