There’s a term, “Christmas in July.” It’s usually used to promote some sort of sale, or cheese up a radio promotion where a station plays Christmas Carols all day to take your mind off the hot weather. Fairly innocuous, usually here and gone before you even notice it’s presence…but for me, right now, Christmas in July has an entirely different meaning. This year, Christmas in July brings a gift: the biggest, blackest, red-and-green-face painted, pointy-eared gift you’ve ever seen. A gift that, considering all that has come after, will be tough to unwrap.
This year, Christmas in July brings “The Dark Knight”. The Christmas analogy works for this reason: like a child on Christmas Eve, I can’t sleep. I’m literally counting the minutes until 12:01 AM Friday morning, when I’ll take my seat at the Arclight in Los Angeles to watch what will probably be the culmination of my Batman fetish, the realization of something I’ve been waiting for since I was seven years old. Sure, we’ve had Batman movies before-I’ll get to that in a second-but “The Dark Knight” is promising the one thing that’s been missing all along. The thing that makes Batman who he is, gives him a reason to exist: a perfect Joker. Let’s face it; villains define heroes, which quite possibly makes Heath Ledger’s Joker the defining performance in all of Batman’s celluloid history. When the first Batman film came out in 1988, I could barely contain my excitement.
How excited was I, you ask? Suck on this: I paid to see the movie “Pumpkinhead” five times just to see the Batman trailer twice each sitting. FIVE TIMES! Look, I like Lance Henriksen as much (or more) than the next guy, but I don’t think even he sat through “Pumpkinhead” five times. Christ, Pumpkinhead himself didn’t see the movie five times, but the novelty of seeing Batman alive and talking on the big screen was worth it. Let’s take a look at the first Batman film, and by that I mean Tim Burton’s film from 1989; no need to muck this up by dragging Adam West into it…although I do enjoy the fact that West gets run in the press whenever a new Batman hits the multiplex. Can we leave this old man alone please? For God’s sake, his main contribution to the Batman oeuvre is the Batusi.
Though a huge hit at the time, Tim Burton’s first crack at the Dark Knight hasn’t held up well. Michael Keaton’s Batman is almost inert, weighed down by a suit that made it almost impossible for him to move. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is way too silly; the whole key to the character is malevolence, and Nicholson only brought mischievousness. Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale is…well, too Basingery. Hard to buy a fashion model with a hillbilly accent as the best investigative reporter in a huge city like Gotham. Believe me, if you’re getting out-acted by Robert Wuhl you are just not trying. Mix in a writers strike that led to on-set script revisions completely contrary to Batman mythology (Vicki Vale in the Batcave? Really? The Joker knows Batman is Bruce Wayne AND knows that he killed Batman’s parents? Seriously?) and it’s easy to see why this movie hasn’t aged well. In fact, if the Internet had been as prevalent in 1989 as it is now, I’m betting the Batman fanboys would have crucified the film…unless, of course, they were like me. I loved this movie in 1989, but that was more about actually seeing Batman and The Joker on the big screen for the first time. They could have spent the whole movie having dinner together and I would have sat there mesmerized, watching my childhood unfold before me. Actually, “My Dinner With Batman” doesn’t sound like a bad film, if only to see The Joker order “Death By Chocolate”, Batman cock an eyebrow, then the two of them laugh uproariously. Of course, we couldn’t really see Batman cock an eyebrow, as his cowl weighs like sixty pounds, but still…
The fact that Burton’s Batman doesn’t hold up is exactly why Heath Ledger’s Joker is so important. In order to have a definitive Batman, you have to have a definitive Joker. The Joker’s approach to crime only enhances Batman’s approach to crime fighting; they are truly two sides of the same coin. See, The Joker isn’t one of your typical movie villains, stroking a white cat, plotting a way to take over the world. The Joker just wants to hurt people. His mindset is one of taking joy in extreme brutality, and from the looks of the trailer Heath Ledger was able to find that mindset. This Joker would rape Nicholson’s Joker, film it, then send it gift-wrapped to Nicholson’s Joker’s friends and family. That is “The Killing Joke” Joker, and that’s why I’m so excited to see this film; to finally see one of the greatest characters in comic-book history done pitch-perfectly. The tragedy is that the man who finally brought this perfect evil to life also lost his own life shortly thereafter. Colleagues of Ledger say that he was having trouble shaking The Joker from his psyche, and I’m not sure how to feel about that. His death is an unbelievable heartbreak, but selfishly I’m grateful that Ledger cared enough about this character to make his performance as true as possible. It’s also a testament to the power of the character that submerging himself in it may have played a role in Ledger’s death. His sacrifice is going to lead to one of the most enjoyable experiences of my movie-going life, finally seeing something I’ve loved for over thirty years done the right way. I just wish I didn’t feel so sick about it.