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The Joker: Comic Book Icon to Big-Screen Psycho - The Evolution of a Super Villain
The summer of the superhero...
2011 is certainly shaping up as the summer of the superhero, with no less than four promising entries into the special-effects-blockbuster category - Green Lantern, yet another remake of Thor, X-Men: First Class, and Cowboys & Aliens. Any movie that features Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Adam Beach, and Olivia Wilde, should do gang-buster summer business. Some would pay money to watch that cast read the phone book!
With so many heroes to cheer, there must be some awesome bad guys for them to overcome - after all any hero worth his salt needs a worthy opponent from whom he must save the city... or the planet. Behind every amazing, or mildly brooding and tortured hero, there must be a villainous rotter, with his evil heart set on world domination, or bent singlemindedly on the total annihilation of humanity. Ya gotta love a good villain!
Some villains are not so villainous...
So often in comics, at least in the comics of my youth, the villains were more grotesque than scary. Sure, they sometimes had incredible super powers and gave the hero a run for his or her money, but they were usually rather weird looking creatures.
One wonders how some of them were able to hide at all, or ever get the drop on anyone. Those old-style villains would never be able to survive in modern society. They'd be "celebrity spotted" and hunted down on Twitter-linked cell phones - the S.W.A.T. tactical team would have their hide-out surrounded before they knew what hit them.
My all-time favorite not-in-the-least-bit-scary villains are the Daleks, from the long-running British series, "Dr. Who." Dalaks looked like large, stainless-steel traffic cones on wheels. Shove a stick in their undercarriage, give one good push, and they'd land on their heads. It was a tribute to the actors that they managed to look scared whenever a Dalek appeared. I would have been on the floor laughing.
The Joker, circa 1940
From grotesque to gothic...
The Joker's origins are well known. In the comics, he was a nefarious criminal who fell afoul of his own machinations - a classic biter-bit story, where the evil plotter was dropped into the toxic stew he was about to release on an unsuspecting Gotham City. The criminal survived, hideously scarred. In his deranged state, Batman became the focus of his hatred - the author of his problems.
Reborn as "The Joker," he turned his considerable intellect to hatching evil plots. Though not equipped with any super or mutant powers, he proved a suitably clever and effective opponent, escaping repeatedly from custody to return for a rematch.
The original comic book character took a decided turn for the villainous when Batman's writers began penning Bruce Wayne's alter ego as the tortured Dark Knight. This new darkness in the hero's character opened the door for more serious evil-doing by his long-time nemesis, The Joker.
Indeed, The Joker, and many of the Bat's noteworthy opponents took on darker, more gothic shadings as well, and seemed to revel in doing evil for the sake of doing evil. No longer content with robbing banks and stealing works of art, now they all seemed bent on bringing the city to its knees, if not outright subjugating all of humanity.
Cesar Romero to Jack Nicolson
Television's 1960s Joker...
The 1960s television series "Batman," was a high camp treatment of the comic book icons. Complete with comic-style fight graphics - "Biff! Ka-Pow!" - the series reigned supreme for a number of years, while serious stars vied for guest roles as bad guys. A few scored recurring roles - Frank Gorshen as The Riddler, Cesar Romero as The Joker, Burgess Meredith as The Penguin, and Julie Newmar as Catwoman.
Go-go boots and Carnaby Street duds abounded, and the show was every bit as as hip as "The Man From Uncle," another popular sixties series.
Cesar Romero's Joker was not as tortured as later actors portrayed him. His Joker was a delightfully over-the-top character, often-foiled, definitely crazed, but rather gentlemanly in defeat. Even his frothing-at-the-mouth rants showed a tinge of refinement.
Once The Joker hit the silver screen, under the careful tutelage of Jack Nicolson, his character took on decidedly darker shadings.
Two kinds of psycho
Jakc Nicolson's gothic Joker...
Jack Nicolson's Joker was not a nice fellow to start with - before his transformation, he was a murderer for hire. True, the psychotic overtones were there, but until his character was backed into a corner, he was able to control his tendencies, flippantly enjoying his own evil cleverness.
We got the impression that, though warped by his transformation, he was still basically as intelligent and as evil as before. He still plotted to rule the underworld, and bring the city to its knees, but mainly for personal gain. As long as Batman stayed out of his way, this Joker was content to go about his business.
Once the Dark Knight stepped in, The Joker's psychosis came to the fore. Jack Nicolson gave us some truly dark moments in The Joker's final scenes atop the tower.
Heath Ledger's Joker
Heath Ledger's Joker was a genuine, bona fide, certifiable psycho - as dangerous as he was unpredictable. He felt no remorse for his actions, rather he genuinely seemed not to care whether people lived or died as long as he achieved his ends.
With all due respect to Mr. Nicolson, Ledger's characterization was probably the scariest joker in small or large screen history. There were no chinks in his armor, no access to a softer side - there was absolutely no appeal to Ledger's Joker. He used his chaotic, uncaring pathology as a weapon, to terrify his opponents, while allowing nothing to sway him from his path.
From comic book grotesque to terrifying personification of the ultimate-extreme violent psychopath, The Joker's many faces have certainly come of age. Heath Ledger's Joker made us all very grateful he was only a character in a film.
Coming soon... a new villain?
Coming to the Silver Screen in the summer of 2011, "Cowboys & Aliens" shows early signs of being a monster hit (pun intended). Could we have a new contender for big, bad, scary villain entering the ring?
I want one of those bracelets!
© 2011, Elle Fredine, All rights reserved