The Shelf Is Half Full

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Archive for the tag “The Dark Knight”

Supervillain Spotlight – The Joker

Gotham City is home to many of the greatest comic book villains ever created, meaning that Batman never has any shortage of bad guys to challenge him or compelling stories to be told about his adventures. But it’s telling that in a list of rogues that is considered by most comic books fans to be the best in the business, there is also one criminal mastermind that stands above them all. The pure antithesis of The Dark Knight has just celebrated his seventy-fifth anniversary this month, and it’s only fitting that the final Supervillain Spotlight of June 2015 is dedicated to The Clown Prince of Crime.

Golden Age

The Joker

Little is known about who The Red Hood was before he fell in a vat of toxic chemicals while confronting Batman at the ACE Chemical factory. Did the chemical bath turn a decent human being into a psychotic killer, or simply reveal the monster that was already there? It matters little: The Joker was permanently changed into a ghoulish figure with sickly green hair, ghastly white skin and blood red lips almost always fixed into a laughing grin. That image has been terrifying Gotham ever since, his obsession with Batman driving him to create chaos and murder wherever he goes. While the city’s greatest hero was a grim, dark symbol of vengeance, the greatest villain would be a brightly colored, smiling clown.

Created by Jim Robinson, Bill Finger and Bob Kane, The Joker debuted in June of 1940, as the primary villain of Batman #1, the then bi-monthly companion piece to Detective Comics, the title where Batman had made his debut a year earlier. Joker was based on a combination of the famous playing card jester and Conrad Veidt’s appearance in the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs. The Joker was a deranged serial killer with a knack for gallows humor, murdering civilians with his trademark “Joker Toxin”, a poison that left the victim’s face in the same horrible grin as the villain. Though he was intended to be killed off by the creative team in the first issue, the DC editing team saw dollar signs on the character and Joker would go on to become Batman’s arch nemesis.

Joker

The Man Who Laughs 

Despite his origins as a monstrous serial killer, The Joker managed to endure the massive shifts in the comic book world brought on by The Seduction of the Innocent and the Comics Code Authority. Writers had already softened the character to make him more comical and less murderous as a way to make him accessible to their primary audience (young children). But the new standards of the CCA forced writers to make The Joker more of an irritating trickster archetype instead of the monster he had been. This wasn’t completely a bad thing; the Silver Age introduced much of the thematic gadgetry that allows Joker to put up a fight against Batman; electric joybuzzers, acid-spewing flowers and the like. Joker’s sense of humor also became less grim and Joker became as well known for his comedy as his penchant for murder.

Dennis O’Neil and Neil Adams combined the two elements in 1973, setting the tone for how Joker would be portrayed for the next four and a half decades. Joker was able to kill again and often did so in truly gruesome ways. His design was also changed to be more menacing rather than the comical, non-threatening makeover he was given in the sixties. But some of the more appealing aspects of the Silver Age remained intact; his humor and his insanely high-concept crimes. Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers once wrote a story called “The Laughing Fish”, where Joker poisoned all of the fish in Gotham so they carried his famous face… so that Joker could make money by getting a patent on the fish. It was utterly ridiculous yet completely entertaining and served as the basis for my single favorite episode of Batman: The Animated Series. This era also made it clear that Joker was obsessed with Batman, something that become expanded upon more in the 1980’s.

Killing Joke

The Harlequin of Hate

While I am loathe to admit that Frank Miller ever wrote anything good, it’s impossible to deny his impact on the genre in the 1980’s. His extremely popular story The Dark Knight Returns, set in a dystopic future where an aged Bruce Wayne dons the cape and cowl one more time to defend Gotham City does have a very important take on The Joker. When Batman retires, Joker stays in Arkham Asylum and never bothers to get out; there is no challenge anymore. This idea that Joker needs Batman to be who he is not only makes the character more interesting, but also opens up the idea to questions about whether Batman is responsible for creating the villains. After all, would Joker be as much of a menace to Gotham if Batman weren’t around for him to fixate his psychosis on?

The 1980’s also saw The Joker and Batman’s rivalry become a more personal one. Thanks to reader votes (and a bit of controversy), The Joker murdered Jason Todd, the second Robin, in the climactic chapter of A Death in the Family. He also shot Barbara Gordon (Batgirl and daughter of Police Commisioner James Gordon) in The Killing Joke, leaving her paralyzed before he removed her clothes and took pictures of her bleeding, naked body in order to torture Gordon and prove that one bad day could make the sanest man alive lose their mind. This story, often considered the definitive take on the character, shown both the horrible depravity of the character while also bringing up his more tragic side. These horrible crimes left a deep mark on Batman, who has to live with the fact that his refusal to kill The Joker has had terrible consequences.

Bomb

Joker in Other Media

Batman has been adapted into both animated and live-action television as well as film and video games, and unsurprisingly The Joker has followed him everywhere he’s gone. Actors like Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson have made their own marks on the character, though perhaps the most famous version was Heath Ledger’s incredibly dark take on the character in The Dark Knight, a role which earned Ledger a posthumous Oscar award for Best Supporting Actor and has cemented the Joker as one of the great villains of cinema. But many Batman fans consider to be the definitive version of the character to be from Batman: The Animated Series where he was voiced by Mark Hamill. Hamill’s ability to capture everything from the camp silliness to the murderous menace makes him perhaps the most complete interpretation of the character, and he proved that evil laughter can indeed be an art form.

This series also added a new layer to The Joker character by introducing the world to Harleen Quinzel, the perky female sidekick and love interest of The Joker, going by the name of Harley Quinn. This new dynamic of having a love interest for a murdering psychopath allowed the writers to toy with the idea that Joker has a softer side that most of us never see. But it also allowed for exploring abusive relationships; Joker is verbally, emotionally and physically abusive towards Harley, and yet she enables him out of a mad love for him, believing that he really loves her despite all of the evidence to the contrary. Whether it inspires the viewer to see Joker as a misunderstood madman or just a loathsome evil scumbag (guess which camp I fall into!), it certainly makes him a more interesting villain.

Ledger

The Clown Prince of Crime

In my unbiased opinion, Joker is the greatest pure villain in comic book history. To me, he is absolute evil incarnate, wrapping himself up in a colorful package that fools some people, while continuously showing that he is an unrepentant murderer. Chaos, anarchy and madness are all The Joker truly loves, and everything else is just there for his hatred and amusement. He doesn’t need superpowers or gadgets even a gun; his depravity and imagination are the most lethal tools in his arsenal. While some villains have layers that make them more sympathetic or even seem justified, The Joker is simply a madman who wants the world to burn. And I wouldn’t have him any other way.

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The Top Twelve – Superhero Movies

This list is just my own person favorites and not intended to be a scientific or definitive list. I don’t expect my opinions to be shared by everyone, but at least that should make this a refreshing read, right?

X2

#12. X2: X-Men United (2003)

Not enough credit is given to Bryan Singer’s X-Men films these days. I think the poor quality of X-Men 3 (2006) and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) as well as the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has made people forget that before X-Men released to positive reviews in 2000, superhero movies were pretty much a joke. The Batman franchise was dead and buried thanks to Batman and Robin (1998) and the most successful comic book franchise was Blade. Anyway, the first film was good but the second one was even better. Wolverine’s origins were explored, the tension between humans and mutants took center stage, Nightcrawler was a worthy addition to the cast, and everyone from Mystique to Pyro got meaningful character development. Twelve years later this film still stands as one of the best ensemble superhero movies and arguably the blueprint for The Avengers movies.

Superman

#11. Superman (1978)

The first modern superhero film is still one of the best. The movie told us that we would believe a man would fly, and thanks to the cutting edge special effects, it’s still easy to believe Superman can fly almost four decades later. But more importantly, thanks to Christopher Reeve we believed that Superman could act; his portrayal of the Man of Steel was so different from his portrayal as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent that it was easy to believe nobody could make the connection. To me this is the standard for everything that was to come; it’s also so much better than Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) that it isn’t even funny.

Spidey

#10. Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Yesterday I wrote about how awesome Doctor Octopus was in this film and how the movie raised the bar for action in the genre. But there is plenty more to love about Sam Raimi’s second Spider-Man movie. The characters are older and more complex. Peter feels more of the toll that being Spider-Man takes on his personal life, which is probably the most important dynamic of the character in the comics. Harry Osborn really comes into his own in this film as well. While the franchise took a nose dive after this, this is still a high point and I feel is the film that should be most closely modeled when Marvel brings Peter Parker into their cinematic universe.

Ultron

#9. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

The most recent addition to this list, Age of Ultron is a worthy follow up to the most successful superhero movie of all time and another hit in Marvel’s recent flurry of creative successes. The all-star casts returns and by this point could play the characters in their sleep. Jeremy Renner’s increased role as Hawkeye arguably makes him the breakout star of the movie, but everyone has their moments. The Maximoff Twins worked better than I could have hoped and the Vision ended up as one of the best parts of the movie instead of the straw that broke the camel’s back. Ultron was also a strong antagonist who entertained me in ways I didn’t expect. While not as good as the first one, it’s still a great time at the movies.

Logan

#8. The Wolverine (2013)

Hugh Jackman has been playing Wolverine for about fifteen years at this point, but for my money, it’s this film where he gave his greatest performance as the character. I love this movie because it is a great character study and a solid action film and doesn’t try to be more than that. I also enjoy the film for helping wipe away the bad memory of Logan’s first solo film, and for not trying to insult me for being a comic book fan like other movies from 2013. If you haven’t had a chance to see it yet I highly recommend it.

CA.0417.ironman

#7. Iron Man (2008)

I remember going to the theaters to see this movie and not having overly high expectations. As difficult as it may be to imagine now, Tony Stark was hardly a pop culture icon. I knew of him mostly because I played War of the Gems on Super Nintendo. By the time the movie was over I was in love with Iron Man and even more in love with Robert Downey, Jr. Turns out I wasn’t the only one; this movie helped launch Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and made Robert a high profile star once again. And it still holds up as one of the most fun comic movies out there, and is far better than its sequels.

Lights

#6. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

I remember when Marvel announced that they were doing this movie shortly after the release of The Avengers and thinking that they may have gone in over their heads a bit. Sure, Iron Man and Thor weren’t exactly cultural icons but the Guardians of the Galaxy were obscure even by comic book standards. I expected this to bomb hard, but that is why Kevin Feige is a millionaire and I am writing about his movies. Guardians of the Galaxy was irreverent, innovative and glorious entertainment, introducing audiences to a slew of new characters that almost all comic book fans have come to adore. Including myself. This movie is fantastic and arguably the best launch of a franchise ever.

Batman

#5. Batman Begins (2005)

Then again, this is a pretty good argument too. While I have gained a certain appreciation for the 1989 Tim Burton film Batman, especially Michael Keaton’s performance as the caped crusader, I have to say that on the whole those movies fell flat for me. And let’s not even talk about the Joel Schumacher films. But Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the character in movies was the breath of fresh air that the character needed, the most serious dramatic film based on a comic book to date. This told the origin and training of Batman so well that I don’t think it ever needs to be addressed again.

Future

#4. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

It was a long and bumpy road, but the third Bryan Singer directed X-Men film was more than worth the wait. Featuring a story that was loosely based on one of the best stories in the X-Men’s history, this film brings together the cast of the original series with the younger cast from X-Men: First Class (2011) to stellar results. In many ways this is my favorite comic book movie, because it felt like a reward for sticking with the series even after it burned me as a viewer more than a couple of times. Unfortunately, being a movie that runs on time travel, there are some serious logic problems that sometimes distract from the experience, but other than the film is a blast. Especially when Pietro is involved.

Avengers

#3. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)

Here’s a bright idea; take a World War II soldier, a Norse God, Frankenstein’s monster, a female James Bond, a male Katniss Everdeen, and a man in a flying robot suit and make a movie. This should have been a disaster, but Marvel’s careful world building mixed with talented actors mixed with Joss Whedon’s writing and directing somehow formed the perfect mixture for what may be the best comic book movie ever. It’s a miracle that this film works as well as it does. Which is spectacularly. I think I saw this movie around five times in theaters and was never bored, and I still like to throw it in when I have nothing better to do. One of the best popcorn flicks ever put together.

Joker

#2. The Dark Knight (2008)

Batman Begins was a great… beginning, but it turned out to be a mere appetizer for the most critically acclaimed film based on a comic book ever. The Dark Knight is more of a serious crime thriller than escapist popcorn fun, though it does have its moments. However, this was one of the first movies to take the heroes and villains seriously and show that they actually can be symbols with greater meaning. Even if it did beat those points into the ground. Still, it’s got a ton of great performances and an Oscar-winning Heath Ledger as The Joker, one of the all time great antagonists in cinema; not just comic book movies, but movies in general. It’s a remarkable piece of film making, and it just happens to involve a guy in a bat mask.

Scuffle

#1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

If one takes the comic book escapism of The Avengers and blends it with the real world seriousness of The Dark Knight, you get the conspiracy thriller action film called Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I was a huge fan of the first Captain America film but the sequel was an improvement in every single way. Chris Evans is brilliant as Steve Rogers, there’s a strong supporting cast and a genuinely compelling plot. The action scenes are gorgeously choreographed and feature a lot of practical stunt work, and the film even brings in political concepts from the real world to discuss them. It’s my favorite comic book movie and I think it’ll be a while before anything challenges it.

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