The Joker – Why So Serious? (pt.1)

The Joker, A New Illustration From LenseBender Studios

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The list of complaints about last years’ ‘Suicide Squad’ is a long one. The machined-gunned roll-call character introductions, the underdeveloped personalities, the ethnic stereotypes, and the ‘walk like an Egyptian’ Enchantress – and this is just to scratch the surface – earned across-the-board negative reviews and a deeply conflicted audience.

One of the biggest complaints I’ve been hearing? The prison-tatted goth-juggalo Joker. And while this version of The Joker has earned such disdain, Jered Leto’s performance has simultaneously garnered some of the film’s highest praise. In fact, many moviegoers are hopeful for a ‘Joker & Harley’ stand-alone movie(although this is looking less likely with the announcement of ‘Gotham City Sirens‘). Audience responses to both the film and this new iteration of the ‘ganagster’ Joker perfectly illustrates how polarized audiences are.

What many moviegoers aren’t aware of is that The Joker has undergone several transformations over the last seventy-five years. After Batman was given his own stand-alone comic title in 1940, creator Bob Kane needed to introduce a new villain. Interestingly, The Joker was initially supposed to die in the first issue – with a knife through the heart – but the decision was ultimately made to keep The Clown Prince Of Crime on deck as a recurring character.

It’s easy to assume that the earliest depictions of The Joker would more closely resemble the 1960s television series – whimsical and cartoonish, rather than sociopathic and violent. The truth is, in his earliest story arcs, The Joker was a ruthless killer similar to more recent cinematic portrayals. It wasn’t until editor Jack Schiff was hired that The Joker’s persona was softened in order to market the Batman comics to a younger audience. After the establishment of the Comics Code Authority in 1954, The Joker was nothing more than a puckish, thieving trickster.

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Editor Julius Schwartz took the reigns in 1964, leading to the near-abandonment of The Joker character altogether. Evidently, Schwartz wasn’t a fan of the character. If it wasn’t for the 1966 Batman television series, The Joker might have faded into complete obscurity. The show was a hit, however, and actor Cesar Romero provided the first ever live (non-comic-book) performance of the iconic character.
romero-blogAfter the end of the television series – and despite its success – comic sales were flagging. The Joker was reintroduced in 1973, after a four year hiatus and a decision to change formats. Editors wanted to begin telling more mature Batman stories and shed the whimsical camp of the 1960s. This reincarnated Joker was brought back to his original concept: a ruthless serial killer on equal footing with The Caped Crusader. He was also, for the first time ever, depicted as being completely and undeniably insane.
joker-70sIn 1975 The Joker was granted a stand-alone comic series by DC Comics – this would be the first time that a villain would be portrayed as the protagonist in a comic book serial. The series was short-lived, but The Joker’s popularity expanded rapidly. This would culminate in some of the most iconic graphic novels of the 1980s, spawning feature-length animated films, a reinvigoration of comic book culture, and one of the most ambitious films based on a comic book intellectual property, Tim Burton’s 1989 release of ‘Batman.’

(stay tuned for our exploration of The Joker’s depiction in the 1980s though Suicide Squad)
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Harleen Quinzel – Suicide Squad

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Get ready for Halloween – we’re going to be seeing a lot of Harley Quinn costumes.

There’s nothing wrong with that. This is one of the most unique characters in the DC world, a precocious student of psychology who falls victim to The Joker’s manipulations. In many ways, her story arc is a parable that mirrors abusive relationships; she relentlessly pursues acceptance from an abusive partner in a way that many real-world victims of emotional abuse seek acceptance from their abuser.

Harleen Quintzel, on the surface, seems like little more than a pornographic film star – hypersexualized and weak. That’s how she was initially written – the hapless victim of a masterful psychological tormentor. I think one of the reasons this character has captured the imagination of so many fans recently, however, is because, beneath the sexual facade, she possesses genuine agency. As penned by co-creator Paul Dini, she is a preternaturally brilliant psychologist who falls under the spell of The Joker. She isn’t a mutant or a meta-human. Her superpower isn’t superhuman strength or extraordinary skill with any kind of weapon; her talent lies in identifying and capitalizing on emotional weakness.

Not easy to portray on the silver screen, unfortunately.

But the relationship between Harley Quinn and The Joker was, undeniably, one of the most enjoyable elements of David Ayer’s ‘Suicide Squad,’ and rumor has it that a stand-alone feature-length film is in the works. Hopefully we’ll see more from Dini’s original story, a comic book titled ‘Mad Love,’ as the flagging Warner Brothers Studios continue to struggle to catch up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Harley isn’t just a hot chick in revealing clothing – she’s a viper, whose superpower is her devotion to a madman.

I hope that you, like me, are looking forward to seeing this character evolve in the burgeoning DC Cinematic Universe. Yes, there have been plenty of misfires, and I think that ‘Suicide Squad’ was a big swing and a miss. I’m a little gun-shy, too, after ‘Man of Steel’ and ‘Batman V Superman.’ But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of material to work with. And the new Robin – ahem, sorry, I mean Joker – is going to be a fun new character to follow.

You fan-boys know what I’m talking about.

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The New Joker – Scarface Juggalo

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It will be impossible for fans of Batman not to compare Jaret Leto’s version of The Joker to the monumental performance by Heath Ledger. What a lot of people don’t realize, of course, is that Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger concocted their anarchic Joker out of thin air; their interpretation was deeply expressive in that cinematic context, but wasn’t necessarily wedded to any of the comic book versions of the character.

Neo-goth gangster – that’s what we’re seeing with this new Joker. A hybridized malcontent, a Marilyn Manson/Bugsy Siegel Frankenstein monster. In the three days that ‘Suicide Squad’ has been out, there has already been a tremendous amount of backlash. Rather than make unfair comparisons, I’m inclined to embrace this new interpretation. Low ratings and abysmal Rotten Tomato scores, these DC movies are still huge moneymakers. It’s easy to be gun-shy with these last two efforts – but when the meager ten minutes of screen-time (approximately) allotted to Jared Leto’s Joker are widely considered the best part of ‘Suicide Squad,’ I think it’s a safe bet that we’ll be seeing more from the criminally insane harlequin.

And pay attention to the fan theories. I think there might be quite a bit more to this Joker than we realize.

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Is Jared Leto A Good Joker?

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After today’s release of ‘Suicide Squad,’ the internet will likely be replete with comparisons between the DC Cinematic Universe’s newest incarnation of the evil clown with the many iterations that came before.

A posthumous Oscar for Heath Ledger’s portrayal in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight Trilogy’ makes the role especially risky for the newest actor, Jared Leto. Fortunately, comic book properties have proved malleable, both on the printed page and, as an extension, into the cinematic realm. By design, successful comic book characters change with the times, in both costume and ethos. From the psychopathic serial killer in the comics of the 1950s to the innocent whimsy of Cesar Romero in the 1966 ‘Batman’ television series, to the anarchic and chaos-driven Joker portrayed by Heath Ledger in the ‘Dark Knight Trilogy,’ Leto’s interpretation of the character isn’t outside of comic book canon, infinitely more aligned with the graphic novels of the late 1980s (and the Batman Animated Series of the 1990s).

The anarchic Joker of the Nolanverse doesn’t have the time or patience to sit for ten hours to have himself tattooed and decorated in the way this new Joker has; he invents convoluted plans to rob banks and execute his enemies (and his accomplices), but is ultimately ruled by chaos. The whimsical Joker of the 1966 Batman series was too in love with gold and jewels and heists to visit any real harm upon another human soul. The Joker of ‘Suicide Squad’ is a crime boss, a violent gangster, an archetypal malcontent. His tattoos and chromed teeth are intentional objects of intimidation; he’s controlled, intelligent, calculating and capable.

This is rich territory. And even with the shortcomings of ‘Suicide Squad,’ this is a rich character, a character well deserving of more exploration. Maybe the writers, directors, executives, and other underlings of the DC Cinematic Universe will find a way to not fuck that one up.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

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Another ‘Suicide Squad’ Trailer

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OTHER POSTS ABOUT SUICIDE SQUAD

For all of the wailing about Batman V Superman, that movie is still a freight train that is on it’s way to hitting the one billion dollar mark. Sure, it was an expensive production and it has proved to be less profitable than Warner Brothers had hoped, but the movie’s still a success. The most vehement critics point to a longer-than-necessary run-time (clocking in at two and a half hours) and a darker-than-necessary tone. These are legitimate criticisms – Superman is supposed to be fun, and this film seemed overly-focused on dragging the Man Of Steel into ‘brooding Batman’ territory, and it simply didn’t work. The film is largely humorless, lacking the kind of heart that audiences had obviously hoped for.

The DC Cinematic Universe is not as well-oiled as Marvel, but the studio still has plenty of opportunity to course correct. The only concern is the very real possibility that they over-correct. For instance, a well-sourced rumor has begun to circulate the Warner is now re-shooting certain scenes from the upcoming Suicide Squad feature to make it more ‘light’ and ‘funny.’ These kinds of last-minutes changes do not augur well for the franchise. They aren’t ‘inspired’ changes. They’re ‘fearful’ changes. Hopefully this won’t spell disaster for what looks to be a pretty exciting ride.

The newest trailer dropped yesterday, and it’s fun as hell. Check it out HERE.

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Wonder Woman – Rebooted To Perfection?

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As mixed reviews funnel through the infinite avenues of internet film criticism, there does appear to be some consensus on one particular issue: in the new “Batman V Superman” feature, the depiction of Wonder Woman is exceptional. The movie is something of an effects-driven, superficial peek into the DC Cinematic Universe, trying incredibly hard – and failing on a number of tiers – just to try and catch up to the success of Marvel. For comic book enthusiasts and movie freaks, this isn’t news; we already knew, months before the movie was released.

The movie is, in so many ways, a bloated mess.

We see yet another retelling of the Batman origin story, an exercise as silly as approaching a stranger and asking if they know about Christ’s crucifixion. It’s a vacuous sequence that adds nothing to the movie. Anybody interested in doling out twelve bucks for a ticket, let’s face it, already knows the story. It’s the perfect example of a “by committee” decision, made by executives who, unlike fans, have no real emotional connection to the source material. It’s forgivable enough, I suppose, and maybe even a little expected – so be it. It was done well, the slow-motion sequence resembling comic book panels more beautifully and effectively than any other depiction of the origin story. So there’s that.

We also see a newer Batman, older and cynical, more violent and erratic, impotent and resentful in the shadow of the god-like alien from Krypton. We see a subversion of the morality we expect from the Caped Crusader, a war-weary vigilante who views criminals as weeds, perennial inconveniences that always reappear, no matter how many times you try to pluck them from your garden. We see a digital dossier of the “meta-humans” – other superheros in the DC canon – in a ham-fisted set-up presumably for future movies.

The movie has lots of issues, both narratively and tonally.
It happens.

The best part of the movie is a toss-up between Ben Affleck as Batman and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. Both portrayals are phenomenal. Affleck captures the charismatic swagger of the moneyed executive and steps into the cape & cowl with finesse. His relationship with Alfred (played by Jeremy Irons) is tenuous, complex, and believable, rivaling the jibber-jabber we saw in the Christopher Nolan films with Michael Cain in the Alfred role. The twenty minutes, give or take, that we get to watch Wonder Woman are arguably the most enjoyable twenty minutes of the entire film. With the tongue-and-cheek television portrayals of yore, the primary colors and glossy idealism, I don’t think anybody had any real expectation that Gadot’s portrayal of the character would bring anything interesting to the film. During the production, there was a lot of “thin-shaming,” with comic book fans insisting that their Wonder Woman is a towering, strong, meaty beast of a woman – that there’s no way that the slim, slinky Miss Israel could ever convincingly present the power and presence necessary to breathe life into the heroine.

Wrong.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The lasso isn’t silly, the strength of body and character are crystal clear. I enjoyed the film, despite its flaws, but I’m actually looking forward to a Wonder Woman solo picture more than ever – something I never would have expected.

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Batman V Superman – Spoiler Free

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When watching a spectacle film like “Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice,” it can be difficult to distinguish between the experience of watching the film and the actual quality of the film. Even more interesting, I find it both important and interesting that I have to mention that this is a spoiler-free review. Judging from the content-dense film trailers, it didn’t appear that there would be any surprises to spoil, a woeful trend in modern movie marketing (see video below). The trailers already reveal the action sets, the super-villains (Doomsday and Lex Luthor), both the fight and reconciliation between the film’s two protagonists, and even what would have been a spectacular surprise introduction of Wonder Woman. Regardless, there are three plot-critical events that are likely to catch most moviegoers completely off-guard, and it was satisfying to see that this latest entry into the burgeoning DC Cinematic Universe actually managed to surprise me.

Those three events will not be mentioned here. Neither will a synopsis, for that matter, because in that regard the trailers really are enough.

Critic reviews have been mixed at best, but many filmmakers are more finely tuned to the desires of their audience than the sometimes over-stuffed attitudes of their critics. The modern era of superhero movies makes reviewing them a different kind of activity; the fan-base is already built in and the source materials for most of these properties have been around for decades. Many film reviewers aren’t able to lose themselves in these narratives as easily as ‘true believers,’ which is why I think a lot of reviews are murky. With regards to criticism of “Batman V Superman,” there are some salient observations out there, pointing to obvious flaws and questionable decisions made by director Zack Snyder. Despite some of the movie’s shortcomings, no one thing leeches too much joy from the overall experience. This movie is well-worth the price of admission.

The biggest complaint out there is that the movie is bloated with needless or distracting content, taking longer than it needs trying to achieve, what some might argue, is far too much in the first place. In many regards, three separate (and good) movies could be made from what this one feature aspires to do all by itself. The main attempt, as most of us are already aware, is to hit the reset button on the DC properties and setting up an expanded cinematic universe. Disney has had a seat at the table for years, beginning with the first “Iron Man” film, and Warner Brothers has been struggling for years to crack the code. This year, we have two major titles in the DC Universe, “Batman V Superman” and “Suicide Squad.” Beyond that, there are nine separate films currently in the works, all to be released within the next five years. All nine of thee will share a point of origin with this year’s two films. This is arguably the biggest problem with the production: it takes too much time trying to set up other movies and not focusing enough on resolving its own central story.

Are we going to see Cyborg, Flash, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman in future titles? It looks like a certainty, but that all may hinge on the success of “Batman V Superman.” Sadly, the movie is too distracted setting up these other projects, shoe-horning most of them in pretty clumsily, disrupting the pace of the film. The only other issue I have may be a personal one, but I swear if I have to watch yet another depiction of Bruce Wayne’s parents being gunning down, in slow motion, in front of a movie theater, with pearls scattering and falling to the gutter, I may pledge to never see a Batman movie ever again. Scenes like this are part of the bloat, and do little to serve to actual story of the film.

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The conflicting ideologies of the two main characters in “Batman V Superman” – the brooding, gritty street-justice approach of Batman paired with the idealistic, heartland-of-America spirit of Superman – gives the film an interesting texture. This is a story of day and night, good versus evil, but it points to how even good can get muddled, that justice is not a black and white issue. Watching the two characters explore their moral philosophies and confront inconvenient realities about their morality is one of the more satisfying elements of the film.

Ben Affleck turns in a stupendous performance as an aging and increasingly cruel and bitter vigilante, inspired by “The Dark Night Returns” comic series and the decidedly darker tone established by comic artist & writer Frank Miller. Some fans may not like this new Batman and his obvious descent into moral ambiguity. He still fights crime, but his ethics are looser in this depiction than at any other time. This is a Batman that kills, which is something we’ve never seen on the silver screen before, and the jury is still out on how audiences feel about that. Nevertheless, this makes the comparison with Superman and his squeaky-clean demeanor all-the-more fascinating, adding layers of complexity to their conflict.

By far my favorite part of the film was the introduction of Wonder Woman (played by Israeli actress Gal Gadot), a character I have never really liked, never found interesting, and never thought could be made to be as fun, relatable, and believably hard-hitting; this Wonder Woman is a force of nature, and her springing into action in the third act is, by far, my favorite moment in the film. The art direction and casting for the entire feature is admirable, the action set-pieces exciting and fun to watch, and the characters are all truly three-dimensional – they are all uniquely conflicted, navigating their lives and predicaments with agency.

Box office numbers will be high. My prediction is that this will easily be a billion-dollar movie. This might finally be the shot of adrenaline to the heart of Warner Brothers and DC. They may never catch up with Marvel, but I think the competition just got a little stiffer.

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