The Joker – Why So Serious? (pt.1)

The Joker, A New Illustration From LenseBender Studios

FINE ART PRINTS AND MERCHANDISE AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
MORE FROM THE DC CINEMATIC UNIVERSE

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.

– – –

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)
FINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
SIGN UP FOR THE LENSEBENDER NEWSLETTER

Save

Save

Save

Save

Advertisements

The New Joker – Scarface Juggalo

FINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HEREScarface Juggalo blog
– – –
MORE FROM THE DC UNIVERSE

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.

FINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
SIGN UP FOR THE LENSEBENDER NEWSLETTER

Another ‘Suicide Squad’ Trailer

Harley-Cakes postFINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
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.

FINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
SIGN UP FOR THE LENSEBENDER NEWSLETTER

Wonder Woman – Rebooted To Perfection?

Wonder Woman postFINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
READ THE BATMAN V SUPERMAN REVIEW

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.

FINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
SIGN UP FOR THE LENSEBENDER NEWSLETTER

Batman V Superman – Spoiler Free

Wall Climber postFINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE

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.

– – –

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.

FINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
SIGN UP FOR THE LENSEBENDER NEWSLETTER

WTF Trailers

Watching The World Burn

Joker In Jail postFINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE

Heath Ledger’s performance isn’t anything to be overshadowed by his untimely passing. Comic book film adaptations, even today (in the golden age of comic book feature-length films), have never been taken seriously. They are relegated to “special effects-driven extravaganza” status among Hollywood elites and film critics. Box office numbers are good, but even as revenues climb, most of the world doesn’t take Marvel and DC properties very seriously. They’re just comic books. They’re fun rides. They’re cash in the bank.

Christopher Nolan, while not the lone savior of the comic book film adaptation, certainly spear-headed this new wave. After the monumental failure of “Batman and Robin” and the forgettable bombs of “Daredevil” and “Green Lantern,” even moderately successful comic book properties like “The Crow” and “Blade” couldn’t take the stink out of Hollywood executive’s nostrils. And hell – who could blame them?

Alongside Bryan Singer’s take on the X-Men franchise and Jon Favreau’s infinitely accidental smash-hit success with the first “Iron Man” feature, the age of the Hollywood comic book feature has truly arrived. Part of this has to do with technology – the digital effects that make the extraordinary subjects of these films come to life – and part of this has to do with genuine investment in storytelling and world-building, something that graphic novels have done for decades and Hollywood executives have failed to do for an almost equal number of decades.

Well, the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ has arrived. Actually, it arrived about two months after “Iron Man.” And DC has been struggling to catch up with it’s own cinematic universe ever since, re-booting Superman not once, but twice, in the interim. Most of these stories are old-hat, but known largely to comic book collectors and fan-boys. Most of us, even knowing the stories, don’t decry these film adaptations, but rather look forward to seeing how the material will be interpreted and adapted for the screen.

We’ll be seeing the Caped Crusader (the world’s greatest detective), in not one, but two feature length films in the coming months. The chances are very good that the upcoming iteration of the Batman character will be somewhat different from the Christopher Nolan films that helped breathe life back into the character over the past ten years. If anything, it appears as though the upcoming films will adhere more firmly to the comic book origins of the character, which should make a lot of ‘true believers’ quite happy – but it may alienate fans of the Nolan-verse, who have little or no attachment to the Batman character before “Batman Begins” and it’s two sequels.

The problem with the DC properties is that the focus seems scattered. From the carnival and neon-light camp of “Batman and Robin” to the Christopher Nolan “Dark Knight” trilogy, the shift in tone is undeniable. The Marvel camp has found a way to swing from the early expression of Bryan Singer’s “X-Men (2000)” into “Future Past (2014)” and “Apocalypse (2016)” without skipping a beat and without a radical change in tone. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is much more cohesive, while the DC Cinematic Universe is still struggling to find it’s identity.

Only time will tell if DC will be able to compete with the other heavy hitter on the block. For all we know, “Suicide Squad” and “Batman Versus Superman” will be the great wins of the year. Based on what we’ve seen from the two camps, and despite how powerful the characters from them are, my money is still on Marvel.

Excelsior!

FINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
SIGN UP FOR THE LENSEBENDER NEWSLETTER

A Word About Dr. Quinzel

Harley in the Hall post

FINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE

Any comic book aficionado or perennial nerd – every video-game, graphic-novel, pop-culture freak – can tell you what they think about this character and why. Most of us can tell you which version of the character we were first introduced to, and which iteration we prefer, from the after school cartoon to the decidedly more gritty and demented video game character from the award-winning “Arkham” series of Batman video games.

The more recent comic book and video game depictions of the character aren’t just grittier, but also much more sexualized, and this appears to have informed the direction of the character for the new “Suicide Squad” film. This makes sense for a film targeting a teenage and adult male audience. The character is perfectly tailored to play the seductive role while maintaining her dignity; complete insanity can be fun that way. What’s interesting and attractive about the character goes beyond sex appeal, though, which is probably one of the main reasons why so many people are interested in her. She isn’t a two-dimensional comic foil in a tight outfit. Or, I should say, she isn’t just a comic foil in a tight outfit. Her character is fully formed, she has agency and motivation, and this elevates her from many of the cinematic adaptations of female super-heroes and super-villains. There aren’t any one-liners to pigeonhole this one.

What we might also consider is that Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel isn’t a throwback to the 1950s, or any other earlier era of antiquated Americana. Many comic book stories from the early days of Marvel and DC weren’t very kind to women and their portrayal in popular media. This one is very original. Harley Quinn – a pretty ‘on-the-nose’ pun on the word ‘harlequin’ – was created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm back in 1991. Her first appearance was in an episode of “Batman: The Animated Series” in September of 1992.

The animated series was undeniably for kids, but it adopted a wonderfully dark tone and took it’s subject matter seriously. The show was illustrated in muted tones and was heavily influenced by art-deco design. The stories were also genre-defining, presenting conflicted characters, gothic atmosphere, and emotionally intelligent plots. The production team respected its audience even though most of them were children; this might explain why the series is still considered relevant today. It’s one of those timeless classics that’ll likely extend much further than it’s original run. Heck, it already has.

In the animated series, Harley Quinn isn’t given an origin story. She just appears as an obvious, humorous female sidekick to The Joker, who disregards her extreme admiration and devotion to him. With a thick Jersey accent and an almost innocent, bubbly desire to please the man of her dreams, much of the humor comes from her obliviousness. She scarcely seems to recognize how psychotic the object of her affection is. This worked well in the cartoon format, with a characterization that remained consistent, more or less, throughout the series.

The origin story didn’t appear until the 1994 graphic novel in the “Batman Adventures” series, titled “Mad Love.” We learn that the good Dr. Quinzel began as an ambitious and uniquely brilliant young psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum. Through a drawn-out attempt to psychoanalyze The Joker, she is eventually manipulated by the madman into setting him free. It’s a Stockholm-Syndrome-esque turn-of-events, and the doctor is subsequently twisted into one of The Joker’s puppets. The narrative is under-girded by Harley’s intellectual gifts and her emotional frailty, conflicting characteristics that make her a fascinating victim  – she’s both dangerous and vulnerable. The story was widely praised and won the Eisner and Harvey Awards for Best Single Issue Comic of the Year.

From the look of things, this origin story will not be a part of the new “Suicide Squad” film. The origin story may be hinted at, but it won’t be a focus of the film’s narrative. Not enough is revealed by the movie trailers alone to cast judgement, but commentators and fans appear to be split regarding this new incarnation of Harley Quinn. Some say the look is perfect, others wish there would be a more true-to-comic presence. Others are concerned that she doesn’t have that thick Jersey accent that helped define her cartoon countenance (an understandable critique when we watch the trailer and hear the classic ‘joker laugh’ from actor Jared Leto, a clear homage to Mark Hamill’s voice acting in the animated series).

The only way to know if the new Harley is worth a damn, of course, is to buy the ticket, take the ride, and see if works. I, for one, am optimistic that this is going to be a fun ride.

FINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
SIGN UP FOR THE LENSEBENDER NEWSLETTER