Movie Lists: The Joker

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The joke’s on you, Joker!

So says Adam West’s Batman to Cesar Romero’s Joker in the 1960s campy TV series BATMAN.

The release of JOKER (2019), a superior standalone film about the origin of the infamous Batman villain the Joker that features an Oscar-worthy performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck aka the Joker, no doubt will re-open the conversation as to who made the best onscreen Joker.

So, with that in mind, welcome back to Movie Lists, that column that looks at lists of odds and ends in the movies. Up today, you got it: the Joker.

 

BATMAN (1966)

The Joker: Cesar Romero

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This movie was based on the ultra successful campy TV series from the 1960s starring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin. It featured four supervillains: the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler, and the Joker. It was originally intended to be released before the TV show aired, but the series was rushed into production and premiered ahead of time. As a result, the movie premiered in theaters the summer after the end of Season 1 of the series.

Like he did in the TV series, Cesar Romero, like his fellow actors in their fellow supervillain roles, played the Joker strictly for laughs. There was no rhyme or reason or any attempt to make the character real or threatening. And since it was in the 1960s, and since Adam West was hysterically funny as Batman, who unlike his counterparts the villains, played it straight, which made it all the more comical, the fact that Batman didn’t realize he was funny, it all worked. Remarkably well. And the humor still holds up today.

For more than twenty years, Cesar Romero, in all his campy hilarity, defined the role.

Until 1989 with the release of Tim Burton’s BATMAN.

 

BATMAN (1989)

The Joker: Jack Nicholson

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The most controversial thing about Tim Burton’s BATMAN was his casting of Michael Keaton, who up until that point was only known for his comedic roles, as Batman. Yet Keaton silenced critics with a very effective performance.

Jack Nicholson did not share this problem. After all, he was Jack Nicholson, one of the most respected actors at the time. For many, the fact that he was playing the Joker was the main reason to see this one.

I’ve always liked Tim Burton’s BATMAN, although truth be told, it hasn’t held up that well to the test of time. When it came out, since the movie world had only known Adam West’s campy Batman, it was considered an extremely dark and serious take on the character. Yet, watched today, it comes off as much campier than it did back in 1989.

The same can be said for Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker. Nicholson blew away any notion that Cesar Romero would remain the definitive Joker. Nicholson’s Joker was a much darker take on the character, although once more, watched today, he seems much more cartoonish and campy.

That being said, I really enjoyed Nicholson as the Joker, and I enjoyed the way director Tim Burton framed the character, adding a lot of references to the Phantom of the Opera, especially the 1925 Lon Chaney silent version. The scenes near the end with the Joker leading Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) up the tower are clearly reminiscent of similar scenes where Lon Chaney’s Phantom led Christine into the depths of his underground lair.

Again, for nearly twenty years, Jack Nicholson was the gold standard for the Joker.

Until Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

 

THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

The Joker: Heath Ledger

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The big news with THE DARK KNIGHT was that Heath Ledger died just before the release of the movie, and as a result, because of his amazing performance, he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor posthumously. Ledger’s performance as the Joker truly is phenomenal. THE DARK KNIGHT remains my favorite superhero movie of all time, and Ledger’s performance as the Joker is a major reason why

The film really is about chaos and anarchy, and we see it personified by the Joker who will stop at nothing just to create chaos, and he’s so good at it. The only reason he ultimately fails isn’t because of Batman, but because he misjudges the dark side of human nature. People aren’t as bad as he thought they were.

Hands down, Heath Ledger was and remains the best onscreen Joker. However, here in 2019, he just received his biggest competition.

 

SUICIDE SQUAD (2016)

The Joker: Jared Leto

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Jared Leto’s performance in the flawed DC movie SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) didn’t really work for me. It’s not entirely Leto’s fault, as SUICIDE SQUAD, a DC tale about villains rather than heroes, isn’t all that good. The reason to see it is Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn. She steals the show. Leto as the Joker does not.

 

JOKER (2019)

The Joker: Joaquin Phoenix

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The best part about JOKER is it’s not really a comic book movie. It plays more like a Martin Scorsese film as it tells its story about Arthur Fleck, a man suffering from mental illness, who regardless of the fact that he only wants to make people laugh, is continually beat upon until he can’t take it anymore. And when he rises up he’s less a supervillain than the face of a movement, and since he’s spent his whole life wanting to be noticed, he finds that he likes this new self.

Joaquin Phoenix is superb as Arthur Fleck here, and he gives the most sympathetic onscreen portrayal of the Joker yet. He will make you understand and believe how someone could become the Joker, and how the Joker could in fact be a real person. We’ve come a long way since the days of Cesar Romero.

By a hair, I still prefer Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT, since that film was insanely riveting, thanks mostly to Ledger. Joaquin Phoenix’s work in JOKER is entirely different from Ledger’s. JOKER is not a superhero movie. It’s a tragic violent drama, and as such works on an entirely different level. One day I may find myself preferring Phoenix over Ledger. That day is not today, but that doesn’t take away from Phoenix’s masterful performance.

It’s interesting to note that Cesar Romero almost wasn’t the first Joker. J. Carrol Naish almost played him in the serial BATMAN from 1943, which  was the first time Batman appeared on the big screen. The villain was originally going to be the Joker, but since it was 1943, he was changed to a Japanese villain, Dr. Daka, and was played by J. Carroll Naish. Some traces of the Joker still remain, as Daka’s hideout is located inside a carnival.

That’s it for now. Hope you enjoyed this list of actors who have played the Joker in the movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

Superhero Movies 2016 – Worst to First

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Here’s a look at the superhero movies from 2016, ranked from worst to first:

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7. BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE – By far, the worst superhero movie of 2016. The script by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer doesn’t work. In spite of the fact that Batman and Superman do not trust or like each other, a big part of the plot revolves around Lex Luthor’s plans to pit them against each other.  Why?  They’re enemies already!  Also, the big moment where Batman and Superman change their tunes about each other is both unbelievable and anticlimactic.

Both Ben Affleck as Batman and Henry Cavill as Superman are fine, but the story they are in is not.  Also unimpressed with the action scenes by director Zach Snyder.  Best Part:  Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.  Worst Part:  Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor.

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6. THE LEGEND OF TARZAN- Tecnically, not really a superhero movie, but growing up I always considered Tarzan a superhero of the jungle.

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is a serious good-looking production by director David Yates that suffers from one fundamental problem:  it’s boring.

Alexander Skarsgard is terribly uncharismatic as Tarzan, Margot Robbie somehow doesn’t wow as Jane, and Christoph Waltz thinks he’s still playing Bond baddie Blofeld, hamming it up as villain Leon Rom.  The liveliest lines go to Samuel L. Jackson as Tarzan ally George Washington Williams.  The movie would have been better served had it given this oomph to Tarzan.

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5.SUICIDE SQUAD –  The DC superhero movies continue to struggle, but that being said, I liked SUICIDE SQUAD.  Somewhat.

Whereas she didn’t wow in THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, Margot Robbie more than makes up for it here as Harley Quinn.  Robbie’s electrifying, sexy performance as the bad-girl-turned-good-maybe easily steals this movie.  It’s easy to understand from Robbie’s performance how Quinn is the Joker’s girlfriend.

While I’m not a Will Smith fan, he’s really good here as Deadshot, and his and Robbie’s performances were the main reasons I enjoyed this movie.  The rest of the cast is simply average.  The plot less so.  The screenplay by director David Ayer has all this build up to this squad of misfits only to see them square off against one of their own, a supernatural witch, no less.  This one simply lacks vision.

Also, Jared Leto’s Joker is ultimately a disappointment, partly because of his performance, but mostly because the role is under written.

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4. DOCTOR STRANGE – The first of the superhero movies on this list that I consider excellent.  It’s no surprise that all four of the top superhero movies from 2016 come out of the Marvel Universe, the studio that continues to churn out one superhero hit after another.

Certainly the most imaginative superhero movie of the year.  Not only does it tell a captivating story, but it’s also a visual treat. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Doctor Strange, the obnoxious neurosurgeon turned superhero after a devastating injury ruins his career and sends him in search of healing through the Far East mystic arts.  What he finds is new life as a superhero.

As usual with the Marvel movies, it struggles with its villain, as Mads Mikkelsen really doesn’t get to do a whole lot as bad guy Kaecilius.

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3. X-MEN:  APOCALYPSE –  My sleeper pick on the list.  Critically panned and not really loved by fans, X-MEN: APOCALYPSE nonetheless entertained me from start to finish.

The main reason I enjoyed this one?  The performances by James McAvoy as Professor Xavier, and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. Since taking over these roles when the series rebooted with X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS (2011), McAvoy and Fassbender have made them their own.  It’s difficult to dislike a movie when these two talented actors are helming it.

Of course, Jennifer Lawrence is here, too, as Raven/Mystique, but in all honesty I’ve enjoyed Lawrence in most of her other movies more than here in the X-MEN series.

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2. DEADPOOL (CKF) – For many, DEADPOOL was the best superhero movie of 2016.  For me, it was second best.  That being said, it was certainly the most unusual superhero movie of the year.

Foul-mouthed Deadpool— played by Ryan Reynolds in a role he was born to play— lets loose with an abundance of raunchy language not even George Carlin, Richard Pryor, or Eddie Murphy combined could match.  As such, this R rated superhero movie is not for everyone, but if you don’t mind raunchy language, you are in for quite a treat.

The liveliest superhero movie of the year, as well as the funniest.

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1. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR – My pick for the best superhero movie of 2016 is easily Marvel’s CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR.  This one plays more like THE AVENGERS 2.5. Its story about a rift between Captain America and Iron Man is much more believable and emotionally satisfying than the rift between Batman and Superman in BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE.

This one is so good, that even though it’s the third Captain America movie, it belongs in the conversation as one of the best superhero movies ever made.Brothers Anthony and Joe Russo direct this one with high energy and lots of style, and the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is a genuine crowd pleaser.

Also features a phenomenal cast which has no business being in a superhero movie. You’ve got Chris Evans as Captain America, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Anthony Mackie as the Falcon, Don Cheadle as War Machine, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, Paul Bettany as Vision, Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, and Sebastian Stan as the Winter Soldier.  And with all these folks doing their things and doing them well, the movie is almost stolen by young Tom Holland in his debut as Spider-Man.

An awesome movie.  Marvel has been churning out one quality superhero movie after another going back to IRON MAN (2008), and they show no signs of slowing down.  I’m looking forward to their upcoming releases in 2017, starting with LOGAN on March 3.

And there you have it, my list of the superhero movies from 2016.

Until next time, thanks for reading!

—Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.  Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) – Cool Characters Stuck In A Not-So-Cool Movie

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Things are so bad— how bad is it?

Things are so bad, it’s no longer enough to have superheroes fighting for you.  Nowadays you need supervillains on your side.

That’s the premise behind SUICIDE SQUAD (2016), the latest superhero movie from DC comics. Unlike its rival Marvel comics, whose superhero films have been for the most part high quality flicks and box office hits, the DC movies have struggled.  The previous film in the series, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) was a dud and struggled with believability, as its rift between Batman and Superman was forced and contrived.

Today’s movie, SUICIDE SQUAD, struggles with a similar problem.

SUICIDE SQUAD opens after the events of BATMAN V. SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE and finds government officials increasingly wary of the unchecked powers of superheroes, or as they are called in these movies, metahumans.  Officials are worried that the next Superman might not be so friendly.

Enter government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) whose solution to this problem is to assemble a group of supervillains— a suicide squad— who she claims she will control by injecting each of them with a chip containing a miniaturized bomb.  They cross her in any way, and she’ll blow them up.

They will do the nasty work of the government– defeating super bad guys— because they will have no choice in the matter, and if they fail no one will know because the entire operation will be kept under wraps, nor will anyone care since these guys are all villains.    For Waller, it’s a win-win situation.

For me, it’s a head-scratcher.  Wouldn’t you rather just hire Batman and some of his friends?  It seems like a lot less trouble.

The SUICIDE SQUAD consists of Deadshot (Will Smith), an assassin who never misses; Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who happens to be the Joker’s girlfriend, and she’s just as crazy as he is; Boomerang (Jai Courtney), an Australian who uses razor sharp boomerangs as weapons; Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a monstrous creature with crocodilian abilities; Diablo (Jay Hernandez) a guy who uses fire as a weapon and makes the Human Torch seem like a puny match; and a few others.

Among these others is Waller’s trump card, the Enchantress, an all-powerful witch who Waller controls by keeping her heart in a brief case.  In human form, the Enchantress is scientist June Moone (Cara Delevingne).

But Waller’s plan falls apart when she loses control of the Enchantress, who then summons her all-powerful brother to join her in conquering the human race.  Waller is forced to use her Suicide Squad to take down the Enchantress and her brother.  In effect, their first mission is to attack one of their own.  So much for taking on outside threats.

SUICIDE SQUAD is full of cool characters, but it’s not a cool movie. Far from it, it’s silly and contrived, and it has one of the more ridiculous superhero plots I’ve ever seen. A wicked witch who wants to take over the world?  Puh-lease!   Still, it’s not all bad, and there were some things that I liked.

It’s two strongest characters are Harley Quinn and Deadshot.  Of the two, Deadshot is far less interesting, but Will Smith delivers a strong performance nonetheless.  I’m not much of a Will Smith fan, but this is one of the better characters I’ve seen him play.  When he’s on screen, the movie is that much better.  He also has some of the best lines in the movie, which is a rarity, because surprisingly, there aren’t many memorable lines in this film.

Even better than Smith is Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.  By far, she’s the best part of SUICIDE SQUAD.  Quinn is the most interesting character in the film, and she also has the best story, a love story between her and the Joker (Jared Leto).  It’s the one story in the entire movie that works.

Margot Robbie is phenomenal as Harley Quinn.  She makes her as zany and unpredictable as she’s supposed to be, and she also instills her with a wild and potent sexuality that pulsates off the screen.  Robbie played Jane Clayton earlier this year in the tepid Tarzan tale THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016).  She was also in WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT (2016) with Tina Fey, and she also starred in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013).  Her work here in SUICIDE SQUAD is better than anything I’ve seen her do before.

Remove Will Smith and Margot Robbie from this movie, and it’s a complete mess.  They pretty much carry the film, but since it’s entitled SUICIDE SQUAD, and not HARLEY QUINN MEETS DEADSHOT, they don’t entirely save it.

The other members of the squad are simply not as developed as Deadshot and Harley Quinn, and as a result, are not as interesting.

The villains here are the worst part.  Enchantress?  A witch as the villain?  Seriously?  I half expected to see Chris Hemsworth show up as the Huntsman!  Things were so bad I was almost pining for Loki.  Almost.  Her dialogue is also laughable.  Seriously, I challenge you to listen to her lines in her final scenes and not laugh out loud.  She also does this bizarre hip movement thing which looks like Elvis animated by Ray Harryhausen.

Government Agent Amanda Waller as played by Viola Davis is a ruthless despicable character.  It’s clear she hates the Suicide Squad.  It’s also clear she’s out of place in a superhero movie.  She’d be more at home as the heavy in a Jason Bourne film.

Jared Leto plays the Joker, and he has enormous shoes to fill. The last time we saw the Joker in a movie, he was played by Heath Ledger in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008), and his performance as the Joker is arguably the greatest performance by any actor in a superhero movie.  I thought Leto was okay, and given more to do, he may have been even better than okay, but sadly, the Joker remains a secondary character throughout this movie, and as such, Leto never really grew on me, nor did he have a chance to make this role his own.

SUICIDE SQUAD was directed by David Ayer, and I can’t say that I was impressed.There aren’t really many memorable action scenes, which is not a good thing in a superhero movie.  I also wasn’t that impressed with the look of the film.  Most of it is shot on dark rainy streets, and visually it didn’t do much for me.  Even the 3D effects weren’t that impressive.

The weakest part of SUICIDE SQUAD, as was the case with BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, is the script, here written by director David Ayer. First off, I didn’t like the way it told its story.  The backrgound stories to the Suicide Squad are revealed in staccato flashbacks which play out like a series of YouTube videos.  There’s no sense of pacing or drama.  They’re just played to us as if we’re clicking on a computer screen.  The result is a rather disjointed and slow opening third to this movie.

When things finally do pick up, the Suicide Squad immediately is thrust into the ridiculous storyline of defending the city against an all powerful witch and her brother. It’s a story that just doesn’t work.

I also didn’t like the way the members of the Suicide Squad were forced into working for Waller.  They obey her or they die.  The result here is they are not allowed to exhibit much of their personalities.

The only story that works is the love story between Harley Quinn and the Joker.  It’s the only part of the film that resonates and that doesn’t come off as forced.  I really hoped the Joker would become more involved in the main plot of the movie, but alas, this film is not that ambitious and he remains largely in the background.

Likewise, an uncredited Ben Affleck plays Batman here, but again, he’s only in the background, as he only appears in the flashbacks.  It’s kind of a waste.  I wanted to see Batman involved in the action, seen from the perspective of the Suicide Squad.  That would have been interesting.

But a film that contains two powerful performances like the ones that Will Smith and Margot Robbie deliver cannot be all bad, and SUICIDE SQUAD is not a complete clunker by any means.  It has its moments, most of them when Smith and Robbie are on screen, and while the other members of the suicide squad are chock full of potential, sadly, they’re all stuck in a story that is about as compelling as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The difference being that Harley Quinn is no Snow White.

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