The changing faces of our favourite villains

Posted by on March 30, 2008 in Blog tagged with

Trailers for the new Batman film are showing in cinemas at the moment, and I was thrilled to see Heath Ledger’s Joker for the first time:

Even in the short trailer, it was a stunning performance, creepily charismatic and with a laugh that’ll send chills down your spine. The people in the row behind me started talking about it before the trailer had even finished, and I was interested to hear that the main point of their discussion was whether Ledger could ever be a better Joker than Jack Nicholson:

I don’t know enough about the DC comics to debate which Joker is more faithful to the spirit of the original figure, so I’ll leave that to those more qualified; what caught my attention was that the people sat behind me were comparing the two mostly in terms of their, for lack of a better word for it, scariness. Of course, the Joker is meant to be a terrifying character, and rating different Jokers in terms of their effect is reasonable enough. But what is it we’re actually comparing when we do this?

When it comes to figures like the Joker, or Dracula, or Frankenstein’s monster – figures we can re-represent continually, whether in new adaptations of the original work or new stories in which they play a guest-star role – the weight of existing cultural currency puts a strange kind of pressure on the people doing the re-inventing. On one hand, we know Count Dracula should frighten us, and we rate new Draculas in large part based on how well they achieve that; on the other hand, adaptations which present him in a way we’re already used to will fail to have any effect on us at all. We appreciate Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, in other words, but we don’t want Dracula to look like that any more. When he appeared in an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, it was as a very different figure:

The kind of pressures shaping transformations like these is, of course, still the subject of ongoing critical debate (something discussed only a few days ago on this blog, for instance!). If we need our vampires, zombies, psychopaths and murders to reflect upon our own culture, as Nina Auerbach suggests in the case of the vampire, then we can track their evolution in terms of our own shared ideals and anxieties. The recent ITV adaptation of Frankenstein gave us a monster a world away from Boris Karloff’s hulking figure –

– but in 2007, maybe something that looked alien rather than undead would have much greater effect on an audience with a different idea of artificial life (the adaptation centred on stem cell research). 

It seems likely there are other forces at work in changing our expectations of terrifying figures, especially in visual mediums like film and TV; advances in techology mean that later audiences will see clumsy artifice where contemporary ones saw up-to-date special effects, and being scared requires the kind of suspension of disbelief that’s difficult to achieve in such scenarios. Or, perhaps, we develop different ideas about what is and isn’t frightening as our shared aesthetic sensibilities shift; personally, I don’t find broader arguments about changing aesthetic sensibilities quite as persuasive in this regard, but I’ve heard some well-made arguments to that effect. There’s a wealth of fascinating material on all of this.

But here’s what I’m wondering, after seeing the Batman trailer: what if the pressure that’s driving such transformations is just to make them seem different to what we’ve seen before? Figures like Frankenstein’s monster, or Dracula, or the Joker, or Darth Vader, or any of the vast company in which they march, scare us because they surprise us, disturbing us because of that degree of otherness from what we’re used to; what if that’s the most significant force behind new portrayals of old villains, and our ideas about cultural anxieties, transforming aesthetic sensibilities and technological advances are mostly overshadowed by that? To play devil’s advocate for a moment here, are we overthinking this?

For myself, I thought Heath Ledger’s 2008 Joker was far more effective than Jack Nicholson’s in 1989. I’m curious about whether or not I’d have thought the same if they’d appeared the other way round, though.

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