I only had to see the previews to Iron Man to know we’d all been duped. According to the hype, the film is about some right-wing wacko named Tony Stark who becomes a POW and simultaneously turns both liberal and invincible after tricking his captors into letting him weld together a bad-ass metal suit. Once outfitted as the mighty Iron Man, he is able to fly at warp speed and have sex with Gwyneth Paltrow—a pretty nifty superpower, but not exactly what the movie is about. At all.
With apologies to my fellow comic-book nerds, Iron Man is about one thing and one thing only: Robert Downey Jr. finally catching a break. The fact that this über-talented actor has managed to stave off drug addiction long enough to remind us of his talents is some sort of miracle, one that fans have been praying for ever since the star of Chaplin and Air America disappeared into the L.A. correctional system in 1996. The fact that the Hollywood of Downey Jr.’s prime—the one that contained a pre-24 Kiefer Sutherland and pre-shoplifting Winona Ryder—now belongs to younger men (like Tobey Maguire) just makes his career resurrection all the more poignant. Like Iron Man’s transition to the silver screen, it has been a long time coming.
This summer is a surprisingly fragile time for movies. After Heath Ledger’s shocking death earlier this year, moviegoers have a chance to reacquaint themselves with this marvelously talented actor, who appears as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight. Fans of the Batman saga will recall that resurrection plays a large part in Joker mythology, a macabre similarity to Ledger’s posthumous performance.
In the same movie, the often-overlooked Christian Bale disappears under the skin of Batman—this time literally. The Hollywood hype machine has largely neglected Bale’s performance as a selling point; the previews for the movie showcased far more of Ledger’s eerie American accent and Chelsea smile than any of Bale’s brooding. And then there’s Downey Jr., a larger-than-life actor who, much like Tony Stark, rises from the ashes of his illicit past to take on a mantle of heroic sobriety.
What this summer’s multiplex screenings offer is not so much a chance to escape into the popcorn-scented bliss of an air-conditioned fantasy land as an opportunity to consider several surreal instances of art imitating life. Who can behold Ledger’s haunted supervillain and not see the star of Brokeback Mountain wrestling with his own very real demons? Who can see Downey Jr.’s hardened face and not think that the pain reflected there has more to do with being down-and-out in L.A. than down-and-dirty as an iron welder? And what movie fan can possibly stand to see Christian Bale stuck back in the cinematic shadows, his long delayed ascension to superstardom quashed, yet again, by a series of unfortunate events?
When director Christopher Nolan’s first Batman movie, Batman Begins, premiered in 2005, Roger Ebert called it “the Batman movie I’ve been waiting for.” Under Nolan (the visionary director behind 2000’s Memento), the film was a marvel of cutting-edge special effects and charismatic acting. Everyone from Michael Caine to Liam Neeson rose to the occasion. There was only one flaw: Katie Holmes. Holmes’ unremarkable performance as damsel-in-distress Rachel Dawes was blamed for any and all of the movie’s failings. As a result, she has been replaced by the edgier Maggie “I’m not fricking Katie Holmes!” Gyllenhaal in the sequel.
Batman Begins still did extremely well at the box office, but without a spunky babe to match his brooding sexuality, Christian Bale may have been denied the chance to become, as Tobey Maguire did in Spiderman, a household name. To this day, the talented Bale is known more as “the guy from American Psycho” or “that kid from Newsies” than the powerhouse leading man of a $400 million franchise.
Blaming the delayed rise of Bale’s star on Katie Holmes is, of course, going a bit far. Like Colin Firth, appreciated by a select group of female film fans who have had the good sense to notice him, Bale is a specialized taste. He’s handsome, but he’s no Brad Pitt. There is, indeed, something about his appearance that lends itself to instability. Depending upon the inclinations of the makeup artist, he could be a hot romantic lead, as he was in 1994’s Little Women, or a sleep-deprived freak, as in 2004’s Machinist. In fact, other than Batman, the most gorgeous Bale has ever been was as serial killer Patrick Bateman in the 2000 film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, where, clad only in a pair of glowing white Reeboks, he famously pursued a shrieking prostitute with a chainsaw.
Bale has had more crowd-pleasing roles. As in Ellis’ novel, his Batemen repels at a fundamental level, the subject matter surely earning him zero points on the Heartthrob-o-Meter. But the combination of deceptively clean-cut sexuality and cruel vapidity he brought to American Psycho will surely go down in movie history as the work of a daring and brilliant actor. It is fitting that he should be cast alongside Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, because his career is incredibly similar.
Like Bale, Heath Ledger made a name for himself by playing against type. Pegged as a matinee idol for his work in films like 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You and the following year’s Patriot, he seemed on his way to becoming an entertaining but not particularly hefty actor. Then he took a small but affecting role as Billy Bob Thornton’s son in Monster’s Ball. While Halle Berry shrieked her way to an Oscar win, Ledger’s quiet despair as a lost young man seeking comfort in illicit sex is a far more masterful performance. His next role, as the lovelorn Ennis Del Mar in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, was even better.
Playing against type seems to either work (Charlize Theron in Monster) or not (Jennifer Aniston in Derailed). It’s the Hollywood equivalent of separating the wheat from the chaff. Actors like Bale and Ledger happen to excel at it. Bale has sung in Newsies, slain futuristic dragons in Reign of Fire and starved himself to death in The Machinist. Ledger has, of course, portrayed Ennis from youth to middle-age in Brokeback, jousted to Queen in A Knight’s Tale and, in one of his quirkier roles, played a high school rebel rumored to have “sold his lung on the black market to buy a speaker” in 10 Things I Hate About You. That these two titans of young Hollywood were set to appear in a film together should have been an occasion for joy.
Then, of course, the unthinkable happened.
Ledger’s passing reminds us that, in an age where anyone on YouTube can become famous, true talent is a distinctly different and precious thing. Whether or not you think artists are important to society, most of us will be touched by the work of one of them over the course of our lives. When you see Ledger sink to the floor, cradling his dead lover’s jacket in Brokeback Mountain, it doesn’t matter that he’s really a Hollywood actor with money to burn. It only matters that he’s plugged us back into the human experience that desk jobs, gridlock and all the other evils of the world constantly distract from.
So when I heard that Ledger had died, I began to think that The Dark Knight had just gotten a little darker. Anticipating an acting showdown between two of my generation’s greatest talents, I watched the teaser trailer and thought, “Heath doesn’t look happy.” His tortured-looking Joker reminded me of all the rumors I’d heard: that he committed suicide, that he wasn’t sleeping, that he was, in fact, human. If Christian Bale does emerge as Ledger’s successor, it will have to be somewhere down the line. Before it even opens, The Dark Knight is Ledger’s movie. And it ought to be that way.
When the lights go down and the shadowy images of Gotham City go up, I’m afraid it’s those sort of thoughts that, far more than brooding superheroes and special effects, are going to haunt me.
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