Ahead of his upcoming appearance in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Murray Ferguson re-evaluates Jared Leto’s Joker…
Introduced in unexpectedly brief fashion and met with a decidedly mixed response, the future of Jared Leto’s Clown Prince of Crime remains uncertain. His surprise return in Zack Snyder’s impending director’s cut of Justice League has left fans speculating about his place within the Batman mythos, offering the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate his take on the Joker. When dealing with an iconic character, especially one rooted in over 80 years of comic book history, people are going to have strong opinions. There can be an aversion to seeing something drastically new or unfamiliar onscreen. Yet, when you’re following in the footsteps of Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson and the Oscar-winning Heath Ledger, you’ve got to find an effective way to leave your mark. Rather than go a more conventional route, Suicide Squad introduced a Joker that is both new and yet heavily inspired by the comics. He is an ever-changing presence and a wild card, not least because most of his performance was either heavily edited, reshot or ‘ripped’ from the film, according to director David Ayer.
Literary characters are always going to prompt talks of ‘accuracy’ when translated from page to screen, sometimes in a manner where aesthetic drowns out critical discussion of a character’s behaviour and emotional core. However, it seems reasonable to begin a defence of Leto’s Joker by referencing the most controversial aspect – his appearance, specifically the tattoos. His body ink is an admittedly mixed bag but nevertheless offers a fascinating glimpse into the character’s conception. One may wonder why the Joker would sit for hours just to have his own name tattooed on his torso but the locations of these symbols surely mark a high tolerance for pain. Likewise, the infamous ‘damaged’ tattoo was misguided and generally mocked for its obviousness.
However, Ayer’s own backstory for the tattoo provides much-needed context to perhaps alter peoples’ perception. The forehead ink is a permanent reminder to Batman (Ben Affleck) of how he ruined the Joker’s smile, knocking out his teeth following Robin’s murder. Tattooing himself as a sick joke may seem bizarre but it’s the sort of thing only the Jester of Genocide could find funny. The smiles on his left hand and right arm suggest a desire to either conceal his insecurity or play with victims in his grasp; similar to Nicholson’s permanent grin, Leto’s Joker is always smiling. Holding his tattooed hand over his mouth also conjures up the image of The Man Who Laughs’ Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt), who often hid his deformed smile and greatly inspired the original design of the Joker. Boasting such symbols as a dead robin and broken bat, this clown is keen to commemorate his crimes on his body for all to see. It’s a bold move that doesn’t entirely pay off in the theatrical cut but demonstrates his confidence in taunting his enemies.
His silver teeth are one feature that lends his overall appearance the aesthetic of a modern gangster meets vampire. His bright green hair is slicked back with style while his complexion is a rather unique tone – sickly pale in the daylight but ghostly white in the darkness. It’s a clever approach that hints at his differing personas of mentally ill individual and terrifying clown. His lack of eyebrows actually aids his expressiveness, compelling Leto to accentuate his movements and pull you in with a hypnotic gaze. Piercing, hollow eyes heighten his creepily seductive nature, akin to how Dracula beguiles his prey. He oozes arrogance, embodied in his muscular physique. Not only is he the most physically able live-action Joker to compete with Batman in a fight, he also wields his body as a tool of power and intimidation.
This villain knows he’s attractive and broadcasts himself as a way to compensate for his deformity. The Joker has always been vain and egotistical. This was perhaps best exhibited in Batman: The Animated Series, where he was a sharp dresser, proud of his immaculate look. Similarly, Leto’s Joker flaunts himself in a variety of outfits, foregoing the classic look for a purple trench coat and flashy suits inspired by the likes of Alex Ross, Brian Azzarello and Frank Miller. Despite what some may claim, Suicide Squad crafted a Joker that gave a snapshot of various comic interpretations all in one film. Calculating yet psychotic, both composed and destructive, his gaudy style feels natural for a character who revels in organised chaos.
His flamboyant outfits compliment his theatrical persona, which in turn showcases his obsession with Batman. Previous Jokers have claimed an affinity with the Bat but Leto’s clown physically cements his desire to mock the crimefighter and commemorate their relationship. Beyond the tattoos, he also wears leggings adorned with bat symbols, while club dancers and one henchman wear Batman masks. Little is known about his gang but it is curious why he desires the bat logo to be ever-present, suggesting a plea for attention in Batman’s absence. The Joker loves to shape the world in his own image, and this version seems happy to share Gotham with the dark knight. We can only speculate as to the relationship between this Joker and Batman but it was an entirely missed opportunity for them not to interact at least briefly. Suicide Squad was already crammed with a large ensemble but to have Batman on top of the Joker’s car, archenemies mere inches from one another, only for the clown to simply disappear, is an incredibly frustrating tease. Yet, the glee on his face as he notices the Batmobile approaching in the wing mirror offers a glimpse of the exciting possibilities once thought to be in the cinematic pipeline. Gotham is the Joker’s playground and he’s desperate for Batman to join him.
In lieu of the crimefighter, the Joker’s focus is on Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). It is no secret by now that the theatrical cut of Suicide Squad is not the film Ayer intended to release. While he has teased a significantly darker story echoing Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s famed Mad Love, there are still interesting elements that did make the final cut. Ayer and Leto crafted a seductive, manipulative Joker that still shines through regardless of an edit fighting to make him more comical and lovesick. His abusive relationship with Harley was mishandled but the actors shared tremendous chemistry in their few scenes together, hinting at the clown’s complicated feelings. Convincing her to plunge to her death at ACE Chemicals, he feels a sharp, confused pang of emotion before diving in to revive his new plaything. The Joker does not love Harley, yet Ayer should be given credit for instilling doubt into the villain’s carefully crafted persona.
The Joker’s personality has evolved several times since the character’s conception. From surreal, murderous gangster to cartoonish prankster to tortured soul, there is no exact definition of the character. Just as the comics have changed, it stands to reason that each screen adaptation should be different. Ayer and Leto went back to the character’s roots while injecting a modern twist. Some have criticised his running of a nightclub to supposedly accumulate wealth. While the exact reasoning behind this activity is unclear, the Joker was already a psychotic gangster back in the 1940s. This doesn’t make him a typical criminal and – for fans of Ledger’s cash-burning anarchist – does not necessarily mean he cares about money. He may be a sadistic clown but he still needs to pay his goons, make deals and generally hold influence over the people of Gotham. As the comics progressed, so did his vanity. Stories like The Joker’s Millions and The Laughing Fish exemplified his desire to show authority through materialistic means, both of which were adapted in The Animated Series. This draws another comparison between Leto and Mark Hamill’s excellent animated iteration. Both are flashy gangsters using money to wield power, even if it is not where their pleasure truly lies – it’s an illusion.
Being on top gives them the confidence to be so flamboyant and do whatever they please. They both invade people’s personal space, with Hamill’s Joker exploiting this tactic to intimidate. Leto’s Joker puts on a show to ensure nobody gets underneath his skin and rarely lets his mask slip. This is evident in a few scenes in Suicide Squad. He aggressively rubs prison guard Griggs’ (Ike Barinholtz) shoulders and gestures for his ring to be kissed before leaping into his lap. Devilishly camp, this is a deliberate act to deeply unsettle Griggs, displaying his blatant metrosexuality to toy with his victim. Nobody knows what he will do next or how far he will go. Leto provides the character with a great sense of unpredictability; his attitude can change in an instant, similar to how Hamill would transform from jovial to enraged in seconds. Leto received some criticism for ‘overacting’, yet the Joker should exude the extravagance and volatility befitting of a lunatic. Combined with the fact his scenes are terribly edited which disrupts the narrative flow, this is a harsh critique for a performance that was meddled with by the studio.
Leto’s performance reveals how multiple emotions are in play at once. When first approached in his club by Monster T (Common), the Joker is completely disinterested. Only when he realises he can play a deadly game with his prey does he suddenly shift persona, from excitable to bloodthirsty. There’s a similar change during his search for Harley. When interrupted by Frost (Jim Parrack), he appears depressed, visibly upset for the briefest moment and encircled by an array of knives. He puts on a gruff voice and ushers him away before letting out a pained, throaty wail of a laugh that could be covering for his conflicted emotions. For all his power, the Clown Prince of Crime is directionless. It’s unclear whether he misses her or if he is simply jealous, but he can’t stand the thought of not knowing where she is or with whom she could be interacting. Loss of control forced his mask to slip, if only for a few seconds.
His throaty cackle is a controversial choice of laugh, but it honours Hamill’s decision to alter his vocal tone depending on the character’s mood. Whether it’s out of rage or sadness at the disappearance of Harley, throwing his head back in victory over her devotion to him at ACE Chemicals or his sheer delight in raining bullets on the squad from a commandeered helicopter, the Joker’s ever-changing laugh offers insight into his warped mind. Like it or not, it’s certainly memorable and could strike fear into the hearts of citizens and criminals alike. Birds of Prey revealed that even the sadist Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) is afraid of him; despite his physical absence, the Joker still looms over Gotham as a palpable threat. Harley wants to step out on her own but how can one achieve ‘emancipation’ without facing her past or ever detailing her abuse to the viewer? The film’s attitude of no longer requiring the Joker is ironic when he is repeatedly mentioned throughout the narrative, meaning Harley’s supposed growth rings hollow.
Leto’s Joker is a criminal mastermind who murdered Robin and has survived years of battles against Batman. Warner Bros. should listen to calls for David Ayer’s darker cut of Suicide Squad and resolve the mess they made by interfering with the director’s vision. Leto has the potential to bring the Joker’s greatest stories to the screen and embody depths of the character not yet explored. There’s a shadow lingering over Leto’s version and the numerous projects to which he was once attached. It’s time to fully unleash the madman.
Murray Ferguson – Follow me on Twitter