Not a Match: Why Jared Leto’s Joker Doesn’t Work

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The opening weekend for Suicide Squad has passed, and the dust has begun to settle around it. While it broke August box office records at about $135 million, its critical reception did not improve after exposure to a proper mass audience. In what has quickly become the norm for DC Extended Universe movies, Suicide Squad managed to make money despite an, at best, mixed response, perhaps largely due to the multi-million dollar promotion and marketing ploy driving it. The film’s last remaining commercial milestone however, is have a sharp drop off in ticket sales in its second week to comfortably solidify its place within the DCEU.

While a lot of things were said about Suicide Squad – some good and some bad – amidst the film’s surprisingly divisive and polarizing reception laid one of the more consistent criticisms levelled against it; the general distaste for Jared Leto‘s portrayal of the classic Batman villain, the Joker. This is a little strange considering that, despite the movie’s grossly over-the-top marketing, Leto is barely in involved, in terms of both screen time and impact. So what little the audience did see of the 2016 Joker was enough to leave a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouth. In my own review, I wrote: “Leto‘s Joker is neither menacing nor funny, and worst of all he’s unmemorable.” However, I think that there is also more to Leto‘s portrayal that further solidifies this incarnation as the worst Joker ever. Something a little more complex that gets to the route of why this Joker seems to be a profound misunderstanding of the character.

Now, I know how large a claim it is to say that Jared Leto‘s Joker is the worst, especially considering just how many different incarnations and portrayals there have been over the character’s 70+ years of existence. Mister J’s been brought to life in live action through the late Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson and the late Cesar Romero. In animation, the quintessential voice of the villain courtesy of Mark Hamill, and a number of other talented voice actors, and the vocalists, including go-to gaming voice actor Troy Baker, behind the Joker in video games. Hell, even Zach Galifianakis is going to be voicing the Joker in the Lego Batman movie next year. But still, I can confidently say that all of these people understood (or likely will understand) something about the Joker that Leto, or the movie, did not. (This is in no way meant to disparage Jared Leto‘s talents overall, by the way. This was just a terrible Joker.)

So first, we have to ask: “What constitutes a ‘good’ Joker portrayal?” After over 70 years of existence, we have seen enough iterations to know that no single incarnation is the “correct” incarnation – but a long history of, and many different “tries” at the character means that, through experimentation, we have settled on a few key characteristics that define the Joker and what distinguishes him as one of, if not the greatest superhero villain of all time.

1) The Joker has a distinctive look.

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On the most superficial level, an iconic character needs to look consistent and be recognizable enough that even people with only a passing familiarity with the character themselves. In this case, one should always be able to look at a comic cover, movie box art, or just any image with a green-haired clown donned in purple and say: “That’s the Joker.”

For the most part (sans unbelievably corny tattoos), Suicide Squad gets that right at least.

2) The Joker makes jokes.

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If the “Clown Prince of Crime” wasn’t clown themed at all, and therefore wasn’t expected to try to be ‘funny’ (albeit sadistically) while committing crimes, then there’s no point in even making an attempt at the character.

Now, you’ll notice that I said he “makes jokes“, not “he is funny“. It’s an important distinction to make, because not every Joker is a comedian. Sure, Hamill and most other animated renditions of the character crack wise all the time, but a lot of those jokes are motivated, or at least grounded, by the fact that they are in cartoons meant for children or that they were made for a lighter-hearted context. But then there are Jokers like Ledger in The Dark Knight or DiMaggio in the animated movie Batman: Under the Red Hood – the latter interpretations set the modern standard of a grittier, more ruthless, more unhinged Joker. Both of these Jokers make “jokes”, but they aren’t specifically meant for laughs; the delusional, freeing joy of the character’s lack of morality conveyed through disturbing humour, contrast with his dark and violent tenacities. It’s a dynamic that portrays the Joker’s complete psychopathy and lack of connection with anything resembling human empathy – the jokes make him more of a monster (though the shock value of the jokes sometimes does indeed make them funny even within their grim context, such as Ledger‘s iconic “pencil trick“).

It’s here where we begin to see Leto‘s portrayal break down.

The Joker in Suicide Squad does make jokes… kind of. It’s more appropriate to say that he makes vaguely menacing innuendos and speaks with a weird voice and cadence. None of these moments land, in terms of humour or informing the character. There are Internet jokes about how Leto‘s Joker is ‘2edgy4me‘ or a ‘try-hard’. While somewhat reductive and simplistic, these criticisms do actually point to a larger truth: Leto, or someone else in the movie, didn’t understand the Joker. Sure, he emulates the surface elements of the character, but those elements are just there with no motivation or character. Leto didn’t seem to understand that the Joker doesn’t make these jokes to appear menacing, he just is menacing because the jokes punctuate his actions and presence. And when the Joker isn’t trying to be menacing, he makes jokes to amuse himself, laughing at his own jokes and perceived witticisms. Again, we see that Leto‘s Joker laughs not because he’s amused with his own deranged lunacy, but because, like laying amidst hundreds of articulately placed knives or giving his cast-mates anal beads, “that’s just what crazy people do, right?”

3) The Joker is a menace.

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For the most part, Leto‘s Joker meets this qualification, but barely.

His criminal activities are limited to generic gun violence, having weapons and, I guess, owning a seedy club (perhaps speeding, as well?). While that seems to qualify for him for “menace” status, it all just feels so banal and run-of-the-mill for a character of this calibre. His henchmen might be wearing wacky costumes during shootouts – which is mostly in-line with the Joker aesthetic – but his apparent goals are generic, modern-gangster crime goals (i.e. fuck bitches, get money). A Joker whose primary goal is just the same as any other eccentric criminal doesn’t feel like a Joker – a Joker may commit crimes that entail acquiring currency, and usually power, but the Joker tends to be more motivated by a desire to sow chaos, torment the Batman, and momentarily feed his insatiable desire for amusement. He’s just the right mix of malleable and mysterious that he doesn’t exactly need a clear motivation or goal behind his crimes – that’s a feeling I don’t get from Leto‘s Joker. Leto‘s Joker is just so… predictable.

4) The Joker is a threat to Batman.

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Here is the more egregious misstep of the Joker in Suicide Squad.

For everything that has been written about the Joker, the character’s very existence is inexorably tied to Batman. He is Batman’s arch-nemesis, his greatest foe, and the ultimate antithesis to everything the Dark Knight represents. The Joker is the ultimate agent of chaos to oppose Batman’s hero of justice and order. Without Batman, there is no reason for the Joker to exist, as Joker revels in the madness and disorder of challenging Batman and testing his will, as his continued destructive existence is largely indebted to Batman’s unwillingness to simply take him out of the picture permanently. It’s even become more-or-less canon to the lore of Gotham’s protector that (thanks to Alan Moore‘s incredible 1988 Batman comic, The Killing Joke) Batman is directly responsible for the Joker’s creation.

Considering how important and crucial the dynamic is to their relationship, any portrayal of Joker must match whatever Batman exists in that context. They don’t need to necessarily match in terms of physicality, resources or reach. But they need to match in the sense that a Joker needs to bring out the best, or worst, of that particular Batman. The Joker needs to push Batman to his moral limits, make him question who he is, what he believes, what is wrong or right, and even his faith in humanity. Or, in a less-serious end of the spectrum, at the very least he needs to be able to interact interestingly and meaningfully with his favourite spandex-laden enemy. Leto‘s Joker, in my mind, does not meet that qualification.

Leto’s wheezing, grunting, two-bit gangster Joker confronting Affleck’s hulking, gun-toting, ass-kicking Dark Knight face-to-face is a laughable prospect.

Leto‘s Joker, as he is seen and alluded to, poses absolutely no problem for the Batman in the DCEU, and therefore cannot maintain the iconic relationship those two share. I could almost forgive not meeting the previously outlined qualifications for being the Joker if it felt like the ruthless Batfleck, who we’ve seen from his on-screen brutality has no qualms with killing or seriously maiming his foes, wouldn’t just outright break this Joker’s neck the moment he’s within arms reach.

The DCEU version of Batman is one that is far more hard-edged than most, one that is willing to literally kill people – disregarding one of the hero’s most anchoring morality tethers. We saw Affleck‘s Batman make use of real guns, knifes, grenades and even just plain-old bone-breaking fisticuffs to cut down his enemies in Batman v Superman, and while this portrayal of Batman is an entirely different article altogether, one which has already been endlessly analyzed and debated by fans and critics alike, this is the toughened version of Batman we have in the DCEU. Period. (For the record, I don’t mind the new approach to the caped crusader’s violence and I actually like Batfleck.)

However, unless The Joker has some seriously disturbed and challenging psychological schemes in play when it comes to his future conflicts with the Bat (ahem – Robin murder – a notion that was implied from the Joker easter-eggs in Batman v Superman), he’s all but childs play for the Dark Knight. It’s hard to imagine Leto‘s Joker posing any kind of serious physical, moral or emotional threat to Batman – Leto‘s wheezing, grunting, two-bit gangster Joker (who seems to hardly intimidate even Rick Ross, for God’s sake) confronting Affleck‘s hulking, gun-toting, ass-kicking Dark Knight face-to-face is a laughable prospect. For all the purple Lamborghinis, flashy alligator coats, bling and lame tattoos that the creative team behind the 2016 Joker have unfortunately decided to identify him with, there’s exactly zero versions of that scenario that wouldn’t involve Leto getting his platinum grill punched down his throat in ten seconds flat, with nary a word of tension or moment of emotional conflict.

That is the failing of this Joker. In this universe, with this Batman, this Joker just doesn’t match up. At all.

It speaks not only to a misunderstanding of the character, but also a lack of communication between those behind the creation of these movies. They didn’t consider the kind of Batman they had already given us, and then consider that they would need a Joker that is both charismatic and dichotomous with, yet utterly parallel to the hero we invest in.

Unfortunately, this is the Joker we’ve got now, the latest in a long gallery of better portrayals of the iconic character, and there’s certainly no going back at this point unless the studio decides to blatantly recast the part and pretend that Suicide Squad didn’t exist. And while that worked with Marvel‘s recasting of Bruce Banner, WB would still be stuck with that one incredibly bland and disappointing version of Joker from a movie that is canon, in terms of tone and narrative, to the continually faltering DCEU.

However, it’s always possible that it’ll be interesting to see the chemistry between Leto and Affleck‘s portrayals of each of their respectively legendary characters in future films – if there is any at all. Sadly, the future of what’s looking to be the flagship role behind the Suicide Squad franchise – an utterly flimsy iteration of the Joker – might be the worst joke of all.

What do you think? Do you agree? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

3 Comments

  • Todd says:

    Your opinion is your opinion even when it is wrong!

  • Ben says:

    Yes. This is all pretty spot on.

    My only qualification would be that Suicide Squad forced the Joker into a film in which he didn’t really need to be (it would have actually been much better for them to talk about the legendary ‘Mr J’ without constantly flashing back to him as well. This would have helped to create an aura of menace, making him feel more mysterious and increase the hype.

    Instead he was shunted into a few scenes where he is there not for his own sake but to develop another character’s back story.

    In fact, that’s my biggest problem with this version of the Joker – it seems to have been created with Harley in mind rather than for its own sake. What you have is a more ‘human’ joker, possibly a more ‘sexy’ one, because the writers wanted someone that Harley could interact with in a way that they thought would be palatable to a wider audience.

    In SS the Joker and Harley are presented as genuinely in love or at least very attracted to one another (though this was never very well developed so it hardly feels believable). By giving the Joker feelings towards Harley and showing him to be some love struck Romeo who would go out of his way to risk life and limb to save her you diminish the Joker as a character ironically by making him more human.

    The relationship between Harley and the Joker in the comics is complex and quite dark – it’s effectively an abusive relationship and the Joker is aroused only by the way in which his violence and mistreatment of Harley and his using her only seems to inflame her passion for him more. It’s really screwed up basically and that’s not an easy relationship to sell to an audience who’ve just turned up to watch a comic book movie.

    So I’d say give it time. The Joker and Batman need a movie to themselves for each to have the space to show us their characters.

    I can live with the new look but they’re going to have to write him much better in the future and definitely make him a believable threat to the Dark Knight which as you quite rightly pointed out is not convincing from the few scenes we have of them. He just comes across as a gang leader with an eccentric dress, but these are the sorts of people that Batman puts away every night of the week.

    The Joker is far beyond that.

  • I didn’t care for Letis Joker or Heath Ledger’s, both talented actor but not right for the part. Fully agree Suicide Squad would have been better sans Joker & HQ

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