While 2020 has sucked for pretty much all of us, it’s been a surprisingly good year for fans of DC movies. Special online conventions and surprise announcements have given audiences a renewed hope in the future of Warner Bros’ DC film slate, whether that be through gripping trailers (The Batman) or the reveals that seemingly abandoned projects were being revived (Zack Snyder’s Justice League).
The latest in this series of revelations is that Jared Leto, the actor behind the highly divisive portrayal of the Joker in critically maligned Suicide Squad, would be a part of the upcoming Justice League reshoots.
The character wasn’t featured in Joss Whedon’s theatrical cut in 2017, so his inclusion here came as a surprise to many. But much like Leto’s portrayal, the news has been met with mixed reactions.
In the pantheon of cinematic Jokers, Jared Leto’s take on the character often falls to the bottom of most people’s ranking.
Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight) or Mark Hamill (Mask of the Phantasm and various other animated films, series and video-games) usually come out on top. Jack Nicholson (Batman ‘89) looked like a comic-book character come to life. Joaquin Phoenix (Joker) is lauded for his insightful take on a man pushed too far. Caesar Romero (Batman ‘66) is a hit with fans of the classic TV series. And Zach Galifianakis (The LEGO Batman Movie) was pretty cool too. Jared Leto’s Joker, in comparison, seems especially out of place.
But is he really that bad?
Before you all answer with a resounding ‘YES’, let’s take a look at some of the things that Jared Leto’s Joker gets right.
First off, we have to acknowledge that compared to the others, we’ve barely seen anything of Leto’s Joker. Hamill and Romero had seasons of television to develop their takes, while Nicholson, Ledger and Phoenix were each granted bountiful amounts of screen time in their respective flicks. Leto, in comparison, was relegated to the role of supporting character, only amassing around seven minutes of, often unfocused, screentime.
For years, Leto has lamented the fact that most of what he shot never actually made it to the screen, and even as recently as this year, director David Ayer (who also seems to be gunning for his own director’s cut to be released) corroborated this, claiming ‘No one has seen his performance’:
But when it comes to what we did see, perhaps the most obvious achievement of Jared Leto’s Joker is that he has clearly had a greater effect on Batman than many of his predecessors, despite his limited screen time and the fact we’ve seen barely any of their interactions.
Despite being Batman’s arch-nemesis, the majority of the big cinematic portrayals of the character leave Batman’s life just as quickly as they entered it.
It’s perhaps fitting then, that this Joker, who has had such a strong impact on his Batman’s career, will be the first live-action portrayal of the character to appear in multiple movies.
Though admittedly, he does look a bit ridiculous, there are telling signs that the Academy Award-winning make-up artists of Suicide Squad and their costume designing counterparts put some thought into Leto’s Joker. His grill tells the story of how his previous encounters with Batman left him with broken teeth, and his much-ridiculed ‘Damaged’ tattoo was a response to Batman’s beatings.
Does it look good? Not especially. But does it make sense..?
We guess so?
Besides the grill and the questionable tattoos, this Joker’s effect is felt throughout the Gotham-centric films of the DCEU.
Most recently, Birds of Prey dealt with the breakdown of Joker and Harley’s relationship (through a stand-in, yes, but the character was clearly the same iteration) and highlighted the power he had over DC’s underworld.
Similarly, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice revealed that, like his comic-book counterpart, this Joker had also murdered Batman’s sidekick Robin. The act obviously still haunts the veteran Batman, as we see Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne looking demoralized while observing his deceased partner’s displayed costume, still adorned with the graffiti Joker covered it in. It also, on some level, influences his decisions, leading to his confrontation with Superman, as Wayne remarks to Clark Kent that Gotham has ‘a bad history with freaks dressed like clowns’.
Even in his absence, this Joker’s actions haunt Gotham, cementing his status in-universe as Batman’s greatest foe.
Of course, these things have little to do with Jared Leto, the actor, and more to do with other people’s contribution to the character, but you could argue that the majority of what people deem ‘bad’ about Leto’s take is mainly the fault of others.
After all, tattoos aside, one of the main things people mock about Leto’s portrayal is the cringe-worthy dialogue.
But the thing is, Jared Leto obviously didn’t write that dialogue. He was forced to voice some strange writing choices, yes, but he has proven in the past that he can give great performances when given the right material (such as in Dallas Buyers Club, for which he won an Oscar).
Whether or not you think the Joker is meant to be a killer comedian, a genius feigning insanity or simply an unhinged force of nature, you can’t deny that Jared Leto’s Joker at least presents as a dangerous, loose cannon. He dances between threatening and extravagant from moment to moment, truly coming off as unstable.
Leto conveys an undeniable weirdness; his Joker is someone you would not want to encounter in real life.
The lengths the character will go to rescue Harley Quinn, despite him fluctuating between loving her and being completely indifferent to her demonstrate how capable a villain he is.
And frankly, isn’t that what matters? Some people obviously would like their Joker to be a little funnier, or a little less ‘gangster’, but this Joker proves himself to be a ruthless villain and a chaotic one at that. He finds himself funny and is no less violent than his predecessors. It’s a different take, one that people aren’t used to, but the end result could ultimately be the same, given more development.
Jared Leto’s Joker performance will probably always be controversial, but the ideas and mythos that surround him are undeniably unique. In a better film, with a better script, more thoughtful direction and better editing, Jared Leto could thrive as the Joker, and we could come away thinking about the good qualities of the character’s design, rather than obsessing over the worst.
Will Zack Snyder’s Justice League be that better film?
Possibly not, but we’re cautiously optimistic.