Or: A Deep-Dive on The Joker in the context of 2016’s Suicide Squad .
Three years ago comic book movies were placed in an interesting state. Despite the genre having been long written off by some, or continued being adored the world over, it was a nice turning point we were put in post-Captain America: Civil War and post-Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
We all know how Marvel went on. Before we got to the end of the Infinity Saga in the record-breaking two-parter, we got to see Marvel try new things. We got the cosmically-charged Doctor Strange, we got a great character study and reflection on family in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, we got the second Spider-Man reboot movie in three years, we got a hilarious and actually engaging Thor movie, we got Black Panther eighteen movies into the universe…
And DC gave us Suicide Squad.
For what it’s worth, DC Comics movies have since evolved into their own beasts. They may not be the franchise killers some may hope them to be, but DC does not equate to Marvel in cinema and that’s okay. They seem to have opened up a bit more like their comparator – movies are now being given to a range of interesting filmmakers, some of which you wouldn’t expect to make comic book movies and yet, boom, Matt Reeves is going to make a Batman movie.
2016’s Suicide Squad however was the beginning of this. David Ayer – who started his career so strong writing Training Day – was certainly an eyebrow raise of a choice. This is the man that made the brilliant Fury and the horrifically unlikeable Sabotage in the same year. Ayer crafted Suicide Squad into a project that was, yes, an eventual jumbled impression of a movie.
It’s pretty well documented where the problems lay with Suicide Squad’s production. Dawn of Justice was a downer mess of a movie that led to Suicide Squad needing a comedy punch-up in the eyes of the higher ups. Scenes were added and scenes were cut, as is the usual par for the course. Most notorious is the fact they hired the people that edited the marketing to re-edit the entire actual movie.
Where does, in all of this, leave the most curious addition to all of us when we heard about the contents of this movie?
7 minutes, 25 seconds.
There or thereabouts for Jared Leto’s Joker.
The thing with Suicide Squad is that it felt like a hard sell in the first place. Much like Guardians of the Galaxy, this was a whole team-up of comic characters most people would have never heard of. There were few cultural touchstones at the time of Suicide Squad’s announcement that could hook in casual viewers for this comic book movie, but there’s always a language that will make sense: Batman.
Captain Boomerang. Slipknot. Katana. El Diablo. Killer Croc. Deadshot. Almost none of those names are recognisable. Immediately following a movie called Batman v Superman, obviously DC needed more than that to get butts in seats. Harley Quinn. The Joker. Sorted.
Suicide Squad was always going to be a people on a mission movie overshadowed by the two most recognisable characters in the movie. Hell, the marketing was pushed by quite a margin on the fact that The Joker and Harley Quinn were in the movie. And don’t forget, this is also a movie that has Will Smith in one of the biggest roles.
Hype was slapped all over the movie for Jared Leto’s incarnation of Joker. By this point he had already won an Academy Award for his performance in Dallas Buyer’s Club and notoriously flaunted his predisposition to method acting. Nothing would raise more eyebrows, however, in the fact that Leto took the role very seriously and from the get-go displayed the weird choices he made as The Joker.
To the uninitiated, Leto transformed himself into The Joker more than probably any other actor that has taken the mantle. Through this, he disappeared into the role of the clown prince of crime, keeping distant from his other actors (fitting, given his final screen-time), but also sending them gifts.
Very strange, very out there gifts. Will Smith got bullets, sure, which goes alongside his character Deadshot, but the other stuff, well…a dead pig, used condoms, sticky Playboy magazines, all basically Leto’s way to showcase, in his own words: “The Joker is somebody who doesn't really respect things like personal space or boundaries.”
Though he also sent Margot Robbie – his Harley Quinn – a love letter and a live rat, so it’s swings and roundabouts. Guillermo del Toro has that rat now. That’s how bizarre everything was.
More stories about Leto’s antics raised more interest in the film and The Joker held the majority of talking points all the way up to and beyond release, partially down to the fact that The Joker looked, well, bad. Very bad.
Ultimately audiences need to separate source material from adaptation, or at least allow for more artistic licence and interpretation, but there is no denying that Suicide Squad’s Joker is full of weird choices. For every shot that evoked things such as Alex Ross’ Harley Quinn and Joker art and other connections to the world of Batman, there’s the realisation your antagonist that has “Damaged” tattooed onto his head and a laughing mouth on the back of his hand.
There’s something that has to be said about Jared Leto as The Joker and that is:
He’s better than you remember and better than you think.
Suicide Squad is a movie that many people tried hard to salvage. David Ayer had to write a script in six weeks and faced all manner of issues with Warner Bros.. Different cuts and tones were tested. The constantly evolving editing fiasco just snowballed. Despite hiring an interesting writer/director proven on smaller scale movies, the studio didn’t have enough faith in Ayer and wanted him to make their movie and not his. James Gunn managed to make Guardians of the Galaxy its own pocket of the Marvel universe with a tone and humour unlike its peers, but Ayer couldn’t make his own team-up movie anything detached from the world Zack Synder had begun to create.
The casualty here is whether it was requested by the studio or not, the size and relevance of The Joker here feels insignificant. With Harley Quinn being a big part of the Suicide Squad, of course we need The Joker to be part of the origin of this universe’s Harley, but that is also the biggest problem. The Joker will always outshine everything else.
He’s one of the greatest villains in comics and arguably mainstream cinema by this point. Hell, no-one really knew enough about the story of Suicide Squad from the trailers that we just assumed it was the team going up against The Joker, something that’s even played up in later trailers. It wasn’t until the film started playing do you realise it’s actually boring sky beam to the apocalypse standard superhero fare with a band of misfits who’d rather be somewhere else doing the government’s bidding.
The Suicide Squad as a concept is very interesting. Villain team-ups always have the potential to rock (even if that gives us the lows of Spider-Man 3 and the highs of that Aladdin and Hercules The Animated Series crossover), and forcing them to be the “good” guys offers more than enough intrigue.
What really sucks though is that after the initial casting news, the released cast photos, the creepy stories, and the misleading trailers…You’re expecting another spin on The Joker people are going to be talking about. It’s just so weird to realise that this is the one Joker that;s mostly talked about long before and long after the movie, but almost never about the actual performance.
It’s what makes Leto’s Joker fascinating. The Joker that never was. He’s ranked bottom of people’s lists for playing the role and yet based on screen-time and actual focus…It feels a bit unwarranted. The movie is never really his movie. People were so deceived and oversold on Leto being a big part of the movie that when the time came to actually watch the movie…The hype and the disappointment tainted the experience.
Jared Leto gives us a Joker in such a short period of time that actually resonates with the ideas you have for the character already. Yes, there are some strange choices ranging from the tattoos to the teeth to the voice, but his presence and his position in this world makes perfect sense.
Despite all of the muddling and meddling, this is definitely David Ayer’s grimy world. It’s been seen across the rest of his work, and really, The Joker and Harley Quinn are the way that they are that stays true to the world. There is a certain vision in Suicide Squad, but if anything, it’s the disjointed tone in the editing that betrays that. It feels like Ayer didn’t want to emulate Guardians of the Galaxy in even the slightest way, yet the final cut given to us has the needle drops of an entire teenager’s iPod in the mid-2000s and the character intros of the Gearbox video game Borderlands.
Suicide Squad was always destined to be a ruined movie by the sounds of the production, and The Joker wasn’t given the chance to save it.
If The Joker were a more prominent part, if The Joker was the actual main antagonist of the movie, Suicide Squad would have worked better, obviously. Leto’s Joker is not actually that bad. When you look at it…it’s The Joker needed here. He’s a grimy psychopath in this dingy world, playing the role of underground mobster. There’s nothing pretty or theatrical about this world (that is protected by a man in a bat costume) so its understandable that Leto’s gross interpretation of the character instead of leaving big bombs around town or throwing giant money-throwing parades shows his extravagance through big shiny teeth (no doubt punched out by the Batman), disgusting tattoos, and racing a purple Lamborghini around the city.
In 7 minutes we get a Joker that makes sense for the world he inhabits. Superman exists but so does chaos. This isn’t the Post-9/11 world of The Dark Knight trilogy, this is post-Batman punching Superman in the face before teaming up with him and Wonder Woman to take on an ugly…clone of Zod and Lex Luthor?...
Suicide Squad’s world doesn’t live on paranoia and tension. It’s grounded in places such as Gotham City that is rich in crime and low in sanitation, where everything is ugly on the eyes and in society. It makes no sense to have a clown in a purple suit run around, but it does make sense for an actual crazy person to run the underworld through fear, power, and not giving a shit for anyone.
Which also happens to be the method for dealing with Harley Quinn. Jared Leto’s Joker uses Harley the exact way you’d expect a psychopathic narcissist who only really looks out for himself to do. None of his choices are ever really for her, but we have it all framed through Harley’s POV through that cloud of infatuation. When you look at it, much like all the other good uses that understand the dynamic between the two, Harley gives so much to The Joker, and all he does is take. Because that’s what he wants and needs: Himself.
Suicide Squad only offers us a fraction of a look at Joker, but its familiar and true enough that it sorta baffles. Leto’s portrayal is written well enough but portrayed a little disjointed. Superficially, The Joker is ruined for many because this isn’t the image we at all attach to the character. It’s the Iron Man 3 Mandarin Problem on a smaller scale, but consistent with the idea that people completely missed the point of the choices when placed in the story’s context.
Leto’s Joker acts much like Ben Affleck’s Batman or Ezra Miller’s Flash in this movie: The reason the main characters are where they are. The direction the film actually takes is really more of a setup for something bigger down the line. We know The Joker exists, and we’re gonna see The Joker, but because it’s The Joker, that’s all we really wanna see. We are spoilt for the want to see our favourite sadistic villain.
It’s indulgence vs. necessity. With the Suicide Squad movie we got, really, we should have gotten even less of The Joker. 7 minutes of Joker heaven gives us enough to tell us what and who runs Harley’s brain and motivations throughout the movie, but in reality…we shouldn’t have gotten The Joker showing up beyond flashbacks in this film. That’s what would make for a more interesting and exciting later movie.
Jared Leto offers so much darn potential as The Joker, Suicide Squad feels like a tragic squandered opportunity. Since then, we’ve been teased a Joker and Harley Quinn movie, a Jared Leto solo Joker movie, and a Gotham City Sirens movie from Ayer, but ultimately we’ve been given Joaquin Phoenix as Joker, an upcoming Birds of Prey movie starring Robbie’s Harley Quinn…and James Gunn is writing and directing The Suicide Squad. All three projects either obviously or not confirming Leto not returning as The Joker.
The Ballad of Suicide Squad oddly begins and ends with James Gunn. Guardians of the Galaxy will always be the standard for the kind of movie Suicide Squad was going to be compared to, and with his original firing off Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Warner Bros.’ smartest move was sweeping him up for the new Suicide Squad movie. Where David Ayer failed in the face of adversity and the studio system, maybe Gunn will succeed. And maybe…we’ll see Leto come back as The Joker. Though probably not. Joaquin Phoenix has given his take recently, but even then, that’s another one off.
Jared Leto’s Joker and Joaquin Phoenix’ Joker leave one similar impression: What would they be like when they finally come up against Batman? That’s what would help Leto’s reach its potential, and that’s what would make Phoenix’s worth a damn.
Suicide Squad illustrates how well The Joker fits into the Harley Quinn story, and how we don’t need an origin for the character. It’s that mystery and that mayhem and that insanity that makes him so fascinating for Harley, and the audience. It’s that microcosm of the legend we know intrinsically at this point. He is the Joker for that occasion and it’s the Joker that is needed.
Joker’s Joker in Joaquin Phoenix is, also, the Joker for that particular film and the one we need. Though not necessarily deserve. Joker is not a betrayal to the unreliable origin of (The) Joker; it just feels tacked on, or as a Trojan Horse for a completely different movie about mental illness and being beaten down by society.
Both Suicide Squad and Joker are movies rife with problems and don’t stick the landing. Suicide Squad is definitely a toxic wasteland made of a smorgasbord of production issues. Joker is a movie that tries so hard to be serious, deep and affecting, that it forgets that it’s really just the comic book version of movies several times better than what it ended up as. Suicide Squad was cut for teenagers, Joker feels like one made it. Leto and Phoenix are both great actors and both have unique takes on the Joker that will always be immortalised for most by Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, and Mark Hamill.
It’s just strange to think that despite being in a movie that’s technically and structurally worse than the other…I’d much rather delve deep on Jared Leto than I would Joaquin Phoenix.
But that’s probably just me.
This was my first attempt at really branching out from writing movie reviews. As yet another one day doomed project, I’d like to start writing more long-form deep-dives into movies and aspects of them people wouldn’t necessarily consider.
It just feels too samey to write the same things everyone else is. May this be a place you may learn about things, find entertainment, start discussions, or be fascinated by the stupidity. Read broadly and read opinions different from yours. That’s how we get better at understanding other people and ourselves. As well as art.
Well, if you can call Suicide Squad art.