Over the past 80 years, Batman's archnemesis The Joker has become one of the most recognizable fictional villains worldwide. It's not totally obvious why our civilization is obsessed with, of all things, a gangster clown, so this week Cracked's exploring the character's enduring popularity and what The Joker's many iterations reveal about us, the audience. Catch up with: part one, part two, part three, part four, and part five.
Few actors wanted to play The Joker after Jack Nicholson's iconic performance. Even while making The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger's co-star Michael Caine remarked that: "You do not really want to follow Jack into anything ...unless it's a nightclub." That bar for Joker-dom was raised even higher once Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for the part. After Ryan Gosling reportedly passed on taking up the mantle in Suicide Squad, the role ultimately went to Jared Leto, who you might know from Requiem for a Dream, his band 30 Seconds to Mars, or living rent-free inside the minds of everyone who was a hormone-riddled teen during the 1990s run of My So-Called Life.
Leto has had a colorful career, full of successes and more than a few dips. Remember the time he starred in Chapter 27, the movie about John Lennon's assassin Mark David Chapman? Famously, Leto gained 67 pounds to play Chapman -- which is an insane commitment for any gig, let alone in for a role in a crappy movie about the guy who murdered a Beatle.
Years later Leto went on to win an Academy Award for his work in Dallas Buyer's Club -- a win that was not without controversy after some critics called his portrayal an "exaggerated, trivialized version" of a trans woman that should have gone to a trans actress in the first place. Perhaps it was Ledger's previous success, or the growing cultural embrace of superhero movies as a whole, but Leto followed his newfound prestige by taking on The Joker, and it wasn't seen as the career equivalent of The Concorde nose-diving into a manure factory.
Not surprisingly, the dude who previously ate ice cream soup for dinner every night (and ended up getting gout as a result) just to prepare for a part fully committed to Jokerfying himself. Leto pored over real footage of violent crimes on YouTube, and worked out in a gym full of Joker pictures and an actual guillotine ... for some reason. On-set, Leto went full method. The crew called him "Joker" and director David Ayer referred to him as "Mr. J."
Most notoriously, Leto sent revolting gifts to his co-stars as the Joker. Leto later pushed back against some of these stories, claiming that he merely gave his friends (or rather his assistant gave them) some humorous wrap presents, including porno magazines -- adding that it was "really touching." But that doesn't really address the laundry list of creepy anecdotes that have been reported, not by some vague, anonymous source, but from the actors themselves.
Margot Robbie spoke publicly about the time she received a live rat in a box, which she kept as a pet during filming until her landlord found out. Viola Davis recounted how Leto had one of his "henchmen" haul a dead pig into their rehearsal room. One of the grossest stories involved Leto sending people used condoms, which Leto vehemently denied, calling it "bullshit."
But the source for this story seems to be, um ... Jared Leto. He proudly proclaimed that he had sent used condoms and anal beads to the other cast members in a red carpet interview. Ayer, too, confirmed the story, but clarified that the condoms were merely taken out of the package, not used as in full of Joker emissions.
Leto asserted that this was all because "The Joker is somebody who doesn't really respect things like personal space or boundaries." Which may, technically, be true, but that doesn't exactly seem like his defining characteristic. Like, the dude once beat a teenager to death with a crowbar -- sending co-workers loose condoms and swine carcasses feels like minor frat boy hijinks, not an artistic entrypoint into decoding the machinations of pure evil.
So what kind of Joker did all of this pave the way for? It's kind of hard to tell, mainly because much of Leto's performance was seemingly removed from the film. The final cut of Suicide Squad we all saw was taken away from David Ayer and re-edited by the company who created the film's trailer -- which is presumably why the movie feels like it was made by a sentient jukebox who just discovered cocaine and iMovie. Ayer claimed that Leto's performance was "ripped out" of the finished film.
Regardless, Leto's Joker quickly became one of the least popular movie Jokers. The franchise that began under a mantra of "realism" had become campier than John Waters' sleeping bag, and The Joker certainly didn't help. Even before the film came out, the first image of Leto led to widespread mockery. Striking a pose reminiscent of Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke artwork, Leto's Joker had a grill on his chompers, and was covered in tattoos -- including the word "damaged" across his forehead, as if a 14-year-old emo kid's song lyrics became a human being.
Rumors swirled that the tattoos wouldn't actually be a part of the movie and were purely for promotional purposes (of course they were in the movie). And this was just the tip of the iceberg of manufactured edginess that was Leto's Joker. In the movie itself, one scene finds Joker bafflingly lying on the floor, encircled in immaculately-placed knives, as if he were a male model posing for the centerfold of Ginsu Monthly.
Which gets to the heart of the problem with Suicide Squad's Joker; we are constantly told how scary Joker is, but we never really see it. In the film's naked efforts to re-capture the magic of Ledger's Joker (Leto apes his trademark Tom Waits-like growl) this Joker is all stylized posturing with no tangible justification for the reactions he provokes. Think about the opening scene in The Dark Knight; the first time we meet The Joker he's gunning down his own allies -- and he does it as casually and instinctively as a Major League Baseball player scratching their balls.
The Joker's actions we see in Suicide Squad are there to establish the same badass cred, but instead reek of desperation; he hangs around dangerous nightclubs, goes joyriding in a sportscar, and, sure, he shoots people -- but despite the poise and attitude, he never believably creates any sense of threat or menace. In that way, Joker somewhat mirrors the way the movie itself was sold to the public. Before its release, there were reports that Suicide Squad was sooooo edgy extreme that the production was forced to hire on-set therapist for the emotionally-bludgeoned cast. Which is weird because it was all in the service of a movie in which the star of Wild Wild West and a mutant crocodile man battled an ancient South American witch while the soundtrack seemingly cycled through a mix CD labelled "Dad Rock 2004."
But Joker's job here is vastly different than in other movies, operating less as an antagonist in his own right, and more as a supporting character who exists in order to help tee-up the first big screen appearance of Harley Quinn. Thanks to cosplay culture, the Arkham series of video games, and an expanded role in the comics, Harley's popularity had grown exponentially in the years since Batman: the Animated Series writer Paul Dini first looked at the Joker's posse of crooks and thought: "Maybe there should be a girl there."
Unfortunately, the new Joker lacked the nuance of Hamill's iteration, which subtly allowed the emotional space necessary for the addition of a character like Harley. Suicide Squad's accounting of Joker and Harley's relationship is a straight-up love story, despite the fact that Joker is clearly an abusive psychopath. The flashback to their meet-cute pulls heavily from Mad Love, Dini's comic which later became a (slightly more sanitized) episode of Batman: The Animated Series.
Mad Love, though, pointedly illustrates that Harley's feelings for Joker have left her trapped in a cycle of abuse, both emotional and physical. It literally ends with Joker throwing her out of a window. Suicide Squad, on the other hand, consistently romanticizes their story, giving us scenes of Joker and Harley making out in a vat of Ace Chemical's toxic sludge and ending with Joker heroically breaking her out of prison.
These choices were later course-corrected in Birds of Prey, which separates the two and implies that violence led to the break-up. Curiously enough, the DC Extended Universe's Joker has been most effective when he's conspicuously absent. Joker doesn't show up in Birds of Prey, but it's his (pun intended) toxic behavior that essentially sets the plot in motion. Even before Suicide Squad, Batman v Superman is full of clues that Joker murdered Robin, which is what created the despondent, rage-filled, possibly suicidal, Bruce Wayne who is projecting all of his pain onto the Man of Steel. Again, Joker is nowhere to be seen, yet his past actions haunt the entire movie.
While it's hard to quantify exactly, Leto's biggest failure may be in his inability to latch onto the zeitgeist in any meaningful way. Nicholson and Ledger's work became indelible pillars of popular culture, but Leto's Joker just kind of came and went like a fart in a hurricane. And it wasn't for a lack of trying; there was the tie-in music video in which The Joker joined Rick Ross and Skrillex on the bow of a speedboat for ... reasons.
And they even made a Joker Halloween costume comprised of a long sleeve tee with tattoos and fake nipples, presumably for people who hate Halloween and themselves.
We can't, though, offer any kind of conclusive judgement on Leto's take on Joker because it's not done yet. As we learned earlier this year, Leto is once again donning the green hair and Axe body spray for the new "Snyder Cut" of Justice League. For all we know, Leto will wow us all in the new version of a movie that formerly featured absolutely no Jokers whatsoever.
But perhaps most damningly, just three years after Suicide Squad hit theatres, audiences showed Hollywood just how starved they were for a totally different take on the Joker. Tune back in tomorrow for our final essay, folks!
Top Image: Warner Bros.