“I started a joke which started the whole world crying
But I didn’t see that the joke was on me…oh no
I started to cry which started the whole world laughing
Oh if I’d only seen that the joke was on me.”
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…it’s 1940, three guys: a writer, and two artists, walk into a bar, yada yada yada, minutes later they created one of the greatest supervillains the world has ever known. He’s called The Clown Prince of Crime, The Jester of Jackanapes, and The Red Hood. No his first name isn’t Puddin’, it’s the Joker, Mr. J, if you’re nasty. Although their accounts differ depending on who you ask, creators Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson admit they wanted to create a worthy antagonist for Batman, rather than the traditional gangster types the caped crusader usually encountered and easily defeated. Ironically, the Joker was almost killed off after a couple of early appearances, but as luck would have it, he’s found a way to exist for nearly seventy-six years. Award-winning actor Jared Leto’s portrayal of the Joker in the film Suicide Squad, released in theatres today, marks the fourth onscreen iteration of the iconic character.
Known as much for his appearance, his pale white skin, green hair, and ruby red grin, as he is for his twisted sense of humor, unpredictability, malice and violent temperament. In the comics, he’s killed countless innocent lives, torturing, possibly raping and even murdering well-known allies and friends of Batman. The Joker is the antithesis of everything his primary adversary, Batman, represents, and yet without him, what need is there for a man dressed as a giant bat? Despite alternative origin stories, varying looks and personas (including being Bruce Wayne’s own mother in an alternate dimension), he’s always evolving, yet remains one of the most recognizable fictional pop-culture villains of all-time.
Ask yourself, and be truthful here, would you see Suicide Squad if the Joker wasn’t in it? If you’re being honest, the answer is no. Who are you kidding? However, if you were hoping the Joker would play a big role in Suicide Squad, the joke’s on you: he’s barely in the film. Mr. J clocks in at about 10 minutes of screen time, making his Suicide Squad appearance more of an afterthought, rather than a central character in the movie. Likewise, Leto himself has stated that a lot of scenes he filmed were left in the cutting room floor and not in the film. Maybe it’s too much to ask, but in a film where goverment agents assemble an expendible group (Task Force X) consisting of the world’s most dangerous villains to save us from an otherworldly threat, wouldn’t you consider building your “skwad” around the greatest criminal mastermind the world has ever known, rather than some rag tag bunch of misfits? Instead, director David Ayer has reduced the Joker, to a love-sick Say Anything boyfriend, who longs to Netflix and chill with his former psychiatrist and Hot Topic enthusiast, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie).
In addition to the aforementioned crazies, the film’s main cast consists of a rogues gallery of B-list baddies such as: Deadshot (Will Smith), Killer Croc (Adewale), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and the supernatural, Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), who’s actually the real villain in the film. However, the real threats pale in comparison to the ruthless government agent and Task Force X mastermind, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). The film has a plot reminiscent of, but not comparative to, John Carpenter’s dystopian cult-classic, Escape from New York and at times it can be redundant, making sure the audience understands that these heroes are actually really, really bad people. But in the end do these flawed people really matter and why would I sit through 2 hours with hardly any Joker? Who’s going to miss inconsequential villains if they die? Am I right? Before seeing Suicide Squad, I would’ve said, not me. Forget these jokers, except for the real Joker, I actually like him. If the film Suicide Squad is successful in anything, it’s that it got me to actually care somewhat about these people, because hell, I hardly knew they existed before the film, and maybe that was the point all along.
That’s precisely why it’s so puzzling to me that director, David Ayer knowing that it’s been eight years since audiences last saw the Joker on the big screen with Heath Ledger’s incomparable adaptation of the character in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, is willing to use the Joker as a marketing pawn, rather than a savior for an already bloodied and bloated franchise desperately in need of redemption.
People can deal with change, but apparently tattoos are a bit harder to get over. Leto’s portrayal of the Joker, in Suicide Squad, is unlike any Joker you’ve seen before and quite possibly the most vexing to say the least. There’s no question Leto (Dallas Buyers Club, Requiem for a Dream) has the acting prowess to capture the emotional depth of the Joker, but like many fans of the character, I still had reservations about the new look and if we’re talking KÃ¼bler-Ross, I was in stage two as I walked into the theater, but had successfully made it to the acceptance stage, after leaving it.
Fans aren’t looking for another Ledger, and everyone, including Leto himself, understands he has big shoes to fill. However, the early consensus was clearly negative and polarizing solely based on outward appearances alone without even seeing him perform. Mainly the criticism lies with the fact that Leto’s representation of the iconic character is far from traditional. While Mr. J still has the basics: the neon-green hair, red lips and bleached skin, Leto and director David Ayer, added a more drug-cartel inspired flair to the psycho killer –iced-out with chains, grillz and tatted-up with the Joker’s famous maniacal laugh and other comicbook references.
In spite of this, Leto birthed a contradistinctive version of the Joker from Ledger’s–in the brief scenes he’s actually in–as a creepy, snarling, psychotic and charmingly menacing, ride-or-die thug. Oh, and that laugh, Leto nailed it. His Joker’s infamous cackle is skin-crawlingly delightful and haunting. Avid comicbook readers know that this incarnation could’ve been much darker, recognizing that Leto drew inspiration in both appearance and to a larger extent in persona from more contemporary Joker story arcs, namely the six series comic Batman: Endgame (2015) and as far back as the quintessential graphic novels The Killing Joke (1988) and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986). By all accounts Leto lost his mind over the role, staying in character throughout filming, even going so far as sending other cast members vile and disgusting gifts, in a effort to bring the spirit of the Joker to life. Having spent more time in his trailer on set, than in the film, Leto’s got some time to do that sort of thing I suppose. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another eight years to see the Joker again. By the looks of it, audiences will see Leto’s Mr. J and Batffleck face off in the upcoming turkey Justice League or better yet maybe in a stand alone Batman film.
In the end, despite some of the issues I mentioned earlier, Suicide Squad is a really enjoyable and funny film, more so than its ponderous and humorless predecessor, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. So ultimately the real question remains, will going to see Suicide Squad kill you? No. But if you’re a fan of the Joker, the film may have you longing to see more of Leto’s representation of the iconic villain–really, really, bad!