First and foremost, let’s get one thing straight: There’s no “one” Joker. The Joker is a character who has had somewhere between three and five backstories, been rendered in comic, TV show, and movie, by upwards of five different actors and voice actors, who have all portrayed their own version of ‘The Joker’. Some have been better than others, sure, but for the most part, every Joker needs to hit a couple of staples in order to be seen as The Joker.
For a good Joker, you need some/most/all of the following things:
- The Look. Nothing too specific here. The visage of a “Joker” will suffice. Most have made some changes here and there, but white skin, red lips, green hair, and a purple jacket seem to be the only sticking points. Sometimes a waifish or lanky figure, but hey, not all actors can lose weight like Christian Bale, so this one’s almost a bonus if it’s there. All things said and done, Joker can be missing one or two of these and still be the Joker. The Joker’s in line with Batman, he’s more of an idea than a single man, so his look changing, as long as his look doesn’t resemble a different gotham character, is perfectly fine.
- A mind rivaling Batman’s. This one is non-negotiable. Without Batman, there’s not reason for Joker to be around, and if The Joker is even seen as a fraction less capable than the Dark Knight, it doesn’t explain how he continues to elude capture. And the Joker eludes capture. That’s the fucking point of the Joker. He’s the criminal Batman can’t stop without killing, and he won’t go that distance. Period.
- Furthermore, this also means that the Joker needs to have the mentality to antagonize Batman, but give a reason that the Joker won’t kill Batman. Once again, non-negotiable, as not having this detail covered removes Batman’s status as “World’s Greatest Detective” and Joker’s as “The Clown Prince of Crime”.
- Sociopathy. This isn’t really a “Joker” trait as it is a villainous trait. It just so happens that The Joker is a villain, and shows this off regularly (despite random fan theories that may exist out there). For the most part, this sociopathic demeanor is used as the reason that he doesn’t kill Batman (“People are things to be played with, and Batman hasn’t run his course because he’s too interesting a character”). Aside from the Joker-Batman dynamic, this is also seen in how he runs his gang(s) and schemes. Everybody is an expendable pawn, including Harley Quinn (Especially Harley Quinn). Sure, the Joker can be a villain while caring for others, but that’s never been a style akin to Joker. That’s more the mentality of a “villainous leader or group”, like Darth Vader, Hitler, or 47 Ronin.
- Insanity, either perceived or real. He’s called “The Joker” for a reason. Actual punchlines aside, The Joker needs a flair to himself, either to make a joke of the town, or to show the world that everything’s a joke. This means chaotic and unpredictable behavior. Now, whether this behavior is ACTUALLY unplanned, it’s all up to interpretation. Sometimes, the Joker has been represented as an absolutely random madman. Other times, a methodical villain using slightly convoluted schemes with an attention to flair to give people an impression of insanity. Either works, and I’m sure there’s some middle ground or another avenue down a more comedic angle. But even if you’re a villain doing this completely for laughs, eliciting humor wherever you go, there’s a hint of insanity present there as well.
With all that in mind, here’s the introduction to Heath Ledger/Christopher Nolan’s Joker:
And here’s a second scene of Heath Ledger’s Joker just for good measure.
After watching that, ask yourself a few questions. Did he look like the Joker? Kind of. Not the Jokeriest Joker, more like “Grunge Joker”, but it looks like the main points of the Joker, plus some changes to match the more gritty and down-to-earth setting. Does he act like an intelligent threat, enough to take on the big bad Bat? Fuck yes. In either one of those scenes, He looks like he either rivaled the entirety of Gotham’s underground or single-handedly pulled off a six-man heist. There’s no mistake who masterminded these plans. There’s no thought that this guy just lucked out pulling a caper. In this respect, I feel like Ledger topped most other Jokers, and I’m saying that in the context of just these two Batman-less scenes. Is The Joker a sociopath? Yup. Giving your own crew orders to off each other, or murdering a goon in front of a business table of kingpins just to make a show if it exemplifies that. No matter how many people are working with him, no matter how many people he tries to enlist, it’s never mistaken that the Joker is a one-man show, and everybody else is fodder or investors in his plan. Is the Joker insane? This, Heath falls a little weak with. Yeah, his plans are convoluted, and he definitely goes about some risky behaviors, but the overall tone of the film holds him down from ever being truly eccentric, lest he clash with the rest of the film. Nevertheless, he checks the box, but he’s not wearing gold at the podium of Jokers in the Insanity 500.
Now, I’m not on Heath Ledger’s dick. He’s a good Joker, and a good example as a basis, but the fact that his backstory is never fleshed out, in addition to his relations to Harley Quinn, Batgirl, any Robin, or Commissioner Gordon, is a bit of a drawback. He’s half a Joker, who never got time to expand on his effect and role in the universe, and can only be judged for the small part he’s shown. It’s a good part, but it’s still small. It’s almost as bare bones as the Joker can be introduced to an audience without issues. And since Heath is dead, and the trilogy’s done, there’s pretty much no chance in hell we can return to it.
Now, back to Jared Leto. Like I said above, I’m judging based on TWO fucking scenes from the Dark Knight, one of which didn’t show Ledger’s Joker face until halfway through. Leto’s “I didn’t get enough screen time” excuse is not only invalid, it’s bullshit. Good characters don’t need time, they need presence. In my opinion, Leto got both and squandered it. I don’t care if it’s the writer, the director, or the actor, but the Joker got fucked somewhere down the pipeline.
Now, Unfortunately, due to the movie’s still recent release, and the fact that I’m not trying to pirate a movie just to edit clips and embed them here, I’ll try to provide a good synopsis of EVERY scene he’s in (with no bias) during the entirety of Suicide Squad. I tried to have at least some pictures accompany the scenes.
Intro Scene: The Joker is introduced. Words flash on screen in a style reminiscent of Borderlands giving a quick bio on his most common nicknames and hobbies. Honestly, I don’t recall this scene in the movie, it may have just been in the trailers.
Hotel Scene: A suited henchman comes into a hotel room to reveal that “they’ve” found Harley Quinn in a prison. The Joker is lying on the ground, in what appears to be a large floor of sand, adorned with knives, guns, ornaments, some laptop computers, and babies’ clothing. The Joker gives the go-ahead to move on to a new phase of rescuing Harley, and proceeds to laugh, still laying down, while the camera zooms out.
Casino Scene: A security guard who works at the prison Harley’s contained in is brought into the back of a casino where he owes a sizable sum of money. After a small, vaguely leveraged threat to his life is established, the Joker appears with an offer the man shan’t refuse. One can assume it’s an offer to erase the debt in exchange for passing Harley a message(and a phone, which the guard does later in the movie).
Nightclub Scene: Common, wearing a ton of face jewelry and tattoos, comes to a nightclub either run or owned by the Joker to congratulate him on his success and thank him for providing a slick avenue for crime. Joker offers him a seat, and he proceeds to compliment the Joker on his girlfriend, one he deems a “bad bitch” in the good connotation. At that mention, Joker invites Harley, previously performing pole work, to his side, and offers Harley to Common, who appears to refuse out of respect and acknowledgement of “territory”. Joker then proceeds to shoot Common in the face.
Car Ride Scene: Batman begins a vehicular pursuit through the streets after the Joker and Harley Quinn on their “date night”. Batman jumps out of his own vehicle onto the top of the clown duo’s car. To elude the Batman, Harley fires a few shots through the roof of the car while Joker drives the car into a body of water, wherein Harley exclaims her inability to swim. Batman dives into the waters to rescue/apprehend Harley, where he punches her in the face to prevent her resistance to either action. The Joker escapes. I believe this is a scene noting how Harley Quinn is captured and sent to Stryker’s Island.
Courting Harley Scene: Harleen works as the psychiatrist to The Joker during his containment at Arkham Asylum, who uses a montage of smooth talking and savvy to eventually persuade her to smuggle him a gun. He then uses the gun, Harleen’s assistance, and the help of a handful of armed henchmen, to have a shootout in Arkham and make his escape.
Converting Harley Scene: In getting Harleen Quinzel to become Harley Quinn, Joker gives her a test of faith, and she “passes” by falling/being pushed into a vat of chemicals. Moments later, Joker dives in right after her, and the two make out in the chemical pool, supposedly staining Harley’s skin white, and her accent colors red and blue, in line with the color of the shirts the two were wearing at the time.
Jail Invasion Scene: Joker, his suited henchman, and 2 or 3 other people dressed in various outfits, including a conspicuous panda costume, invade Stryker’s Island while Harley Quinn and the remainder of the Suicide Squad are away. After mowing down a number of security detail, they happen upon the labs where the suited henchman forces a scientist to open a sealed door by showing live feed footage of his kidnapped (assumed) wife. After opening the door, the scientist is immediately injected with the nano-charge by Joker, curious to the potency of the gun. the scene ends here, but it can be assumed that the scientist reveals the concept of the nano-charge, and how to disable it.
Harley Rescue Scene: After the Squad gets Amanda Waller and the rest to the rooftop, the kidnapped scientist disables the nano-charge in Harley’s neck and Joker gives her the signal to run. Joker provides cover fire via a Gatling gun on the back of a helicopter, which Harley jumps onto and makes her escape. Later on the same helicopter, the copter is shot down, and Harley is tossed onto a rooftop before the helicopter crashes in a fiery explosion, where the illusion is established that the Joker is dead.
Jailbreak Scene: A group of armored and masked soldiers rescue Harley from her jail cell, where one of them is revealed to be the Joker. They kiss. Credits roll.
For starters, I’d like to say that Jared Leto had more than enough time to establish his character, and more than enough chances to get it right. And in some cases, he did. Leto keeps much of the Joker’s signature look, but adapting it to this world filled with attitude and tongue-in-cheek style via some plated teeth and questionable tattoos. He gets props there, and his pale skin and green hair are somewhat provided some backstory because of the Converting Harley Scene. On top of that, since this is the first movie with Harley in it, it’s also a great chance for Leto to shine by being the inaugural establishment of their relationship. There’s a new part of the Joker mythos that Leto gets to handle all his own. And that’s about where the unanimous praise ends. Everything else falls a little flat, if not just failed outright, but let’s start with the close misses and move onto the airballs.
First big question: Is the Joker insane? Well, yes, but never supposedly in the good way. Like…
Carlito. Leto’s actions look deranged and unhinged, but only at a surface level. Take the Hotel Scene. He’s insane because he… took the time to set up all these knives and equipment? Even if it’s a public display of his insanity, the whole scene looks like it’s in the middle of a hotel room on a high-rise. The only person who would see this would be the henchman, who hopefully is already aware of Joker’s insanity. Or maybe the laugh is supposed to be his “insane calling card”. That… actually makes no sense either. That puts him up there with Fran Drescher, Lux from League of Legends, and another Key and Peele sketch. Not insane, just goofy and weird. Oh, wait, what about his wanton shooting of people, like Common and the scientist with the nano-charge gun? It’s insane, in a “I don’t know the purpose of this action is” kind of way. It feels like the only time Leto’s Joker does a “crazy” action is when he’s in complete comfort with no risk or danger of opposition, which completely eliminates the validity of his insane actions. Hell, even jumping into the vat isn’t a danger; Joker’s already done it and he knows he’ll live. It’s like watching someone try a double backflip on a padded trampoline versus a double backflip into a pool of water only 2 feet in diameter: It’s the same result if successful, but only one is seen as “insane”.
Cool. So Leto’s Joker isn’t the most theatrically insane. But he’s definitely a sociopath, right? Somewhat. Common, the security guard in debt, and the scientist all get treated like play toys during Joker’s escapades, and there’s never any reference to whether Joker values his henchman, so that could be either way, but one big ass character throws a wrench in his “virtually heartless” visage: Harley Quinn. The movie doesn’t really hint this at all, but in every other medium, their relationship is completely one-sided. In some story arcs, Harley looks at Joker like a philosopher with the answer to the world’s questions, and will follow him to the edge of earth, while Joker will simply push her off to see what happens. In other tales, Harley regards Joker like an addictive carcinogenic drug that she either can’t quit or is recovering from, still partially fractured by their past relationship. In virtually no perspective is Joker ever wholly kind to Harley without personal gain. Now, I’m not suggesting that Leto had to go full ‘abusive spouse’ and smack Harley around; In every medium, Harley is still drawn to whatever charm is layered on top of the pain. And don’t forget the other half of that previous statement: personal gain. All that’s necessary for Joker’s kindness is to pretend that Harley has some Macguffin for the Joker and boom, now he has a reason to be nice to her (temporarily). Considering how the end of the film involves her grabbing a heart that controls a demonic goddess, it’s not like there wasn’t a macguffin to take back to the Joker. Like, 10 seconds of film or 2 sentences of dialogue could’ve validated Joker’s kindness to his #1 Stockholm Syndrome’d victim. But that scene either hit the cutting room floor or didn’t get made, and the Joker becomes leagues worse because of it.
Alright, strike two. But he can still win the intellect award, right? Wrong. Now I know exactly what you’re thinking: But he eluded capture by Batman, that means they’re equals. It would mean that, if Batman didn’t literally do everything to not-catch the Joker. Like, say, hopping out of an armored vehicle with guns to detain a car on foot. Or choosing not to blow out any of the Joker’s tires using any number of gadgets. Or straight up not using a grappling hook to lasso the Joker when he dove out his soon-to-be-submarine car. You know, grappling hooks, the thing he has two of and expertly uses while fighting an end-of-existence Doomsday device? And after all that, he leaves behind Harley (ironically, his one moment of sociopathic behavior) to escape, essentially throwing away his best trump card and hoping Bruce “My kill count is in the double digits” Wayne would feel sympathetic enough to save one random criminal instead of apprehending another. They dumbed down Batman so much for that one scene, Batman could have been replaced with a young Commissioner Gordon or just random citizen Jackie Chan on a buzz. But wait, he also rescued Harley Quinn and survived a helicopter explosion. That’s impressive, too. Sure would be, if the Joker appeared like the mastermind for either of those things. This goes back to the Hotel Scene again. It’s the henchman that walks in with new info. It’s also the henchman who walks out to continue whatever plan is pre-conceived. Given how much time the Joker may have spent setting up those knives, I’m not convinced the Joker did fuck-all regarding the actual coordinated plan to rescue Harley. In almost every scene, he’s doing the simplest task. Lying on the floor while henchman give new info. Shooting wildly while a henchman pilots a helicopter and a scientist hacks an implanted bomb. Sitting in the back of a van, and being part of the gang, shooting security forces. There’s no scene, no dialogue, no hint that the Joker is the brains of the operation. Going back to Nolan’s movie, you know the Joker planned the whole bank robbery before he even makes an appearance. Heath Ledger hasn’t shown his face or said a word, and you know he’s already behind three murders and a well-orchestrated heist. Leto had a chance, scene after scene after scene, squandered, never even matching a Joker-less performance in a previous film. Just… fuck. The only time he ever looked like he was leading a charge was breaking out of Arkham Asylum. Unfortunately, you don’t really get to his charm getting Harleen over to his side, you just get the scene where he asks for a gun, and it immediately cuts to him, Harleen, and friends shooting up a mental asylum. Even that feels a little underwhelming. Not to be a dick, but with a straight up automatic rifle, I couldn’t see breaking out of any facility that difficult. It’d be cool to see him outsmart his way out using a bobby pin and some creativity, but that dude got the equivalent of a GTA cheat code and five friends for his escape.
So, there you have it. Am I wrong? Feel like striking up a fun-ass discussion? Let me know in the comments.