Why Jared Leto’s Joker is the Joker We Need
The character of The Joker was first created in 1940 to serve as a rival for Batman, who was created just on year previous. Over time, like most comic book characters, The Joker has undergone numerable transformations, being anything from a playful goofball to a dangerous psychopath. In the 1966 Batman TV series, he was a giggling clown. In the 1989 feature film Batman he was a mob man driven to criminal excess by exposure bad chemicals and a bout of bad plastic surgery. In the 2008 feature The Dark Knight he was a dangerous young anarchist with a nihilist philosophy and a penchant for chaos. One of the most recent comic book iterations of The Joker was that of an insane monster who wore a mask of human skin. Like any comic book figure, the notion of locating a singular, canonical version of the character remains elusive.
David Ayer’s new film Suicide Squad, in theaters Friday, presents us with the newest version of The Joker. As played by Jared Leto, this contemporary Joker is depicted as a tattooed thug who seems to have just recently risen to the top of the criminal underworld. He wears a grill of metal teeth, wears nice suits, and lives in expensive dance clubs with his girlfriend Harley. The depiction of The Joker may also be one of the most refreshing and realistic versions of the character we have yet seen.
The Joker is, we must admit, a pretty farfetched character. A criminal mastermind who dresses like a playing card, and kills people with giant pennies and exploding cigars? That’s not criminality. That’s just a waste of resources. And if The Joker were depicted as a lone kook with a mysteriously unending supply of deadly Archie McPhee items, then perhaps we might be able to accept him as something realistic and grounded. But The Joker is often seen commanding an army of sub-thugs, usually willing to wear logos and matching outfits. The Joker has even displayed enough old-world charm to drive his therapist, Dr. Harleen Quinzel, insane. Harley Quinn (as played by Margot Robbie is Suicide Squad) has become just as popular as The Joker in recent years.
The problem with this depiction of The Joker as a commander-in-chief is that The Joker is too insane to read as a leader of any sort. He’s a sputtering weirdo who makes bad jokes and is far too invested in his “gimmick” to inspire confidence in anyone, no matter how dumb they may be. Even a low-rent street thug desperate for work would take one look at the guy and turn the other way.
The Joker in Suicide Squad possesses a vital element that no other Joker has ever had: Authority. Leto does portray The Joker as a sputtering weirdo, yes, and he does indeed travel around town with gun-toting thugs in panda costumes (huh?), but in a few scenes, we see him regrouping, making plans, and capably stealing cars and helicopters. He taunts rivals and seems out of control, but he seems to have a clarity of vision behind the insanity. He wants to be an immoral, rule-breaking freak. He seems eager to take down the system. But, unlike Heath Ledger’s assertively philosophical nihilist, this is a man who has, like many real-life criminals, bought into the gangster lifestyle. This Joker is New Money. He overspends, and is devoted to the image of hedonism one often encounters in music videos.
This new Joker also fixes a fundamental flaw in the character of Harley Quinn. The story goes that Dr. Quinzel served as The Joker’s psychiatrist, and, over the course of his therapy, they fell in love. She was so moved by the power of his mind that she herself went a little mad, and also began dressing like a clown and committing crimes. The problem with this story is that we have to believe that The Joker is charming, sexy, and mentally astute enough to charm anyone. I’ve never been able to accept The Joker as a sexual being, and he has never possessed the strength or authority to influence anyone in that way.
With Jared Leto in the role, we finally have a Joker who is clearly libidinous. He has a body and he’s going to use it. He has an icy stare and a defiant confidence that some people might actually find attractive. This is the first Joker who is genuinely sexy. So we can finally believe, for the first time, Harley Quinn’s origin. True, Suicide Squad also involves a vat of insanity chemicals (a common origin element that is often applied to The Joker), but we can at least, for the first time, understand that The Joker might be realistically charming enough to talk someone into jumping into said vat. He is, for the first time, displaying dominion. Harley Quinn went insane for this man. Let the audience, then, see what kind of man would be worth going insane over. Ayer has provided.
This is a Joker that behaves like a real criminal, which is not something we’ve never had before. Previous Jokers – even Ledger’s – have been comically exaggerated to the point of extremity. Most are merely slapstick. And while that slapstick version of the character can carry a good deal of dramatic power, it robs him of an essential fearful respectability. I feel like this is the first Joker that audiences will recognize as something from the real world. And doing that to The Joker is a pretty amazing feat.
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.