Suicide Squad: The Lasting Intrigue of Jared Leto’s Joker

Jared Leto’s Joker is a formidable force, and far from an agent of chaos, in Suicide Squad...

Warning: contains spoilers for Suicide Squad.

This article first appeared on Den of Geek UK.

As with any new big screen incarnation of The Clown Prince Of Crime, Jared Leto’s casting as the Joker became a huge talking point among comic book fans, moviegoers and the internet at large. In the build up to Suicide Squad’s release, trailers were analysed in detail, pictures were pored over and fan theories veered off in wild directions, all in a bid to better understand Leto’s take on this classic character. 

All the while, Mr Leto became a magnet for headlines, sending rats and used condoms to his co-stars, citing David Bowie as an influence and – most recently – making the bizarre statement that his death would probably mean we’d get to see more of his Joker. Say what you like about Leto, but there’s no denying that he’s earned Suicide Squad far more column inches in the press than it would have had without him.

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But how does this new Joker measure up, once you scrape away all the hype and babble? It seems that some people hated him while others loved him, which is probably exactly how Mr J would want it. And even after seing the film, this new Joker is still just as mysterious as he was before…

The Look

Leto’s Joker has been a divisive figure from the start. Even when all we’d seen was a few seconds of trailer footage and a couple of still images, the internet was ablaze with discussion. The new look was certainly a surprise. Gone is the untraceable colorful garb of Heath Ledger’s take, replaced with a more…stylish ensemble. The new Joker is the sort of man who’d wear a lengthy purple leather jacket with nothing underneath. Madness, indeed. 

He’s also the kind of chap who would get the word “damaged” tattooed on his own forehead, as well as a grin on his hand and “hahahahahaha” on one of his pectorals. From all of this it’s easy to see that this new Joker is highly self-aware. This, again, differentiates Leto’s take from the big screen version that came immediately before. 

While Ledger’s Joker was dressed rather simply in a suit, adding to the enigma of his mysterious and ambiguous past, Leto’s Joker has decked himself out in a series of tattoos that serve as logos (as well as the smiles and laughter, there’s also clown paraphernalia and even a great big JOKER across his abs).

This is a guy who seems to think of himself as a brand. He sees himself as an icon, to the point that he’s taken the time to sit patiently and have nods to his own iconography tattooed on his skin. Seriously, those things must have taken hours upon hours to complete. He probably has to go in for touch-ups now and again, too, to stop the color from fading. 

The combination of the clothing (from the leather ensemble to the dapper tux that appears later in the film) and the tattoos makes Jared Leto’s Joker a curious being. He’s insane, surely, but he’s also thoughtful. This is a look that has been put together deliberately, which paints this new Joker as something of a planner and a thinker, rather than an erratic anarchist. 

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When did this look come together? I’d love to see a timeline of Leto’s Joker’s origin story. How long after falling in the acid and becoming the Joker did he realize that he had created a powerful brand? And exactly how many hours did he spend in the tattoo parlor in order to enhance it? What crimes has he committed, and how long has he been around? These are all questions without answers, for now. 

The Gangster Stuff

Leto’s Joker also has silver grills, sizeable signet rings, and what looks like a tear tattoo. All of these visual elements point to an affiliation between the Joker and gang/prison culture. To highlight the contrast again: Ledger’s unpredictable Joker was a free agent, and a noteworthy nightmare for gangsters (remember when he killed one of the them with a pencil?). Leto’s Joker, on the other hand, seems to embrace this culture and exist as a part of it. 

Early on in Suicide Squad, Leto’s Joker gets Belle Reve prison guard Griggs to kiss his ring, another clear signifier of his existence – and high ranking – within the gangster community. Respect in the criminal underworld isn’t something I’d usually expect the Joker to care about, but this new version seems to crave it. 

This is evident again in the strip club scene, where the dancing of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn attracts the attention of a nearby gangster (Monster T, played by the rapper Common). The Joker channels Joe Pesci in Goodfellas after Monster T notes Harley’s attractiveness, but instead of “Funny how? Do I amuse you?” it’s basically “Want to sleep with her, do you? Why don’t you?” 

After Monster T apologises, the Joker shoots him in the head. I read this whole scene as evidence that this new Joker isn’t a cartoonish supervillain with a wacky scheme up his sleeve, but a powerful player in the organized crime world who hangs out in trendy VIP rooms and offs people who offend him.

This Joker also has a crew, who wear weird outfits (including a panda suit, a Batman Halloween costume, an eyeball facemask) and assist with the escape from Arkham Asylum in Harley Quinn’s establishing flashback scenes. They also help him track down the scientist capable of disarming the bomb in Harley’s neck. 

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So, between the ring-kissing, his gun-toting crew, and the murdering of those who offend him, it’s clear that writer-director David Ayer isn’t trying to present Jared Leto’s Joker as a maniacal madman, but something more like a fear-inducing gangster boss.

The Tactical Mind

Leto’s Joker does have his moments of madness (see: Mr. J lying on the ground laughing, surrounded by knives and guns, after he works out where Harley is), but he also has a keen tactical mind. There’s a certain military precision to his quest to free Harley Quinn. 

As soon as his henchmen work out that Harley is in Belle Reve, you might expect the Joker to march up to the gates, spurt some acid from a lapel flower onto the locks and get to work. But that’s not what Leto’s Joker is like. 

Instead of charging in all (comically large) guns blazing, the Joker captures a prison guard and tortures him for further information. (Oddly, the ‘I can’t wait to show you my toys’ line was cut, but it’s still fairly obvious that torture is what happens.) This is a tactical move. The Joker is planning and thinking, just like he did when he selected his tattoos as a means to build his brand.

Next, having found out that there will be a bomb in Harley’s neck, the Joker sends the guard back to Belle Reve and instructs him to give a phone to Harley so the pair can communicate. Joker then kidnaps the wife of a scientist who knows about the bombs, sets up an iPad video feed and breaks into the scientist’s lab. Again, this is a notably well-thought-out plan.

The Joker does some more off-screen interrogation and shuts down Harley’s neck bomb. He then commandeers a helicopter and intercepts Task Force X’s debut mission in Midway City. This (again impressive) plan went off without a hitch, until the helicopter was shot out of the sky and Harley re-joined the Squad in the belief that her beloved puddin’ was dead. 

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But he wasn’t. The Joker disappeared and developed another intricate plot to free Harley. This one was even less Joker-y than the last, involving prison guard disguises, protective clothing, a buzz saw, lots of guns and military-level precision.

Over the course of the film, we see Joker stage three breakouts operations (one for himself, two to try and free Harley). The first one is manic, with silly disguises and manic gunfire. The third one is like watching an elite taskforce extracting an asset. Leto’s Joker, then, seems to be developing as a tactician and a leader as the film goes along. He’s far from a freewheeling agent of chaos when the film ends. 

The Emotional Connection

Some people just want to watch the world burn. Others want to save girls they like. In The Dark Knight, the Joker was in the former category while Batman was in the latter. But, in Suicide Squad, the Joker has swapped sides.

Leto’s Joker spends the entire film trying to bust Harley Quinn out of her government-controlled captivity, again proving that this version of the character is not a random, unpredictable entity. He’s a man trying to rescue a woman. This classic storytelling motivation is the driving force for all of the Joker’s actions in the present day section of the movie.

It’s interesting to see a Joker who has an emotional interest in protecting someone. This may have once been considered very un-Joker-y, but in order to introduce Harley Quinn as a viable character, it makes sense to add this emotional connection to the Joker’s personality.

The Joker reveals his origin story to Harley Quinn in a flashback, by taking her to ACE Chemicals (even though it’s not expressly said, the only real way to read this scene is that the Joker is showing Harley how he came to be in a bid to make her more like him). This is another place where Leto differs to Ledger: Ledger’s Joker delivered multiple explanations for his scars and hid his true origins, while Leto’s spells out his backstory for Harley and invites her to recreate it for herself.

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Even though it involves multiple prison breaks, electrodes to the brain, a dip in an acid bath and Harley being pushed from a helicopter, this is a relationship. It’s a twisted, Joker-y one, but it’s an emotional connection nonetheless. This paints Leto’s Joker as an entirely different beast to any of the previous big screen Jokers. The closest a movie Joker came to a girlfriend before was Jack Nicholson’s version, who practiced his “art” on the face of Grissom’s wife Alicia. Leto’s take, though, seems to have genuine feelings for Harley and he’s determined to rescue her throughout the film.

What’s Next?

Leto’s Joker was only in Suicide Squad for around 15 minutes, meaning that all of this was conveyed in a very short space of time. It’s just a taste, intended to get audiences excited for the fact that Leto will probably become the first actor ever to reprise the Joker across multiple big screen live-action movies. 

Who was this man before his first trip to ACE Chemicals? Was he involved in the mafia and/or military strategy of some sort? How many times has he tussled with a Batman? I can image this planning-friendly Joker cooking up some really dastardly challenges for Gotham’s Dark Knight. The background dressing of Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice teased that this Joker killed Robin several years ago. Is that the worst thing he’s done? Is there worse still to come?

It could be a while until we find out, since the next big screen appearance for Jared Leto’s Joker hasn’t been determined yet. It seems likely that there could be room for him in the solo Batman movie that Ben Affleck is currently working on, but there’s been no formal confirmation yet of who the villains in that film could be. Or when it will come out.

There’s also talk of a Harley Quinn-led female-focused movie in the DC film universe, and some chatter suggesting that Suicide Squad 2 could be fast-tracked into production ready to shoot next year. The Joker could appear in any/all/none of these upcoming films, but at the moment his next appearance hasn’t been officially nailed down. Although some film fans may feel differently, I’m quite looking forward to seeing his next trick…