When the news broke that Batman would be returning to the big screen in the shape of Ben Affleck (in next year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice), there was an undercurrent of opinion that not enough time had passed since Christopher Nolan’s masterful Dark Knight trilogy to warrant another cinematic interpretation of the Caped Crusader.
Those people are likely to have similar misgivings regarding the recent announcement that Jared Leto would portray infamous lunatic serial killer The Joker in 2016’s Suicide Squad movie. The Oscar winner/rockstar joins an elite club of actors to have portrayed Batman’s arch nemesis with distinction, rubbing shoulders with Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, and Heath Ledger and undoubtedly, it is the last name on that list that Leto’s Joker will have to compete with in the eyes of many.
As well as being the most recent portrayal, Ledger’s Joker was brimming with such intensity, danger, and charisma that he defined the character for at least one generation of movie-goers. And despite Nicholson’s brilliant performance in 1989’s Batman, the legacy of Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn is such that, for many people, he is the Joker. You could easily argue that from an artistic perspective, it may have been a fitting decision to wait a while longer before bringing the character once again into the cinematic realm. However, back in reality, Warner Bros was never going to allow one of its hottest properties to gather dust.
Which brings us to Suicide Squad. For those uninitiated in the lore of DC’s supervillain team-up, the Suicide Squad is essentially (and we really are simplifying here) a gang of jailed bad guys sent on ‘suicidal’ missions by the U.S. government in exchange for lighter sentences, pardons for crimes, or a better selection of books in the prison library. To get an idea of how suicidal these missions are, click here.
Immediately then, this almost certainly rules out any kind of Joker origin story. In the comic book ensemble movies to have graced us thus far (basically The Avengers and Guardians Of The Galaxy), our characters arrive mostly fully formed with the plots instead focusing on what brings the team together and drives them forward. Chances are, Suicide Squad will, like Guardians Of The Galaxy, drop a few lines or brief flashback scenes, perhaps depicting how the Joker found himself incarcerated in the first place, if indeed that’s how we find him, or going back to his days as a street criminal. But with so many characters and stars demanding screen time, we can reasonably expect Jared Leto to be portraying an experienced and established villain.
With this in mind, it could be a refreshing change to have a Joker in the process of rehabilitation, or at least pretending to be. There’s comic book precedent for this too. Sam Kieth’s really rather dark Batman: Secrets story featured a Joker who had been released from prison and begun an outward facade of a repentant ex-criminal, writing books, appearing on chat shows, and whilst having most of Gotham fooled, apart from Batman obviously, he continued to commit his trademark deranged acts of criminality. It would be a fresh big screen take on the character, as well as an interesting element of the movie’s chemistry to have the Joker putting on an appearance of trying to reform whilst simultaneously plotting against other supervillains.
Speaking of other villains, Margot Robbie’s presence as Harley Quinn will undoubtedly have an impact upon the style and tone of our new Joker.
Quinn’s first appearance in Batman: The Animated Series showcased her as a sidekick, however many interpretations since have built a romantic relationship between the two with the Joker displaying varying degrees of reciprocation. Whist the extent of the two villains’ relationship in the film is unclear at the moment (perhaps Suicide Squad will facilitate their first meeting), one of Harley Quinn’s primary traits that will surely make the cut is her devotion and love for the Joker.
Those looking for a Notebook-style love story will likely be disappointed but Quinn’s affection, reciprocated or not, will surely bring out a facet of the Joker’s character that hasn’t yet made it into cinematic portrayals. Nicholson’s Joker was a master purveyor of suave, coming off as creepy, and Ledger’s seemed incapable of forming any kind of human attachment. Therefore regardless of whether Leto’s will have genuine affection for Harley Quinn, faux-affection with the intention of manipulating her or simply outward distain, it will be fascinating to witness a Joker forced to deal with female attention, a ‘little emotion’ he may not be quite accustomed to savouring.
And it’s not only Harley Quinn that the new Joker might have to deal with. At present, the extent of the character’s role in the film is unknown, although the fact Leto was included in the initial casting announcement along with Will Smith and Tom Hardy seems to suggest that the Joker will either be a member of the Squad himself or a foe they are tasked to defeat, which may see Quinn playing a twisted, jilted-ex figure.
If the Joker is indeed a member of the Squad, a whole host of new friends such as Deadshot and Rick Flagg will be joining him on his new outing. Most versions of the Joker, across all mediums, have had henchmen, and although The Dark Knight’s portrayal of the villain operated alone, he was adept at manipulating other criminals, as well as Harvey Dent, in order to further his own goals. In Suicide Squad however, it’s very unlikely that the other Squaddies (Squaders…Squadites?!) will be subservient to the Joker in the same way; they are supervillains in their own right after all and at some point in the movie we are bound to see the team working together for a common cause, meaning that a step in a new direction is inevitable for the Joker. He won’t necessarily have to be any more pleasant or less evil than audiences are used to but in order for Suicide Squad to work as a film, he’ll have to be more tolerant of others, maybe showing a similar brand of hateful respect so often shown to the Batman.
Ah yes, Batman. As Joker himself put it “I don’t want to kill you…what would I do without you?”
Indeed, even more than Harley Quinn, it could be said that Bruce Wayne’s alter ego is the Joker’s raison d’être and yet his latest outing will see him have to cope without the Bat for the film’s duration, we would assume. It’s worth remembering however, that as of 2013’s Man Of Steel, we are entering DC’s ‘shared universe’ and the Suicide Squad movie will be released a few months after Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice.
Is it therefore entirely plausible that by the time we catch up with the Joker, it will have been after a series of unshown clashes with the Dark Knight? Established events in the Joker’s comic book history such as murdering Robin and paralysing Barbara Gordon may have already happened. This could mean that instead of a Joker driven by a love of chaos or crime, Jared Leto’s character will have his mind on vengeance; years of imprisonment at the hands of Batman having driven him to an obsessive need to re-ignite the feud between the two, an obsession that could be the reason behind the previous mentioned tolerance for new potential teammates.
Of course, there’s a fair chance the Joker could instead be the villain of the piece. Possibly the reason the U.S. government forms the Suicide Squad, with Batman otherwise occupied following the events of Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice. This scenario would place the character in a more familiar setting (although with rumours of Jesse Eisenberg reprising his Lex Luthor role, don’t rule out that squee-inducing partnership) but being hunted by murderous supervillains would still be new ground for the Joker and could bring out a side of him not seen when fighting Batman, a hero he can be certain won’t kill him.
It could even be the catalyst for a style similar to the more theatrical Joker of Mark Hamill in the animated series; building elaborately murderous traps to snare his hunters and playing off the court jester and circus themes in a way that would never have fit with Christopher Nolan’s vision but that provides something of a Home Alone meets Saw vibe. Certainly, Jared Leto’s experience as a frontman for 30 Seconds To Mars should make him an ideal choice for a villain centred around theatricality and showmanship.
Although the success of the character will mainly depend on the quality of both the film and Leto’s performance, perhaps the most important aspect of the new Joker in terms of first impressions and comparisons to Heath Ledger will be how he looks. Make up? Scars? Purple coat? Whether via official channels or leaked on-set pictures, the first exposure audiences will have to the new character will almost certainly be a still-frame and it’s an unfortunate truth that for some, this will form the basis of whether the character’s latest incarnation is a success or otherwise (some of the more foolhardy appear to have made up their minds based on casting choice alone).
Nevertheless, it’s an important element to get right. Heath Ledger’s infamous “how I got these scars” speech means that repeating the facial-scars motif this time around would be foolish, not distancing the character far enough from his last portrayal. On the other hand, could anyone imagine The Joker going an entire film without wearing make-up? There’s a fine balance to be found somewhere between those two extremes, Suicide Squad’s Joker needs a style that stands visually apart from his previous incarnations but at the same time, provides enough familiarity to invoke the classic Joker spirit. Just as long as Cesar Romero’s angular moustache isn’t re-instated.
So after that tidal wave of speculation, where do we find ourselves?
Well assuming the Joker has a significant part in the film (this is all rather pointless if it turns out to be a cameo), expect an experienced supervillain. There’s far too much ground to cover for an origin story here and whether the Joker is a member of the Squad or their enemy, he’s unlikely to be a rookie.
Look forward to some hopefully madcap chemistry with Harley Quinn. Whether as a sidekick, lover or bitter ex, the pair share an intriguingly toxic relationship that will surely bring out the more subtle and manipulative shades of the Joker’s persona. Also on the cards (ahem) is an increased level of theatricality, as well as a burning hatred for Bruce Wayne, perhaps hidden by an outward appearance of a reformed citizen of Gotham.
Above all though, let’s just hope Suicide Squad does this iconic character justice. With such esteemed performances of the Joker throughout history, it would be a great shame to see an interpretation that is either too similar to past portrayals or that deviates too greatly from the source material, especially as it’s arguably too soon since the most recent of those performances anyway. A new Joker may not be the villain the world needs right now, but let’s hope it’s the one it deserves.