Superhero fans finally have something to smile about. One of the greatest comic-book villains of recent years is returning to the screen. The Joker, it has been announced, will feature in Zack Snyder’s $70 million overhaul of Justice League, where he will tangle with Ben Affleck’s dad-bod Batman.
There is one minor sticking point. The Joker in question isn’t the one played to Oscar-winning effect by Joaquin Phoenix in 2019. It will be the Joker portrayed by Jared Leto in 2016’s Suicide Squad. The creepy cackler with the tattooed forehead, slicked green hair, metal-capped teeth and a rasping laugh that’s really more a dastardly wheeze.
A brief glance reveals that the internet has not reacted favourably. But – for the first time in history! – the internet has it wrong. Nobody would deny Suicide Squad was a calamity, fully deserving its 27 per cent Rotten Tomatoes rating. It was a deafening and incoherent mess – gloves down, the sorriest superhero film of the past decade. Which is quite an achievement, given competition from the likes of X-Men: Dark Phoenix or Snyder’s own travesty Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
And yet, hidden within this schlocky soufflé was Leto’s original and compelling take on the Joker. His insight was to see the character not as a madman who also happened to be a villain, but as a truly malicious figure in his own right. In so doing, he challenged decades of onscreen Jokers, from Cesar Romero’s Hugh Hefner-esque creation in the Sixties Batman TV series to Heath Ledger’s “why so serious?” version in The Dark Knight. Not to forget Jack Nicholson as the human equivalent of an electro-shock hand-buzzer in the 1989 Tim Burton film.
All those Jokers were great fun. Ledger’s, in particular, was one of the most searing antagonists in the history of comic-book films. Yet they were, in the first instance, menacing clowns. This made them variations on a theme – a theme to which was applied, last year, a sheen of 1970s New York squalor by Phoenix in Todd Phillips’s Joker.
These Jokers lit up the screen like a petrol-bomb chucked through a funhouse window. But they were ultimately a grab-bag of quirks and thespian gimmickry. Leto, to his credit, saw the Joker as something else. He is in Suicide Squad for a mere 10 minutes, but he establishes the Joker as a figure with whom it’s best not to trifle.
There is some insanity, of course. Leto cackles maniacally, for instance, as he lies in the centre of a circle of knives upon learning his beloved Harley Quinn has been banged up. But he excels, too, as a gangland heavy, as we see when he tortures a security guard.
This is that rare Joker with an internal life, one that goes beyond raving, ranting and obsessing over Batman. One of the emotional threads running through Suicide Squad is his abusive relationship with Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. He is the manipulator, she the victim; it’s hardly a sweet romance. But Leto makes you believe that the Joker could be a person with passions, and not just a cardboard cut-out opponent for Batman. He could live quite happily in a bat-free Gotham.
So why has news of his return in the Justice League “Snyder Cut” gone down like a whoopee cushion at the reading of a will? Suicide Squad being an unwatchable muddle, as already pointed out, hasn’t helped. But the real black mark against Leto’s Joker is probably connected to the actor’s bizarre offscreen behaviour during the making of that film, not least his attempt to “method act” his way through the production by sending his co-stars a series of horrific gifts.
These were reported at the time to include used condoms, dead rats, dead pigs and pornographic magazines. “He did some bad things, Jared Leto did. He gave some really horrific gifts,” his co-star Viola Davis confirmed to Vanity Fair.
Davis was one of several cast members unamused by Leto’s behaviour. “He had a henchman who would come into the rehearsal room, and the henchman came in with a dead pig and plopped it on the table, and then he walked out. And that was our introduction to Jared Leto.”
The antics freaked out even Will Smith (Suicide Squad leader Deadshot). This was an unlikely turn of events. Having tussled with a steampunk Kenneth Branagh in Wild Wild West, Smith should have been well beyond feeling shocked on a movie set.
“First we found out that Jared wasn't going to be in rehearsals,” Smith told MTV. “And we were like, ‘That's messed up! How is he not going to be in rehearsals?’ And then there was a bag on the door, and this dude barges in and throws a dead pig on the floor in front of us.”
Suicide Squad director David Ayer didn’t see the amusing side. This may account for the gutting of Leto’s screen time. That 10-minute total left cinemagoers nonplussed – the film’s marketing campaign had portrayed Leto as the major villain. The real baddie, in the event, was Enchantress, played by Cara Delevingne as a sort of apocalyptic belly dancer.
Ayer was frequently asked about the removal of Leto’s scenes. “Just because something's cool and charismatic,” the director told Collider, “doesn’t mean it gets to survive in the final cut. The flow of the movie is the highest master.”
Leto may have sensed he had crossed a line. After the film appeared, he began to row back from his earlier boasts about putting used condoms in the post (a breach of healthy and safety regulations, as much as anything else).
“There were some things that were mentioned about gifts, and the fact that I was giving used condoms to people, which was not true,” he told Entertainment Weekly. (The condom reference, it was widely noted, was one that he’d brought up in filmed interviews himself.)
“Some of the stuff that you do,” he continued, “can go viral or get written about. Especially with the Joker, some of that stuff just took on a life of its own. And most of it was total bulls--t.”
Leto, according to contemporary accounts, was devastated that the Joker was reduced to a bit-player, and that Warner Brothers had green-lit a separate Joker movie, starring Joaquin Phoenix. As a 2019 Hollywood Reporter article put it: “Leto’s frustration that Warner Bros was moving ahead with the Phillips project was so great early on that he tried to throttle the rival Joker in its cradle.
“According to sources familiar with Leto’s behaviour, when the Oscar-winning actor learned of the Phillips project, he not only complained bitterly to his agents at CAA, who also represent Phillips, but asked his music manager, Irving Azoff, to call the leader of Warner Bros’ parent company.”
Leto’s only significant role, since Suicide Squad, was in Blade Runner 2049. But now he, and his Joker, have a second chance thanks to Snyder’s Justice League, which also stars Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Jason Momoa and Ezra Miller.
Snyder had been forced to hand over the Justice League reins in May 2017; Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon was parachuted in and re-calibrated the movie as something jokey and knowing (a similar vibe to his two Avengers films).
The vision Snyder had for Justice League was far darker. And while the Joker did not feature in the original script, Warner and DC are going all in on the “Snyder Cut”, set for release in September 2021 on US streaming service HBO Max.
It’s a shot at redemption for a divisive director. But even more so for Leto, whose Joker deserves better than to be remembered as a gag without a punchline. If he and Snyder deliver, he may well have the last laugh.