Suicide Squad is imminent. Jared Leto’s Joker is figuring into the proceedings somehow, and even with the movie still a couple months away, what little we’ve seen has become extremely divisive in terms of how people are responding to his portrayal of the iconic super-villain. It’s symptomatic of the time we live in, as we’ve become completely inundated with the amount of information we’re privy to, Squad in particular being announced as a release two years ago, and every trailer being picked apart and analyzed to death, with no context or objectivity to the whole thing. And it’s not just Suicide Squad. Movies are being hyped sooner, every single little news story or rumor is inflated in its impact, everyone in every aspect of social media must give their input immediately, and everyone has to have an exact, polarized opinion – they either hate it as the worst thing ever, or love it as the best thing ever. There is, if any, very little middle ground.
That’s an exaggeration, of course. There’s much in the middle ground, which is where I like to think my blog and many people lie. You just don’t hear as much from this reasoned middle ground, because the two extremes are quite literally shouting at each other, occasionally with death threats (fandoms have almost completely replaced religious sects in the ideologies department). Nevertheless, it remains true that people are quick to judge, and that all aspects of our culture, particularly our entertainment, are more than happy to feed the monster with teasers, addressing rumors, candid interviews, leaked information, just anything to build hype. The entire process of building to superhero movies for me has definitely become wearisome. The movies themselves remain great to outstanding, but it feels like I live more often these days in constant media blackout simply because I’m tired of hearing another seven reasons Jared Leto’s Joker is going to be the worst/best Joker, or someone making a stupid video about why they’re definitely not going to see a movie.
Leto’s Joker in particular is especially corrosive. Maybe it’s because years later one of the strongest things to come out of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is Heath Ledger’s unbelievably unsettling performance, maybe it’s because Joker himself is so iconic and everyone just has a vastly different opinion on who and what he should be, or hell, and I’m among definitely among these, my most definitive Joker is Mark Hamill’s from the animated series and the Arkham series, and the movie portrayals have been so far removed from that that it’s almost like watching a completely different character. So I can’t tell you for sure what it is, but the reality is, we can’t have a DC movie-verse without Joker. Someone’s gotta do it. It just seems though, that from what little we’ve seen of Leto, some people are so heavily opposed to it that they’ve come up with alternate theories that basically amount to the actor not playing the Joker as we know him to be. I’ve heard protesting to the castings before, I remember the vitriol thrown Heath Ledger’s way before he even made an appearance in the teasers. (I was confident, I didn’t know he’d end up being so great.) People didn’t like Henry Cavill for Superman. They were angry about Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. But I have never seen anyone go to the lengths of proposing alternate theories for who their character might actually be. This is a recent phenomenon. The only other one I know, also recent, and incredibly poorly thought out, was that Ben Affleck in Batman V. Superman was not Bruce Wayne/Batman, he was actually Deathstroke, taking over the Bat-mantle. That’s a layered movie beyond the grasp of Hollywood, but more importantly than that, it’s just dumb.
Similarly, a theory has been posed that this Joker in Suicide Squad is someone who watched and idolized the real Joker because of the media’s constant coverage of his exploits and the subsequent seeming glorification of these grisly deeds. This one I actually don’t mind. It’s a fun theory, but again, I think too deep of a thinker for a Hollywood action film (ultimately unnecessary too). The one I’m not as drawn to though, is specifically cornering Jared Leto’s Joker as a deranged Jason Todd. In deference to my place in the middle ground, I’ve decided to analyze the pros and cons of the theory, instead of dismissing it outright. Maybe we’ll discover some insight. But first, important, who, you might ask, is Jason Todd?
Batman took up his mantle in 1939. In an effort to appeal more to kids, kid sidekicks became a thing, and Robin was created for Batman just about a year later, in 1940. This Robin, Richard “Dick” Grayson, orphaned son of an acrobat family The Flying Graysons who were killed in an accident during a show of theirs, is the longest-tenured, most famous, and most linked to the role. Some remember Burt Ward’s “Holy mashed potatoes!” Robin from the 60s Adam West series. And for the most part he was the squeaky do-gooder until the 1970s where he grew up and branched off on his own, eventually becoming Nightwing, like Batman only with a sense of humor, and the greatest ass in comics. Jason Todd became Robin in the early 80s. At this point, he was exactly the same. In-universe, they altered him to look like Dick too. (Jason had red hair, dyed it black). So he was drawn exactly the same too. Then Crisis On Infinite Earths happened. The universe got rebooted, and a new origin for Jason was written, where he became the street kid who was angry, rebellious, eager for validation from Batman and eager to effectively replace and even surpass the precedent set by Dick Grayson. The new characterization proved to be so unpopular that in a storyline called Death In The Family, fans could vote on whether they wanted Jason to die or live. Being the cynical crowd we are, Jason was voted to die, and was beaten to death by The Joker. Jason was resurrected 20 years later, as The Red Hood, a violent, revenge-crazed villain, later turned anti-hero vigilante.
And I’m sure everyone’s familiar with The Joker, but just in case you have never been on the internet or watched a movie, or understand any reference… The Joker has become one of, if not the, most closely associated villain of Batman’s rogues gallery, his most ever-present adversary, one of the most recognizable villains ever, and deadliest and most intimidating villains of the DC universe. The Joker has no apparent superpowers to speak of, although he does exhibit remarkable durability and is pretty skilled in hand-to-hand combat. In-continuity, he’s killed Jason Todd, crippled Barbara Gordon, and most recently had his face removed and returned a year later to reclaim and wear it like a mask. In the Adam West series, he was portrayed by the deliriously loony Cesar Romero. He was first brought to the big screen unforgettably by Jack Nicholson and later in 2008, some say definitively, by Heath Ledger. Mark Hamill is the most indelibly linked voice actor for his work on the original animated series in the 90s, and the Arkham video game series from ’09 and ’15. The laugh is always unmistakable and scary. The suit is impeccable. The green hair dye is a nightmare (I know, I’ve done it). Harley Quinn, initially a sidekick on the animated show, has become a full character in her own right.
It’s not a bad theory, at all. To start, let’s look at its strengths:
- It shows character development – Jason goes from a rebellious youth, to wanting to prove himself to someone who chose him, saw potential in him, and took a chance on him, to someone who is abandoned and left behind which brings him to his breaking point, he goes insane, taking on the role of his killer, only to return and seek closure for his mentor abandoning him. It’s a fantastic, poetic arc.
- It keeps the relationships familial – The best character development is based on the strength of the relationships between the characters. Having a former sidekick, who we see cared for and essentially adopted by Batman, succumb to the darkest of dark sides, is a tragedy in itself, and something that Batman in some way does have to live with, regardless of how responsible he was for everything.
- It somewhat explains different versions of the Joker – Well, it really only explains the transition from Heath Ledger to Jared Leto. There are strong traces of Ledger’s performance in Leto too (for instance, I think the voices are rather similar) which in-universe can suggest an “influence” of the former to the latter. But you can’t disregard other parts of “evidence” to fit your theory. So what about Jack Nicholson’s Joker? What about Batman himself also looking and acting differently in almost every movie? So this is a weak pro, but I’ll keep it here nonetheless.
- There are opportunities for interesting stories to be told – With Jason Todd as The Joker, there is a chance for Batman to bring Jason to redemption. There’s also a chance he’s dragged deeper into the darkness. There’s a story in there where he can dismantle the Bat-family, because of his intimate knowledge of them. So it presents marvelous storytelling opportunities, and that’s never a bad thing!
One problem though with the last point, those were all the elements thrown into the game Arkham Knight, and all of this was accomplished without turning Jason Todd into the Joker. (Knight’s got other problems too, which we won’t get into here, namely that the reveal was played as a twist and it should have never been a twist.)
On the other hand:
- It reduces the impact of the character of the Joker – The Joker is an agent of chaos and uncertainty. His character is an opposite of Batman’s in many, many ways. We see Batman’s origin explicitly. A couple details may change with each retelling, but the overall origin remains the same every time. We saw the birth and beginnings of the character. The Joker literally just shows up one day. In The Dark Knight, we get one of my favorite ideas of the Joker: that he himself keeps changing his origins. We then can’t accept anything for sure, not the origins presented in Joker, or The Killing Joke, or even this idea of Joe Chill. Basically, what I’m saying is that The Joker operates strongest when we don’t know his backstory, we don’t always understand his motivations outside of hurting people, of breaking Batman, of getting to see the world burn.
- It trivializes the death of Jason Todd – His eventual resurrection did this anyway, but bringing back the character to be Batman’s main adversary makes the death less impactful. For me, Jason Todd is Batman’s greatest failure. It’s a cool progression when you think of the Robins as a whole: Dick Grayson is his greatest success because he became better than Batman; Tim Drake is the eventual heir, because he had exactly what it would take to be Batman; Damian is his true son, his true heir, but he’ll never be Batman; Jason Todd represents the great failure. Jason was not entitled to anything, like Damian, he didn’t earn anything like Tim, and he wasn’t better than Dick Grayson. It became his greatest downfall, attempting to prove himself better than Dick. The choice of Jason and his subsequent loss affects Batman permanently for years. It changes how he takes on sidekicks, how he chooses to train them, how close he allows himself to get to people, and who he allows into his world in the first place. It closes him off from future prospects, it makes him double down on protecting his existing family, like Dick and Barbara. It motivates him in his quest, it serves as a renewal of his vows to his parents who by this point are long gone. As many storytelling opportunities it allows with a living Jason Todd, it serves more character development and allows for even more centered on the psyche of Batman if Jason stays dead.
- It humanizes the Joker – I admit it: I’m not a fan of Jason Todd. As you can tell from the previous paragraph, I preferred he’d stayed dead. I am a huge fan of the Joker. I think he’s a fascinating character and a huge part of that staying power I touched on in the first con. He’s such an all-encompassing character, flexible and moldable. Terrifying in his seeming lack of humanity. Some villains we like because we can relate to them in some way. Darth Vader. Lex Luthor. But the Joker also operates precisely because we don’t relate to him. And to give him Jason Todd’s story, to suddenly make him a man who feels wronged, to give him a personal motivation in his actions, humanizes the Joker, and whether we agree with him or not, we now can see his reasoning, we can see what is now motivating him. It’s still wrong, but it still makes him less interesting. The Joker works because we always have to ask, “Why is he doing this!?” but Jason gives us the answer. It’s why I don’t like origin stories for Joker in general.
So there it is, a crash course into the lives of Jason Todd and The Joker. I’m confident Suicide Squad isn’t planning some big twist reveal of this. Otherwise, again, it operates with the same problems that Arkham Knight did. Knight wanted so badly for this to be the twist of their story, that Jason Todd was the villain all along, that they hid his identity, but then had to show his origin story throughout the proceedings, so we as the player knew who he was during the reveal. Otherwise, there’s no dramatic appeal. Likewise, there’s no dramatic appeal in this character we don’t know being a character we all know. That’s a, “Um… Okay.” moment if I’ve ever heard one.
I’m looking forward to Leto’s Joker. It looks like a really fun, rather unsettling take on the character. Everyone in the trailers so far make me really excited to see. Can he capture the electricity and unnerving, disturbing aura of Heath Ledger? Probably not. But that’s no reason to dismiss him out of hand. There’s room enough in this world for many Jokers. I have every confidence that Leto will nonetheless be a spectacle to behold.