By the time this post goes live, the chances are solid that Joker will have made over $600 million worldwide in just under three weeks of its worldwide debut. For an R-rated title surrounded by controversy that isn’t part of a larger cinematic universe, that’s a highly impressive gross for Warner Bros. to brag about. The movie has inspired the usual conversations about DC, the eponymous character, and their respective places in the modern pop-cultural lineage. Everyone has done their ‘Which Joker is best’ rankings, myself included, and while there are cases to be made for various actors who have donned the clown make-up, one constant remains: Jared Leto is the Worst Joker. He is to the clown prince of crime what Chris Pratt is to the ranking of Chris glory. Seasons may change, winter to spring, but Jared Leto’s Joker will always suck.
The Hollywood Reporter recently claimed that Leto felt ‘alienated and upset’ by the news that Warner Bros. planned to make a solo Joker movie with Joaquin Phoenix and not himself. While news did swirl for a while that Leto would get his own movie, one that would be part of the DCEU, as well as a Joker/Harley story with Margot Robbie, those plans have disappeared from the ether, but it’s doubtful that they were ever rooted in reality. He is technically still the Joker of the DC extended universe, but there seem to be no plans to include him in future movies. Harley Quinn will lead Birds of Prey in a story that follows her life after her break-up from Mister J. On-set images showing the shooting of a scene where the Joker tosses Harley’s clothes out the window used a double rather than bring in Leto for the day. Clearly, the studio isn’t enthusiastic about allowing him to establish his status on the franchise. It’s doubtful he’ll appear in the upcoming Robert Pattinson Batman movie too. Really, if news were to break tomorrow that Leto was out as the Joker, nobody would be surprised and I doubt anyone would truly care.
How did this happen? How did an Oscar-winning actor’s turn as the most iconic villain in comic book history become so derided in such a short amount of time?
By the time Leto was cast as the Joker, there were two major narratives in play: One, that to play the Joker was to make an inevitable descent into terror and mental anguish, as shown by the tragic death of Heath Ledger; and two, that Leto was a Serious Actor who practiced the Method. Long before Suicide Squad was even announced, the weight of expectation on the actor to follow in Ledger’s footsteps was mighty but more daunting than that was the burden of tragedy that so many feared yet secretly seemed to crave. It would be a toxic combination under any circumstances, but with Leto at the helm, he and his studio willingly leaned into the narrative in the hopes of gaining acclaim. Suffice to say that it didn’t work.
Leto won his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Dallas Buyers Club, where he played a trans woman sex worker living with HIV during the height of the AIDS epidemic. It’s not a bad performance but it is one that aged very poorly in a staggeringly short amount of time. Of course, the Academy has never rewarded the best performances so much as it rewards the biggest performances, the ones with the most acting and the most obvious display of labor. Leto lost a lot of weight, he played a trans woman dealing with sickness, and his team repeated the anecdote of his audition, wherein the director didn’t know it was Leto, at every possible opportunity. His win seemed dishearteningly inevitable, even as the trans community spoke out about the clichés of the performance and the narrative created for the character by cis writers and directors. Yet Leto got his Oscar and thus strengthened his own legend as a ‘committed method actor’, something that he’d tried and failed with when playing Mark David Chapman in the easily forgotten drama Chapter 27.
Leto carried that narrative into the Joker, but it wouldn’t have happened or felt so inevitable if the lore surrounding the part hadn’t become what it did. Heath Ledger’s death was instantly tied to his supposed all-consuming dedication to playing the part perfectly in The Dark Knight. All stories of his warm sense of humor, the fun times he had on set, and the person he was for the majority of his life was discarded once it became more convenient to position him as a sacrificial lamb to the craft of acting and the hypnotic allure of the Joker. The posthumous Oscar win gave Warner Bros. an excuse to use these archaic notions for future gain, but the media were also happy to contribute. So was Leto.
The thing about figuring out the awfulness of Leto’s Joker is that you spend the vast majority of your time talking about things other than the performance. That’s partly because he’s only in Suicide Squad for about 11 minutes but it’s mostly due to the fact that Leto, Warner Bros., and the movie’s extended cast and crew made audiences sick of him before they saw a second of screen-time. By now, the stories of Leto’s ‘commitment’ to the part and his on-set bullsh*t are near legendary. We’ve all heard the tales: The rats, the dead pig delivered to the cast, the used anal beads, the in-character antics of questionable workplace safety, and so on. Will Smith claimed he never met Leto himself because he was always THE JOKER when they interacted. The cast talked up the emotional and mental strain of working on such a dark movie, to the point where therapists were on-call if needed. Actors going in deep on a role is something we have a lot less patience for now than when it was the guaranteed way to win an Oscar. Leto seriously tried that patience and seemingly crossed so many lines that he only further exposed how often ‘method acting’ seems like code for workplace health violations.
I’m not sure audiences would have necessarily forgiven Leto’s nonsense had Suicide Squad been good or if his performance had been exemplary, but it certainly didn’t help him when both were just god-awful. Promises of a super-bleak and grimy anti-hero movie were replaced with cheap neon overlays and the most obvious music cues committed to celluloid. Leto is notoriously not in the film for very long and his part is so inconsequential that you could cut out all his scenes and nothing would change. What we do get from him is a muddled attempt at gangster cool and noir-style psycho. He’s dressed like a Juggalo without the home-made charm. Everything is too neat, too flashy, too obviously styled for a man who is supposed to embody chaos (for a Joker compared so often to the stereotypical Florida Man, he seriously lacked the prerequisite anarchy of that trope). I still struggle to imagine a Joker with the patience and aesthetic co-ordination to get all those tattoos. Of course. The tattoos. It’s handy he had ‘damaged’ scrawled across his forehead because I never would have known otherwise.
The Joker of Suicide Squad is also romantic. The film is unnervingly into the idea of the Joker/Harley mad love narrative, one that’s well-worn from the comics but has always been the least interesting version of both characters. The camera gawks at Margot Robbie’s Harley like she’s a sexy lamp, making it obvious how uninterested the story is in exploring the deeper aspects of her relationship with a psycho. Their driving motivation seems to be that they both look cool (which is debatable) and that’s all they need to be. This Joker is the embodiment of those ‘Sweet but psycho’ wall stickers you see on Etsy. It’s not especially interesting or threatening but is still super unsettling in terms of what that story seeks to normalize. Given how much DC wanted to position Harley as their kick-ass anti-heroine, it weakened their case to have her devoted to a Joker who was simultaneously bad news and kind of a drip. There’s a reason he probably won’t be in Birds of Prey.
My friend and podcast co-host Sarah Marrs of Lainey Gossip (listen to The Hollywood Read now wherever you get your podcasts!) theorized that every generation gets the Joker that speaks to the times they live in. Ledger’s Joker is a creature of indiscriminate chaos during a time of economic uncertainty, while Jack Nicholson’s was a bombastic figure of the post-Reagan era who used consumerism to launch his most effective attacks, and Joaquin Phoenix’s is a creature of nihilism and meme-friendly allure. What does Leto’s Joker represent? A drive for style over substance? A desire for coolness above all else? I’m not sure, and that may be one of the major reasons he’s aged so poorly in less than three years. He’s a big chunk of nothing at a time when we needed more. Also, we just needed him to stop being such a d*ck.
Header Image Source: YouTube // Warner Bros.