Following Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight was always going to be a tough ask. Still, when director David Ayer picked Oscar winner Jared Leto to portray the Clown Prince of Crime in 2016’s Suicide Squad, the world sat up and took notice. By all accounts—and considering Leto’s pedigree—it was a good, solid choice.
Then, the first image of Leto’s Joker dropped online. The fan reaction was far from positive, but I defended the aesthetic, urging the public to be patient and see if this new look would be addressed in the film. That never happened.
Suicide Squad turned a healthy profit at the box office, but it wasn’t as positively received by critics or fans. While it’s far from the worst movie of all time, the audience could tell the film got cut to shreds in the editing room—including most of the reported Joker footage.
Leto himself bemoaned his lack of screen time and claimed that he’d shot enough footage for another film. In all likelihood, it’s probably true. The fact is, the audience could only judge what they saw on screen—and it was bizarre, to say the least.
At the end of the day, the choice of aesthetic for the Joker was purely for show. Apart from his metal teeth that symbolised a previous battle with Batman, the rest of it made no sense. Yes, the villain is meant to be unpredictable, but the Joker is also vain. It’s highly unlikely he’d tattoo “damaged” on his forehead and attempt to look like an edgelord. The tattoos, earrings and some of the costumes were too much of a departure from the character’s usual style.
After so much talk about Leto’s method acting and getting into character, much was expected of his portrayal of Mr J. Rather than come across as a maniacal madman and unpredictable force of nature, though, he trotted around like a lovesick puppy with little to no impact to the story on screen. Again, what was left behind in the editing room might paint a different picture, but the theatrical version is the official barometer. This wasn’t the Joker anyone expected, as he failed to live up the hype.
Considering how almost every live-action version of the Joker has made a positive impact, Leto’s Joker is now in the same league as George Clooney’s Batman in the sense that he’s the outsider and least-favourite of the lot. While he still has his fans and supporters, he’s become the target of many memes and jokes. And don’t be surprised if he eventually speaks up about the part in the same way that Clooney does now.
Was Leto robbed of a chance to cement himself as a decent Clown Prince? Maybe. He might feel aggrieved, even more so due to Warner Bros. putting its faith in Todd Phillips’ Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the titular character. Reports suggest that Leto wasn’t happy about this film being greenlit in the first place and did his best to get it canned. Whether it’s true or not, only the actor’s camp and Warner Bros. know the whole truth and what went down.
One thing’s for sure, though, his time is done. After the success of Joker, there’s no way that Warner Bros. will want to revisit Leto’s version of the character. Even if Phillips’ film’s content proved controversial in some circles, no one can deny the quality that Phoenix brought to the role. He’ll likely be nominated for major awards, while that’s something no one would ever say about Leto’s Joker.