Long before the role was even cast, the Joker of the DC Extended Universe had big shoes to fill (and not just because he's a clown). After the late Heath Ledger's Oscar winning performance in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight redefined the iconic villain for a new generation of Batman fans, any decision made going forward with the character was sentenced to heightened scrutiny from fans and critics alike. Casting an Oscar-winning actor like Jared Leto seemed like a good direction to take; Leto was known for his versatility and commitment to his craft and, after being handed a debut role in Suicide Squad, he enthusiastically threw himself into the lofty task of being the most famous villain in comic book history
Leto's dedication to preparing for the role created numerous headlines, with reports that he had delved so deep into the character that it scared his fellow cast mates. This focus on method acting as promotion - wherein Leto was said to have sent disgusting gifts to the cast and crew - raised many eyebrows, and the entire process seemed even more inexplicable when the film was released and audiences saw just how little the Joker actually appeared in the film.
The character was given less than 15 minutes screen-time altogether (but the lion’s share of promotional and marketing coverage), and was coolly received by audiences and critics - in part because he was so inconsequential to the plot of the film. Joker is not the main villain of Suicide Squad- indeed, he is completely unconnected to the central conflict of the story that his scenes could be removed entirely without affecting the rest of the narrative. Leto has said that "there were so many scenes that got cut from the movie I couldn’t even start," and in a semi-apology to audiences for the film, director David Ayer admitted that, given the chance the redo the film, “I’d make the Joker the main villain.”
Suicide Squad's Joker may have been a misstep, but there are still plenty of chances to rectify the mistake and offer a take on the character that’ll satisfy fans and storytellers alike. Like Batman himself, The Joker has seen dozens of incarnations throughout Gotham’s decades long history. He has taken a variety of forms, from campy trickster to mutilated psychopath and everything in between. Much in the same way Batman can be molded to suit a storyteller’s preferred tone and intent, the Joker can be similarly crafted to offer the perfect foil to Gotham’s finest. Suicide Squad struggles with this idea on two levels: one, The Joker offered in the story is at odds with the confusing attempts to establish a consistent tone, and two, Leto’s Joker has no real interactions with Ben Affleck’s Batman outside of one rushed flashback.
Leto's Joker could be an interesting foil to Batman – a sleazy tattooed gangster with a focus on style is certainly a fresh take on the character – but it’s a role struggling to find a place in a story with no discernible style of its own. If the DCEU is to keep Leto on board as this particular Joker, it needs a surrounding film that suits him. The flashy neon paint job of Suicide Squad was a hastily added footnote to try and add levity to a grim, grey movie, and it didn’t stand up to scrutiny, but making an entire movie in that style – brash, vibrant, chaotic and rave-like – would offer Leto an opportunity to truly show what he’s made of. Keeping this Joker would offer the DCEU another means to lighten its tone, something that is seemingly already happening with the upcoming Justice League. There is always room for humor in the world of Batman and cohorts, and even at his most insidious the Joker can be very funny - as evidenced by Heath Ledger’s performance.
However, given Leto’s open disappointment with the cuts made to his character, and Warner Bros.’ continuing troubles holding onto directors for the DCEU, it’s possible that Leto may simply decide to bow out of the role. If that happens, Warner Bros. should take the opportunity and run with it. Multiple Jokers have existed in canon together, and the films could easily keep Suicide Squad in continuity simply by having Leto’s Joker die and be replaced by a new boss of the underworld.
A new Joker would allow the DCEU to establish a proper foe for Affleck’s Batman that fits with the tone of the world, and there are plenty of versions from the comic books to use as inspiration. There’s the lascivious paragon of ‘super-sanity’ as presented by Grant Morrison in Arkham Asylum; the pill popping agent of chaos violently reclaiming his empire in Brian Azzarello's one-off graphic novel, The Joker; the demonic psychopath wearing his own sliced-off face depicted in Scott Snyder's tenure as Batman writer. The latter seems like a natural fit for the Zack Snyder commandeered movie universe, where the tone remains suitably bleak and Batman has already been established as being violently driven himself. The DCEU may have limited its own storytelling potential by sticking to such a specific tone and narrative, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t various options open for them to explore with established characters.
While Leto has teased a possible return to the DCEU, nothing has been confirmed, and Warner Bros. has many other problems to deal with before they can even consider solving a problem like The Joker. Gotham City Sirens has been confirmed, with David Ayer directing, and that could present a sturdy opportunity for the character to stretch his wings and be established as a villain worth fearing. Whatever the case, there’s much the DC Universe can do to make their Joker worthy of his legacy, and have him rise above a bad introduction.
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