Jared Leto may just have the last laugh. When news of his casting in the upcoming Suicide Squad movie first came out, it’s fair to say it wasn’t greeted with the warmest of welcomes. Fan reaction these days sometimes brings out the worst in people, but the tide of criticism in places like this and this, was so great that maybe, just maybe, they were right. Measured against the previous incarnations of the character, the initial images were much different, and people naturally fear change. Leto then gave them something more to fear: himself.
Almost sneaking into the end of the Suicide Squad trailer, Leto’s appearance and demeanour all of a sudden had the internet alight – mostly with people backtracking on their initial derision. Indeed, some quarters were so fulsome in their praise (here and here being examples), that the new Joker was now a legitimate threat. So what changed? What made the same people who were disgusted by the tattoos and teeth grills, now excited to see how this version of the world’s most evil clown turn out?
To do that, you have to examine what defines the Joker, and it’s the same thing that has defined every incarnation of the character on screen. From Cesar Romero’s camp clown, to Jack Nicholson’s slimy gangster, to Heath Ledger’s anarchic manipulator, to Mark Hamill’s hilarious lunatic, each one has taken his identity from his relationship with his nemesis: Batman.
Leto’s take has yet to interact with Ben Affleck’s new Dark Knight, but his first appearance, with mannerisms taken more or less directly from Scott Snyder’s comic book version in DC’s New 52, indicates that he’ll be a cackling, hyena-like counterpoint to Affleck’s hulking, brooding vigilante. It’s that crazed look, the barbed wire voice, and the fresh take on the iconic laugh that has overtaken the criticism that came with the first picture. He’s the complete opposite to the Batman that’s being built into DC’s new Extended Movie Universe (that’s official terminology now), and that is the true hallmark of success.
It also helps that The Joker’s sidekick, Harley Quinn, is also a part of this continuity, and the fact that in some way, he’s involved with the death of a Robin (as seen in the Batman v Superman trailer). Both of those things help legitimise his threat in the eyes of comic books fans, for whom both examples are now synonymous with The Joker himself.
But it’s the way in which The Joker interacts with Batman that takes him to the next level. Too comedic, and he becomes a parody. Too dark, and he differs so little from Batman that he stops being his opposite. It makes him just another psycho, one that Batman can deal with just as he would a Riddler or a Two-Face.
Each incarnation of The Joker embodies the things that Batman can’t be. Take for example, the 1966 version, where Cesar Romero’s Clown Prince of Crime derives itself from the earliest printed works of the character. Coming from a far more innocent age, Romero’s Joker came up with bizarre schemes like turning Gotham’s water supply to jelly, and trying to catapult Batman into an exploding octopus. But that merely reflected what Adam West was doing with the Caped Crusader. The camp, retro setting meant that Batman was just as likely to be disco dancing and foiling a criminal plot – The Joker just took it that bit further. Batman would leave the dancefloor if someone was in danger – The Joker would carry on grooving.
Little was discussed about Romero’s version, other than he had been a hypnotists in his youth, but exploring the backstory of Jack Napier, who would go on to be Jack Nicholson’s Joker was a crucial part of Tim Burton’s 1989 film. An arrogant gangster who believed the world was his to take, his vanity is shattered when he is scarred by a dip in a vat of chemicals after a brawl with Batman. Driven insane, he incorporates the mob side of his previous personality into his new persona, making this Joker a gangster. Sharp suited, well coiffed and with an appreciation of the finer things in life, Nicholson’s interpretation was as much an embodiment of him as it was the character. And here again, his relationship with The Dark Knight adds to the character.
Michael Keaton’s Batman is grim and tortured, bordering on psychopathic himself (even hinted at by Vicki Vale in the latter part of the movie). Here though, intelligence and identity are their common factors – and the ones that define their interaction. Both men show that they are far from caricatures. This Batman is a detective, solving the Joker’s chemical plot and deducing his identity, while Napier’s alter ego is refined enough to appreciate art, and has an advanced degree in chemistry. When The Joker challenges Batman to unmask, it’s not an empty threat, as he has already “unmasked” himself – he’s daring Batman to be more like him. Even if it’s a deception, it ties in with The Joker wanting Batman to let go and be like him, to meet him on equal ground. Batman though resists, and it’s the degree of temptation that makes the relationship all the more watchable. Their final confrontation, emphasises their similarities and differences – hence the line “I made you, you made me first”.
Everything that was present in Nicholson’s Joker though, is absent from Heath Ledger’s depiction of a man who just plainly doesn’t care if the whole world burns. Updated for a more modern, cynical age, Ledger’s sadly solitary outing reinvents the character, but again leans heavily on his nemesis to emphasise how much of a threat he is. By the time Ledger’s anarchist is introduced in the second of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Batman has been solving problems his way – through force. If there’s one criticism of Christian Bale’s version of Bruce Wayne, it’s that the detective skills of Batman don’t show through enough, and the character is more likely to bludgeon his way through an enemy than outsmart him. Ledger’s Joker was there to change that. He was a villain who couldn’t be intimidated or bartered with. He couldn’t have information beaten out of him, or buckle under physical torture. In the face of that, Bale’s Batman is suddenly inadequate.
Ledger’s character also forces Batman out of his comfort zone, makes him do things that he wouldn’t have considered doing before, and manipulates him into becoming what he dreads – a figure of public hate. He comes up with a plot so visceral, and covers his tracks so well, that Batman has to violate the privacy of everyone in Gotham by tapping into their mobile phones to find him. Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox is appalled, and chastises Batman for pushing the boundaries of the law he strives to uphold. Again, it’s an effective demonstration of how far Batman will go to fight The Joker, but The Joker will always go further. It’s sadly prophetic that amongst Ledger’s last words in the movie are:
You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness, and I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.
Depicting The Joker on the big screen is, as we’ve proved so far, no easy task. Not only do you have to get the look right, there’s the mannerisms, the facial ticks, the fashion sense, and crucially, the laugh. But what would happen if a Joker was free from perfecting on all those facets, and could concentrate purely on the personality of the character?
Mark Hamill was, and still is, afforded that opportunity. Some even call him the definitive depiction of The Joker, voicing him in Batman: The Animated Series and it’s associated spin offs, and the critically acclaimed Arkham Trilogy of video games by Rocksteady. For the man who once portrayed the ultimate good guy in Luke Skywalker, Hamill’s transition into The Dark Knight’s nemesis via animation cell has been adept, and terrifying. Hamill’s Joker mixes in elements of all the above, capturing the campy tone, but hideously marrying it alongside murderous killing sprees. He dresses and intimidates like Nicholson’s mobster and loses his mind as frequently as Ledger’s anarchist. Watching the interviews with the show’s creators here, you can see both the enthusiasm and creativity Hamill brought to the role, and the diverse range of characterisation he gave to the laughing assassin.
Again, his interaction with “his” Batman, voiced here by Kevin Conroy, is the foundation on which the character’s personality is built. This Batman is a haunted, brooding vigilante, who prides himself on being able to escape any situation, deduce any crime, and guarding his city with his life. Hamill responds with a Joker that treats Batman as a counterpart, the yin to his yang, and enjoys trying to get him to laugh once in a while. The superb episode “The Man Who Killed Batman”, where a low level mobster is thought to have murdered The Dark Knight, features a comedy funeral for Conroy’s character, with a darkly hilarious eulogy by The Joker:
Dear friends…Today is the day that the clown cried. And he cries not for the passing of one man, but for the death of a dream. The dream that he would someday taste the ultimate victory over his hated enemy. For it was the Batman who made me the happy soul I am today. How I agonized over the perfect way to thank him for that. Perhaps with a cyanide pie in the face. Or an exploding whoopee cushion playfully planted in the Batmobile. But those dreams were dashed by the weasely little gunsel sitting there in our midst. The cowardly insignificant ganef who probably got lucky when Batman slipped on the slime trail this loser left behind him. This mound of diseased hyena filth who’s not fit to lick the dirt from my spats!… But I digress. The time for sorrow has passed. It’s time to look ahead to a future filled with smiles. And I’ll be smiling again just as soon as we take that man there and slap him in that box there, and roll him into that vat of acid there!
Hamill’s work was so strong, that when it came to voice actors for Rocksteady’s video games based around Batman, there was only one natural choice. Hamill’s lines are delivered so precisely and in keeping with the slightly more demonic tone of this Joker, that it’s easy to see why he’s generally considered to stand alongside his cinematic brethren.
It’s therefore safe to say that Leto has a lot to live up to, but if he puts his own spin on the character, maybe turning that backlash that arrived after the first pictures of him into smiles on the faces of all those who doubted him. If he fails, it won’t kill his career, but it will hurt it. Really, really bad.