Leto's Joker: More than meets the eye

There has been so much onslaught about this performance. The critical negativity not only, in most cases, comes across down-right unprofessional, it makes a mockery of a talented actor.

Everything from his look and style, his mannerisms, the inflections of his voice, and even his take on the iconic Joker laugh have been placed under an unforgiving microscope.

A ridiculous circus of vultures, with reviews competing with one another on just how bad they can rate his work.

This oscar-winning actor has been subjected to gossip-mongering click-bait, a movie studio who, seemingly, presented his part in Suicide Squad under false pretences, and journalists only doing half the job by presenting a one-sided view.

I'm not here to persuade those who didn't like The Joker to like him. That is your prerogative, and you are entitled to your opinion. I am here, and I write this, to add some balance to the situation, to give those few who thought his performance was a fresh step into a larger universe, a voice.

With that said, here's my take on Leto's Joker and why I believe there was more to him than meets the eye.

To say there was divided opinion on Jared Leto's take of Batman's famed arch-nemesis would be as benign and thoughtless a statement as most of the reviews. The Joker in Suicide Squad was an introduction to the character within the DCEU, as stated by Leto himself and director David Ayer. Although a smaller part than imagined, this mad clown was always destined to be a supporting role.

However, the translation from Leto's work to the theatrical release was tainted; many of his scenes still lie on the cutting room floor of Warner Bros. Studios. With all the excitement and fervour created by his on-set antics, movie goers were disillusioned with the final product, with many hitting out against Leto. While some directed their disgust towards the actor, many chose to step in to add a counter-balance to the argument with their anger turning towards the studio for cutting the scenes for the sake of a PG13 rating.

Despite the online frenzy of deleted scenes, turf wars between the haters and lovers, and the endless comparisons to previous incarnations, one thing was abundantly clear: the critics' negative tone, seated ever so comfortably in their seat of judgement, was going to have the last laugh. The ability to sway an objective mind has become so powerfully easy in the technology age.

Having been a fan of this villain for over 20 years, my mind was set on what I believed The Joker should be like. There had been a bar set, with acclaimed performances preceding it. Yet this reimagining of the 75 year old icon did not live up to them.

The critics didn't believe so either.

My belief however, was the polar opposite of theirs.

By going so far left of anything we've seen before, it forced me to pay attention to the detail. I understand, for some, this may sound facetious, but it is our job as journalists (even a studying one) to dig deeper into a subject than the average viewer.

So permit me, if you will, to share my thoughts on why I liked everything the critics did not.

The Look and Style

Admittedly, when I first saw the tattoos I was drawn back a tad. It was such a different visual to which I was accustom.

Some of my own friends took an instant dislike, disregarding the body art as too 'fan-boy'. I could see their point, as it looked more like Joker fandom than Joker folklore.

Director of Suicide Squad, David Ayer, confirmed to UK outfit Yahoo Movies that each tattoo has an individual story attached.

"The tattoos tell a very specific story. And eventually people will decipher them and understand what's going on," Ayer says.

"But obviously they're contentious, any time you do something new its contentious. There's very specific stories and Easter eggs in those tattoos."

It's clear Ayer and Leto wanted a Joker which had an established history within this universe. Quite frankly, that's something viewers haven't seen from a Joker on the big screen before. Both Nicholson and Ledger's Jokers were, from a viewers perspective, a relatively new presence which menaced the crime world.

Affleck's Batman has 20 years worth of battle scars, reminders of his war against crime that you can visibly see in his pre-superman battle workout in the batcave; a physical representation of the line he walks, so why not have his foil branded with a similar representation?

The tatted smile on his arm, the Killing Joke-esque 'Ha Ha Ha' across his chest, the skull jester, the bat with the knife through it on the left bicep, and the robin with an arrow through it on the opposing bicep, start to paint a picture of a Joker which is fully self-aware and one that understands the power of iconography and symbology.

Criminals have branded themselves for decades, either as a sign of power or standing within the criminal world. So for this Joker to have his triumphs and princely-status on display, made for an interesting choice. Despite having these magical and other-worldly beings present in this universe, Zack Snyder made the precedent of focusing on the human element within these characters. This interpretation of The Joker felt very close to what a criminal, from the world we live in, would be like if tipped over the edge.

The dead robin was an immediate draw card for myself and evoked an instant reaction of wanting to dive into that story. The slick hair reminded me of the Capullo and (Scott) Snyder's Joker from their famed New 52 comics run, and the reveal of A.C.E Chemicals, being the birth of the bleached skin, was a definite plus. Yet the most heavily criticised part of this new style, by both critics and fans alike, was the metal teeth and the 'damaged' tattoo on the forehead.

Taking into account the last few points made, let us say, for arguments sake, that these were purely aesthetic. The 'damage' tattoo can be interpreted in several different ways. Whether it be as simple as how deranged the Joker is, or, according to some fan theories, alluding to another character taking on the mantle of the Clown. The grills, even to me, seemed purely for show. At first, they were an eyesore; a weird thing to behold. After seeing the adjacent smile however, it did start to give off a comic-like glisten to the smile and seemed to stretch it just a bit more. I held my reservations, however the critics did not.

The instant dislike and barrage of hate tweets and comments didn't surprise me in the slightest - disheartening but not surprising, considering the treatment which Batman vs Superman received. What was released by David Ayer after the movies premiere, made this writer crack a maniacal grin.

In an interview with Empire, Ayer explains that "Joker killed Robin and Batman basically smashes his teeth out and locks him up in Arkham Asylum. It’s in the asylum where Joker would have done the ‘damaged’ tattoo as a message to Batman saying, ‘You’ve damaged me. I was so beautiful before and now you’ve destroyed my face.’ That’s where the grill comes from." This is considered canon by the way, and very well could be taken into account in upcoming DCEU projects.

Of course, it was met with mixed reaction and yet this completely blew any complaint out of the water. Much like the stories behind the tattoos, critics had jumped the gun and spoken on things that had not yet materialised.

Their major complaint was it was tacky and unnecessary, but here was a full explanation as to why both are being used. To further the point, it was instigated by, in the critics view, the one shining light in the DCEU - Batman.

Now because this wasn't explained through the narrative of the Suicide Squad story, viewers became disorientated by it. I understand this, but as I have stated before, this is a Joker with a fleshed out backstory already in existence. Not everything is going to be placed on a silver platter right in front of our faces.

This style was never a newly devised construct either. The Joker has had tattoos in the comics, with Mark Hughes explaining his first impression, through his article in Forbes, being closely aligned to Frank Miller's All Star Batman. Considering how heavily Snyder's DCEU vision relies on Miller's work, at least within the Batman world, it makes perfect sense to continue this inspiration.

Even the idea of a broken smile isn't new. In the comic line Birds of Prey, a wheelchair bound Barbara Gordon smashed in Joker's teeth as penance for his crippling shot through her spine.

Everything had been put into place for a fresh style, but perhaps it was asking just a little too much for people to see this for what it is, as opposed to what everyone wanted. As Ayer stated, it was always going to be contentious when you shift such beloved characters in a different direction.

We have been blessed as fans with two live action Jokers before Leto's. Both had varying degrees of excellence in their style and both drew such different personality traits from it. To succumb to critics views of an actors chosen style for the character should not be our first point of call.

This introduction to the iconic, demonic, laughing man, has to be set apart from its brothers in film. The universe, the history the character has within it, and the complexity of a seasoned Joker are all so different. To abandon the character because of the style is folly.

Leto blended modern iconography and symobology into this character, manifesting a physical representation of a criminal who understands the power of theatrics and the old-school stature of an Al Capone, larger than life, crime lord, indulging in all the delights the underworld has to offer. To misinterpret however, that his Joker is not 100% psychopathic would be a mistake. When you mix this look and style with a commanding and unnerving performance, we begin to see the makings of a wolf in sheep's clothing; a purely evil being, masquerading in the opulence of a crime lord.

The Performance

Jared Leto's performance is, and will be, an interest topic for anyone who wishes to approach it.

On the one hand we have a set of viewers saying they wanted more screen-time of his Joker, and on the other hand some wishing he wasn't even screened at all.

What astounds me though, is the most talked about part of his performance is the one we didn't get to see - the deleted scenes, which fans of Suicide Squad have puffed their chests about and held it as their bill of rights; the prime example of a movie studio stifling creativity.

They have a fair point.

With the extended cut of Suicide Squad out now on iTunes, this section will be focused on the performance of the theatrical release. The extended cut will be explored in a later section.

The Joker must be the complete antithesis of what Batman represents, and the actor portraying him must show the viewers this. As I mentioned above, this is the first time viewers are seeing a Joker which is not the up and coming thorn in the Dark Knight's side, but rather the wound which never seems to heal. Since Joker is so heavily linked to the Bat, I can understand people's confusion when they don't see them going head to head. Some fans will argue that Joker's sole purpose in life is to antagonise Batman, yet what David Ayer and Jared Leto did in Suicide Squad was to give the audience a side of Joker we haven't seen - a Clown Prince of Crime which is fully immersed in a world, not completely devoid of Batman, but existing without the consistent battle between them. Although it may seem contradictory to my first statement, I believe this Joker has achieved the antithesis of, and the ability to have his own meaning without, the bat.

I hate to draw comparisons, but for the sake of adding context to how different each Joker is, I will be drawing upon them.

Not since Mark Hamill's brilliantly voiced portrayal in Batman: The Animated Series of 1992 have I seen a Joker which enjoys something other than tormenting Batman. Consequently, this series was also the birth of The Joker's right hand woman Harley Quinn, but I'll get to their relationship in just a bit.

Considering how fragmented his screen time was, Jared Leto certainly had a commanding presence when on screen. Whether you were for his interpretation or against, you certainly couldn't look away; it was mesmerising, uncomfortable, and unnerving - something which did feel inherently Joker.

The inflections in his voice, the laugh, the way he carried himself, and the way he interacted with different characters throughout the movie was a very different dynamic to what I've seen before.

The above YouTube clip, an interview between Jared Leto and BBC Live's Edith Bowman, gave me a great impression on how much work Leto put into the role. His understanding of the psychology of The Joker is, in my view, quite underrated. If you listen to their exchange, he understands the core of what the Clown represents - an animalistic, disgusting human being but highly intelligent at warping situations, and people, to his advantage.

The primal side truly stood out to me.

Maybe not primal in the sense of a hulking gorilla asserting his dominance, but rather a snake, a panther, a pig, the unpredictability of the wild.

It was off-putting, but in the most engaging way.

The very first scene we see Leto's performance in action is the doctor/patient scenario between The Joker and his psychiatrist Dr Harleen Quinzel.

Even with the restraint of the straightjacket, the zoomorphism approach to the character was crystal clear. There was a tone during the exchange which almost felt comforting - creepily comforting.

The following scenes of Joker's escape from Arkham Asylum, and his electroshock torture of Dr Quinzel, highlighted more of the inflections of his voice. It showed the viewers his playful side, but also a seriously disturbed switch that can be triggered.

It was the scenes which proceeded this, where I felt the subtleties of his performance might've escaped the average viewer. Perhaps it was the way his scenes were placed or perhaps, for the sake of PG13, it was too dulled down but critics and fans didn't have that instant connection with Leto like they had with the previous actors. To blame Leto's performance for this disconnection is where I believe the disharmony lies, because there just wasn't enough of it.

The nuance was there. We just needed to look hard enough to find it. Whether we should have to is a question to take up with Warner Bros. Studios, not Jared Leto.

The club scene was an interesting one, as we see another layer of the performance begin to unfold. Yet, specific moments in this scene are again heavily criticised.

Within the first few seconds of switching between Viola Davis' monologue, and Joker and Monster T's meeting, we are exposed to Leto's hands crossed on-top of a cane rejecting the outstretched hand of Common. Even without Jim Parrick's character, Frost, explaining Joker's complete and utter disinterest, Leto has this unnerving fixation on Harley; his eyes unmoved, his posture rigid, in an almost trance-like state.

A very chilly reception, to say the least.

When the hand tattoo covered his face, during his post-dialogue laugh, I couldn't help but have a puzzled look on my face. I found it perplexing that he chose to hide the laugh behind the tattoo, but thinking about why this character would choose to do this gets back to the iconography of what these tattoos represent in this world: the unknown. Perhaps Joker wanted to intentionally creep out Monster T, maybe it was an overt display of dominance reminding him of how and why he tattooed his hand in the first place, or, as I believe, perhaps Leto was trying to get the audience to understand one simple thing - you simply cannot know what he is thinking or why he he acts on his baser impulses.

I'm not completely avoiding the fact that, in some people's eyes, this might come across as over-acting, but I would like to reiterate the fact that the thought process of this Joker is intertwined with the physical embodiment of his tattoos. They are his trophies, his reputation, they are everything which the underworld has heard about but never seen up close; it fits his motivation, and allows these actions to make more sense within the scene.

His psychopathic switch, to do with his "bad bitch", was definitely a highlight. We had humorous elements on display, a complete sociopathic disregard for his relationship with Harley, but what truly stood out was how worked up he was after handing Harley over. You could feel the emotion about to erupt, not because he believed Common's character would try something with Harley but because he wanted him to; he manipulated the environment, and the people within it, all for the end goal of killing Monster T - an almost childlike reaction of lashing out when someone touches something that belongs to you.

All things being equal, the acting within the car irked me. The rolling of the shoulders while laughing, and even the laugh itself, felt overdrawn. Perhaps if the footage which we saw in the trailers - Joker punching the roof - had materialised it would've eased this, but unfortunately it didn't.

It was a nice touch to have no sign of Joker in the car when the Bat dives in, after it careened into the river. It certainly, for the theatrical release, was the first time I questioned the true nature of how Joker perceives his and Harley's relationship.

The scenes which followed were the pivotal points of his performance, and were, in my view, completely and unfairly disregarded. A lot has been said about how the movie was cut and styled but these were done with fantastic precision.

The ending dialogue between Flag and Waller - "I didn't believe the stories", with Davis' response of "nobody does" - was an absolutely brilliant segue into Joker's temple of madness. For a moment, we feel as if we've assumed the role of Frost and caught our boss having an intimate moment with the demons inside his own head. Most of the critics, and even some of my friends, focused on the environment he had created rather than the performance in front of them. The common thread among fans and critics alike was why the Joker would spend the time perfectly placing everything around the room, but my rebuttal to this is: why wouldn't he?

Anyone who is aware of mental illness understands that this iconic, 70 year old villain embodies every single derangement known to the human mind. A very violent obsessive compulsive disorder, psychopathic compulsion, sociopathic demeanour, all of which results in a reality that is nothing more than a joke.

The thing which makes him so different, and such a beloved villain, is that he doesn't fight his mental demons, he embraces them.

Watching Leto writhe around on the ground, I felt I was watching a reversed exorcism; all of the evil thoughts, methods and processes flooding into this terrifying vessel. To outwardly express these emotions is a lot harder than what people give it credit for, and Leto nailed it. His low, docile tone was spot on and filled the cinema with an uneasiness which you couldn't help but smile about - because it is exactly how Joker makes you feel.

When we move to the interrogation of Griggs - a magnificent supporting role played by Ike Barinholtz - we're set with the preconception that Leto's Joker can be unpredictably violent.

The gold jacket appearing on screen, the way he massages Griggs' shoulders and slaps his arms, and the animalistic sizing up of the intended victim were expertly executed. Some were turned off by the pig-like snorting but I liked how laughably disgusting it was. What drew me in about his performance was the way he pounced on Barinholtz's character, and suggestively sat on his lap. This Joker isn't hesitant about getting up close and personal, placing this disgusting human in the position of a loved one makes for a very interesting dynamic. Frank Miller, in his famed comic The Dark Knight Returns, toyed with the idea of Joker having a fluid sexuality. Joker calls Batman darling, insinuating that there was a deeper attraction between the two and added another layer of complexity to this ever evolving character. Not only has this been explored by classic Batman comics, but also in newer iterations as well, with Scott Snyder exploring this in his Death Of The Family comic.

"Desire becomes surrender, surrender becomes power". This is such an important line for Joker to have because it essentially explains, in one sentence, everything I've been breaking down in the last 4 paragraphs.

There is a brilliant moment towards the end of this 'chemical wedding' scene where we see Joker about to walk away and leave Harley to drown in the A.C.E chemicals vat, but right before he does the audience is subjected to a well construct piece of subtle subtext.

Joker kinks his neck, seemingly gets angry at himself and then dives after Harley. These simple movements were done really well by Leto, because, without any words uttered, we as an audience gain a small glimpse inside the character's head. I understood in that moment that Joker was mad at himself for having any type of attachment - romantic or otherwise - to this woman, and it makes you rethink their onscreen relationship; does he actually care, or is he simply growing to like his new plaything?

Joker/Harley relationship & Extended Cut

I wrestled with how to put this down into words but in the end it comes down to an undeniable truth - there was no way we were going to see the relationship we wanted to see because it was always going to be a PG13 film. So with the Joker/Harley relationship, I believe it's down to your own interpretations of the events as to how you view their relationship.

The theatrical release felt very lovely - not something you associate with their relationship - and didn't have that initial recognition of it being an abusive relationship. There were subtle hints which pointed to Mr J really not giving a shit, but there was no way that WB was going to sacrifice kids ticket sales.

Amongst the adult fans of the comics, and the ones who grew up on Batman: The Animated Series, wishing for a truer adaptation, the extended cut did produce a scene which relived some of this grievance.

Harley chasing Joker down in an attempt to profess her love for him was both funny and poignant. Robbie is brilliant at displaying both shades of Harleen and Harley, and her chemistry with Leto in this scene is fantastic to watch.

There are a few key points of Leto's performance which, in my opinion, should've been noticed enough for this scene to stay in the theatrical cut. The first being, he's actually quite funny. The hand over the face trying to ignore Harley as she zooms up besides his purple Lamborghini, the smile he gives as the car comes to a screeching halt in front of her and the "you, you little pain in the ass" line altogether were quite well done. The second being the exchange which followed, with Harley pouring her heart out and Joker letting it leak straight down the drain.

What was important out of this scene for the Harley/Joker connection was the revelation that Mr J had been putting this love stricken woman through her paces; tests, trials, initiations, literally doing whatever he could to get rid of her but she kept coming back. His response to all of this, "I'm an idea, a state of mind", is cool but it's not until Harley kills the trucker in cold-blood that we see what's lurking underneath.

With his own gun to his head he urges Harley to shoot him, and Leto does a fantastic job at escalating the emotion. This was a very important scene because it not only shows the audience a little bit more of Harleen Quinzel and Joker, but it had an element of this character which both previous movie incarnations had: his own death wish.

In both Tim Burton's 1989 Batman and Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, each Joker has a moment where they willingly welcome their own demise and this ties into the fabric of what makes Joker so dangerous. It's not about his complete disregard for his own life, although that is small part of it, but rather the punchline to a killing joke: only after you've taken life, forgoing any rational line of thinking, do understand how little meaning there is in it.

Whats interesting about David Ayer's take on this is that typically this lesson as it at the expense of Batman, so to have Leto's version displaying this to us through Harley Quinn was something which felt familiar but fresh at the same time.

It was one of the stand-out moments in Heath Ledger's Oscar winning performance, and certainly a memorable one from Nicholson too. I don't wish to draw any comparison to the performances but rather contextualise why this scene is such a crucial one, and there's no doubt that it is because it's an incredibly powerful part of Joker's character which needs to be shown to the audience.

People were still going to walk out of that cinema with their own opinion on how Leto did, but if this scene hadn't been cut it would've added some gravitas to the performance. Unfortunately those who edited the film did not grasp or understand why this needed to be in the theatrical release because, unfortunately, by the time everyone got to see the extended cut his performance was already tainted by negative reviews.


If you are still reading this then I want to thank you for reaching it this far, as I understand that long-form opinion pieces are going out of fashion. This character will forever point of great discussion, with people reading into and interpreting it in so many different ways. What we've been falling into, too easily I might add, is chastising anything which is different.

Heath Ledger took up the role of The Joker 19 years after Nicholson's performance, what Leto has done is take up the mantle in just an 8 year gap. Not only is Ledger's performance still fresh in fan's minds but also in critic's. To have the courage to say yes to this is the greatest compliment I can give Jared Leto, because there is no doubt that so many other actors would've run from it but he did not.

What I hope you take away from this lengthy opinion is to not judge someone, or someone's work, because of a knee-jerk reaction. We have to be better than that. By looking into why and how both director and actor chose certain aspects of the character to be on display then you gain a better understanding of what they were trying to achieve.

Was the execution of it perfect? No it wasn't. Was there things I didn't like? Sure, but I made a judgement on what I saw not on what people told me they saw (the irony of this doesn't escape me either).

Leto's Joker was a bold move, and one which I would like to commend.

I hope Warner Bros. and the respective directors in charge of the DCEU come back to Leto for more, because I for one would love to see how far he could take that role.

There's definitely more there than meets the eye.

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