An Actor, A Director, And An Untenable Situation Walk Into A Bar…

You’ve got to be fucking kidding.
That was my first reaction when I saw the above pic, released yesterday, of Jared Leto as The Joker in DC/Warner’s upcoming Suicide Squad. How could they be so tone deaf? Was writer/director David Ayer out of his mind? Look at that fucking thing. Who signed off on this hot mess of faux-edginess and snide metatextuality (clock the “ha ha ha” tattoos – very clever, I think not) DC’s “dark and edgy” mandate has led them to screw the pooch one again.
As you can see, I was being a bit of an entitled fanboy dickhead, just like everyone else on the internet. 
Now I’ve had a little time to breathe and think,I’ve reassessed my position,and while I still don’t think Leto’s Joker look is all that crash hot (as my buddy, comedian Anna Piper Scott, said, he looks like someone inspired by The Joker, not the actual Joker), a quick assessment of the situation might lead us to that most treasured of shared experiences, a great big group unbunching of our panties. We are all getting bent out of shape over very little here. 
For the uninitiated, Suicide Squad is an upcoming movie set for release in 2016, that shares the same setting as Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel and the upcoming Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice. It’s being written and directed by David Ayer, who wrote Training Day and directed, among other things, Street Kings and Fury, and the central conceit is essentially the DC Universe version of The Dirty Dozen: super criminals do extremely dangerous covert missions for the US government in exchange for clemency. DC/Warner are basically using it to rapidly expand their onscreen superhero universe (and with a pretty good cast, too – apart from Leto, the film stars Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman and Jai Courtney) and while that is a bit of a gamble, it’s an interesting move. 
But then there’s this Joker thing.
In the cinematic world, at least, the character has been left on the shelf since Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning 2008 performance in The Dark Knight, and for fairly obvious reasons. DC/Warner had to deal with the double barrel problem of not only figuring out how to re-use the character without seeming disrespectful following Ledger’s death, but also following up after what many consider to be the definitive onscreen portrayal of the character. 

So they’ve got themselves a pretty monstrous damned-if-you-do kind of situation on their hands, with a valuable and popular character whose use was always going to attract controversy, but now that they’ve pulled the trigger, let’s really take a look at what’s going on here with Leto’s Joker.

For one thing, the common (and accurate) criticism that DC/Warner have gone too grim ‘n’ gritty with their films of late can’t really be leveled here: it’s a bit disingenuous to complain that they’ve gone too dark with their portrayal of a psychopathic serial killer in a movie about a team of supervillain mercenaries. This is not another Man Of Steel debacle; David Ayer can pretty much go as dark as he wants here, ratings parameters notwithstanding.

What is surprising is how clearly Ayer’s authorial voice is represented in the debut Joker image, given how precious the studio has been with their superhero IP. Ayer’s work is steeped in LA street culture, and he has a long-held fascination with Hispanic gangs – Harsh Times is probably the best example of that, but it’s prevalent in almost all his work. The tattoos, the grill, the attitude: that image isn’t just Leto’s Joker, it’s Ayer’s Joker – the killer clown as a zero-fucks-given gangbanger.

What it isn’t is a simple retread or parallel of Ledger’s Joker, and let’s all breathe a sigh of relief for that. Whether or not you think the new design is the right choice, it’s unarguable that copying the previous iteration would have been the wrong one. We should also keep in mind the very vocal backlash against Ledger’s casting back in ’08, which peaked with the release of what was, at the time, a pretty underwhelming first image. Ledger and the character’s design were seen as a radical swing away from the orthodox interpretation of the character, much like… well, let’s face it, much like what we’re seeing here. The irony is palpable.

Besides, is there really an indelible, core interpretation of The Joker? And if there is, which is it? Romero? Nicholson? Ledger? Hamill? Or do we go to the comics, where we get to choose from versions by Kane, Miller, O’Neill, Adams, Azarello, and so on. The character has been around for 75 years now and has passed through the hands of a staggering number of creators. Who’s your Joker? And why is he more valid than any other?

The Joker has been everything from a goofy prankster to an irredeemable monster and all points in between. Now he’s a juggalo-lookin’ psycho. Why the hell not? Pop culture is infinitely vast, infinitely flexible – there’s plenty of room for a left-of-field Joker. Personally, I’m not sold on this interpretation – but I’m happy to be convinced. Still, I can’t help thinking that if this were an Elseworlds title, we’d all be applauding.

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