Sharpen your pitchforks, fellas, because here’s a hell of a hot take.
Todd Phillips’ Joker became an instantaneous flashpoint: seizing on the zeitgeist of rising male mental health issues and suicide rates, the degradation of social cohesion in western cities, and the increasing frequency of anarcho-communist protests erupting into street violence. It was peerless for its prevalence; a poster child for the prevention of art governed by committee, and free from studio intervention. It overshadowed even the box-office behemoth Avengers: Endgame as 2019’s most memorable contribution to the culture.
Whilst Phillips opted against a traditional comic-book incarnation of the Harlequin of Hate, pulling instead from Scorsese films Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance nevertheless encapsulated the character’s apolitical anarchistic philosophy, and nebulous, unreliable origins.
Suicide Squad is an exemplary polarity: a diametric, bastardised product of studio malfeasance, with tonal inconsistencies and opaque intrusions of marketing strategies into its narrative. Director David Ayer was forced to conduct extensive script augmentation, in addition to post-production editorial censorship of mature elements, to remove the connective tissue the movie had to Zack Snyder’s grand DCEU vision. It’s a butchered film, made all the more aggravating by its transparent and unfulfilled potential.
Following the resurgence of the Snyder Cut movement (of which I have been a proud and vocal advocate), Ayer has drip-fed details concerning his original vision to the DC fans who cherish nostalgia for that fateful Comic Con day in 2015 when the first trailer debuted.
Additional concept art (sourced from the Twitter thread which Ayer used to confirm Apokolips’ inclusion in the story) tells us that a very different version of the film was to exist. The Incubus (the giant CGI mini-boss Enchantress had El Diablo fight) was intended to be Steppenwolf, making first contact with Earth following his interaction with Lex Luthor inside the Kryptonian ship in Batman V. Superman. The “Eyes of the Adversary” (the magic-corrupted citizens of the city the Squad crash-landed in) were Parademons.
— Richard Bullivant #ReleaseTheSnyderCut (@BullyBullivant) November 24, 2018
— Richard Bullivant #ReleaseTheSnyderCut (@BullyBullivant) November 24, 2018
Was Enchantress originally a Priestess from Apokalypse?
— Richard Bullivant #ReleaseTheSnyderCut (@BullyBullivant) November 25, 2018
— Richard Bullivant #ReleaseTheSnyderCut (@BullyBullivant) November 25, 2018
— Richard Bullivant #ReleaseTheSnyderCut (@BullyBullivant) November 25, 2018
This is right. Enchantress was under the control of a mother box and Steppenwolfe was prepping an invasion with a boom tube. Had to lose that then the JL story arcs evolved. https://t.co/pSAag9rpZq
— David Ayer (@DavidAyerMovies) November 25, 2018
However—despite its unsalvageable plot—the film contained a few enjoyable scenes, and some comic-accurate characters (Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, Will Smith’s Deadshot, Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flag, and Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller) who will return (except Smith) in James Gunn’s indirect sequel The Suicide Squad (2021). But the greatest casualty of Suicide Squad’s botched augmentations was the Clown Prince of Crime himself: Jared Leto’s rendition of the Joker.
Ayer has expressed regret at sidelining Joker, and making him the primary antagonist. Despite this, it’s clear from interviews that Ayer filmed plenty of Joker footage: Leto professes to shooting enough to make a 90 minute Joker movie. But, from the five to ten minutes made available to us in the theatrical and “extended” (a farcical application of the term) cuts, Leto was raked over the critical coals for his and Ayer’s interpretation.
From his first photograph’s release online, critiques poured in over the tattoos: from the subtler “dead Robin” on his right bicep, to the egregious and indefensible “Damaged” plastered across his forehead, in a manner more faithful to Post Malone than the Jester of Genocide. His silver-capped grill drew less ire, theorised to be consequential of Batman’s brutal beatings after Jason Todd’s death. However, when incongruous timelines rendered that explanation impossible—as it was present before Harleen’s transformation into Harley, and this Harley was complicit in Robin’s murder—they were condemned as an unnecessary alteration.
At this point, you may be thinking that I mistitled this piece: after all, all I’ve done is rallied in Phoenix’s favour, and highlighted the general audience’s poor reception of Leto’s performance. However, like The Batman (2004), The New 52 (Snyder, Capullo, 2011-2016), Gotham (Cameron Monaghan), and Phoenix’s redesigns, I value Leto’s Joker as a transformative, and undeniably impactful, version of the Joker, and we are under served by not seeing more of his performance.
Let me explain.
Leto—despite controversial aesthetic choices—embodies a quintessential component of Joker’s psychology: his super-sanity. Grant Morrison (Batman, 2007-2011; Batman Incorporated; Final Crisis) introduced the idea in Batman: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, amalgamating elements of Carl Jung’s archetypal ‘Trickster’ figure from mythology, and the corrupting hyper-intellectualism of the Dark Feminine figures in tragedies (Lady Macbeth, etc.), into Joker’s possession of a higher realm of brain function which we perceive as irrationality.
Tricksters satirise the socio-cultural status quo through foolery and practical comedy, using the guise of idiocy or madness to mask their insight. Any critiques which risked invoking the ire of censors could be passed off by authors as incoherent babble from an insane character. The Fool in King Lear, for example, allowed Shakespeare to evaluate England’s system of hereditary monarchy, with immunity to Elizabeth I’s Master of Revels decommissioning the play.
The Joker’s radical brand of Tricksterism transgresses even Tricksters’ few rules of amorality. To make his anti-establishment mockery all the more emphatic, Joker engages in acts of criminal depravity. Joker crippled Batgirl, and murdered the second Robin, Jason Todd. In this regard, he aligns himself closer to Joseph Campbell’s recurrent “demonic clowns” in world mythology than Shakespeare’s fools. Perhaps, then, it’s no coincidence that he couples nudity with revelation for Commissioner Gordon in in Alan Moore’s Killing Joke, as does the Serpent in Genesis; or that the telephone number to vote to kill Robin in A Death in the Family ended in 666.
This super-sanity allows Joker to possess a metatextual awareness of DC’s entire continuity, repeatedly speaking to the audience and referencing past events in now-overwritten continuity. He remembers augmentations to continuity, like the Dark Multiverse and pre-Flashpoint in Dark Knights Metal, and a non-canonical crossover with Spider-Man referenced in the subsequent DC vs. Marvel event. He’s broken the fourth-wall in the first episode of The Batman (2004), turned the page in Strange Apparitions, and told artists to stop drawing Batman. Snyder and Capullo’s Batman: Endgame suggested he transcends temporality as a Pennywise-like entity: Gotham’s ‘Pale Man.’
This evidence seems to correlate with the theory that Joker’s super-sanity is his ability to know he exists inside a comic book. This would explain his murder of Jason Todd, and t-shirt worn to boast it in Batman: Hush, as a metatextual fulfillment of voting readers’ bloodlust. He’s gone so far before as addressing the reader as his audience, and stating to Arkham psychologists that his actions are purely performative and done for their (our) amusement. The grand joke is that Joker isn’t responsible for his crimes: they are necessary to the plot, and all his victims are fictional. Without Joker, stories involving Batman wouldn’t exist at all. He’s aware of how many jobs he’s created, readers he’s captivated, and decades of culture he’s participated in shaping. That these “heroes” would ruin that with his imprisonment is truly ironic.
Attempts to render him “sane” by the Lazarus Pit, Martian Manhunter, Harley Quinn, or even his voluntary reformation in Batman: Going Sane, has resulted in the triumph of Joker’s “insanity.” Perhaps this is out of necessity: Joker understands his reversion to murderous madness is necessary for the comic to continue. Martian Manhunter would think these thoughts about this to be incongruous with reality. Joker’s breakdown after Batman’s supposed demise in Going Sane would be justified, as it would seem impossible for a comic to kill off its titular character.
Leto’s Joker epitomises this version of the character, which evolved out of DC’s ‘Dark Age,’ the 1980s. With Morrison, Moore, and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Joker became a flamboyant aesthete with an insatiable appetite for self-reinvention. This was inspired by David Bowie’s chameleonic showmanship (particularly his ‘Thin White Duke’ persona, which Joker incorporated into his Grant Morrison Batman personality ‘The Thin White Duke of Death’). Morrison had planned Arkham Asylum’s Joker to be a transvestite, wearing black leather and lingerie in mimicry of Madonna’s music videos; DC’s editors, however, prevented this, fearing Jack Nicholson’s tough-talking image would be conflated with Morrison’s sexually dimorphic version when Nicholson was to play Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman that same year.
Joker retained some sexualised and androgynous aesthetics, wearing lipstick and heels in Dark Knight Returns, and Prince’s ‘89 Batman song ‘Batdance’ containing allusions to sexuality and sadomasochism. This culminated in Joker, as Morrison described in his semi-autobiographical book Supergods, possessing a ‘camp and decadent Weimar-era’ degeneracy congruent throughout DC’s 80s graphic novels.
Leto’s Joker’s design emulates this reinventive flair. Ayer chose his haircut from Snyder/Capullo’s Batman: Endgame, and his tattoos both resemble Frank Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin, and pastiche contemporary popular culture. Ayer chose—whether correctly or not— modern gangster rap’s lauding of materialism, indulgence, and casual illegality as the equivalent to the 80s’ glam-rock showmanship which inspired Morrison and Miller’s reinventions (with Rick Ross rapping this Joker’s theme). His scene-shifting wardrobe mirrors numerous outfits: the trench coat and suspenders from Morrison’s Batman run; tuxedo from Endgame; silver/red suit from the white/purple in Dark Knight Returns; and cane from Strange Apparitions.
This all results in different movie and television incarnations being metatextually incorporated into the tapestry of Joker’s multi-media existence. In Killing Joke, Joker puts his philosophical understanding of his laughably meaningless world as contingent on his patchwork memory: his ‘multiple choice’ past is what ‘reason is based upon.’ Therefore, wild variations in characterisation are congruent with Joker’s character. Romero, Hamill, DiMaggio, Nicholson, Ledger, Monaghan, Phoenix, and, yes, Leto, are all congruent with Joker’s composite continuity. His personality is a shattered mirror, slowly recomposed with bloodied palms into a distorted reflection of the man who may once have fallen into a chemical vat wearing a crimson cowl.
Which brings us to Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn.
Joker and Harley’s relationship is the crux of Suicide Squad. Unlike in the comics, where Joker’s abusiveness and disinterest is explicit, Suicide Squad amalgamates physical harm inflicted onto Harley (an electroshock lobotomy and swan-dive at Ace Chemicals) with a morally ambiguous, emotionally entangled relationship which dilates between one-sided and reciprocated infatuation.
A chronological dissection of what petty few Joker and Harley scenes we were treated to should illustrate my point.
Amanda Waller’s opening dossier montage, as she pitches the squad to David Harbour’s Dexter Tolliver, describes Harley as an accomplice to the murder of Robin, and showcases her gymnastic ability. Then, with a pan over the Arkham Asylum gates and up toward the entrance, we’re gifted with snippets of the best cinematography in the film. Joker and Harley’s therapy sessions occur in Noir-esque shuttered rooms: the Joker, laying on the couch, recalling fabricated sob-stories like in Mad Love and Arkham Origins. As Waller’s narration and Leto’s facial expressions insinuate, at this stage in their relationship Joker is purely manipulating Harley to aid his escape from Arkham.
Harley is then strapped to a dentist’s chair, and the scene from 2015’s Comic Con teaser plays out (despite an inferior take being used). Joker, rather than escaping, is genuinely vengeful: he tortures Harley for erasing his few remaining ‘memories’— be they fabricated stories, past personalities, or genuine composite recollections of his origin.
Harley’s introduction is also a meta-commentary on Leto’s Joker treading entirely new territory in live action: without Batman–Joker’s polarity of order to his anarchistic chaos—his identity is stranded ‘in a black hole of rage and confusion,’ delocalised from the context he’s often placed in. This can work: Phillips’ 2019 Joker precedes Batman’s appearance by a decade. However—like his 70s solo comic series—Suicide Squad, whilst setting up an interesting premise, fails to capitalise on the opportunity to deconstruct Joker in a vacuum.
Following this is Joker and Harley’s conversation with Common’s Tattooed Man. [This scene is heavily and choppily edited, with characters swapping scenes between cutaways, so no doubt additional dialogue has been condemned to rot on WB’s cutting room floor.] Jim Parrack’s Johnny Frost—from Brian Azzarello’s Joker—introduces Tattooed Man to a despondent Joker, enthroned on a golden couch, dressed in an expensive suit and adorned with jewelry. This is a criminalised reflection of Bruce Wayne’s playboy lifestyle; a modernised, satirised version of the romanticised, ‘Gatsbyesque’ roguishness of ‘scions’ of an American dream, whose wealth was desolated by perpetual twentieth-century wartime and inspired Batman’s alter ego (Detective Comics: 80 Years of Batman: The Deluxe Edition).
Like Bruce, as Batman: The Animated Series writer Paul Dini believes, Joker’s garish decadence is performative. As Tattooed Man attempts to negotiate through flattery, Joker initiates his unsettling laugh, masking his mouth with the tattooed smile on his hand. Leto made his laugh sound artificial to indicate Joker uses it as a manipulation technique, concealing his possession of self-control. His tattooed smile is also a prop in his social arsenal: an instantaneous mask to maintain his clownish guise. It’s why he mocks Tattooed Man’s pre-prepared ego appeasements: he instantly perceives all other performances as the incomparable imitations of his mastered craft (except, of course, for Batman’s).
This paradoxical “planned unpredictability”, however, is inaccessible to Joker with the arrival of Harley Quinn. Joker’s disinterest in Tattooed Man follows him watching Harley dance in a trophy case at the club’s centre. Following Tattooed Man’s derogatory reference to Harley—intending to compliment Joker’s ownership of her—a glitch in the flashback’s saturation and audio corresponds to Joker’s face twitching, betraying his irritation. After calling her over, Joker offers Harley to Tattooed Man, who recognises the dangerous implications of accepting her company. Though Tattooed Man passes Joker’s “test,” Joker shoots him anyway. Whilst irrational for any other character, this appears to be an emotional reaction by Joker to the sudden, involuntary imposition of emotions (monogamous desire, infatuation) intruding on his constructed unpredictable persona. Joker is resisting his evolution into a new personality because he didn’t initiate it; throughout the flashbacks, we’re watching a Joker in transition. Appalling editing means his characterisation feels incongruous but, chronologically, by the time we see Joker in the present day rescuing Harley, he has evolved to be devoted to her.
Well, until Batman shows up.
Joker and Batman’s relationship has been underscored with unreciprocated sexual desire since the 80s. If you think it’s weird, just remember: Batman isn’t interested, and Joker is a villain. Joker groped Batman and called him ‘honeypie’ in Morrison’s Arkham Asylum, professed his love for Batman to Catwoman in Snyder/Capullo’s Death of the Family, and called Batman ‘Darling’ before staging their final fight in a Tunnel of Love in Dark Knight Returns. So, it’s unsurprising that Joker would bail on Harley during the Lamborghini/Batmobile chase. Batman’s arrival provides him a convenient and familiar escape from both his physical situation (pursued by the Dark Knight) and internalised conflict (his involuntary development caused by unforeseen attachment to Harley).
Leto’s next scene is in present day: Frost enters Joker’s apartment, which is defaced with graffiti, and littered with empty takeout boxes, beer and champagne bottles, multiple open computers, and weaponry. Possessions are composed into the shape of an inspiration light-bulb: a shrine to his constructed persona as a psychopathic super-genius. He makes a theatrical display of laying back among the objects and laughing in view of Johnny. But, judging by the copious amounts of alcohol and unhealthy food, and the trance-like state Joker jerks out of as Johnny arrives, the room and his reactive performance are consequential of his withdrawal from Harley, and Joker only reasserts control when someone is watching.
[There is absolutely a scene missing from between him abandoning her, and the reestablishment of Joker’s lovesickness as Harley is imprisoned in Belle Reve. But we can still interpret his motivations from the fragments available.]
He then confronts Ike Barinholtz’s ‘Griggs’ in an underground casino. Griggs isn’t intimidated by enforcers chopping meat behind him, but seizes up in Joker’s presence. Again, Joker sees past Griggs’ smart-talking exterior, warning him ‘all of that chit-chat’s gonna get you hurt.’ Snarling and moving like an animal, before extending his ring for Griggs to kiss, Joker shifts to being excessively friendly, violating Griggs’ personal space in a predatory and provocative manner similar to Morrison’s Arkham Asylum. Leto, again, is over-acting to emphasise his Joker’s deployment of Tricksterism to manipulate Griggs and conscript him into aiding his retrieval of Harley from Waller.
In a scene inexplicably removed from the theatrical release (and arguably the pair’s best full-scene together), Harley recalls pursuing the Joker’s Lamborghini on a Gotham City highway. It’s interesting to note that Joker slapping Harley was cut from this scene; presumably upon WB’s request to make marketing Joker and Harley paraphernalia to couples more palatable, and not to draw the ire of a vocal minority of activists on Twitter. [That would, of course, require said outrage mob forget that the pair are villains, and not a relationship to be emulated: but when has logic ever prevented a good old fashioned online witch-hunt?]
A violin rendition of Joker’s ‘Purple Lamborghini’ theme plays during the car/bike chase. This is most definitely my interpretation granting the post-production team too much thematic credit, but this seems to indicate Harley—with Suicide Squad’s original score comprised of prototypical superhero movie string orchestra—evolving more aspects of Joker’s identity with her persistent presence.
[It’s irritating how Harley here looks considerably more like Black Canary than Black Canary does in the Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Box-Office Flop of One Harley Quinn..]
Joker is frustrated by Harley’s arrival, and juxtaposes his silver-capped grin by uttering Harley is a ‘pain in the ass’ before emerging from the car to confront her. As they argue, Joker reasserts—again using exaggerated devices of animalistic prowling, percussive hand gestures and elongated words—his status as an abstract concept, ‘an idea, a state of mind’ which cannot be loved. This scene is another metatextual device used to identify the conflict of Leto’s Joker, who’s both influenced by and infatuated with Robbie’s Harley, and has a reputation for the Clown Prince’s mythological and inhuman qualities from the comics.
Harley’s (presumably) first act of murder takes Joker by surprise, as she snatches his gun and shoots a truck driver dead who intrudes in their altercation. Joker’s tone drops to conversational before returning to the tonal polarities of playful and aggressive as Harley aims the gun at his forehead. The mask slips momentarily as he sees Harley act like him, before he distances the two of them again: reasserting control by instilling doubt in her resolve, preventing her from shooting him, and then rejecting her.
Harley’s “origin” scene in Ace Chemicals follows. After swearing a lifetime of servitude to ‘live for [Joker],’ he cautions her of the gravity of her commitment. Covering her mouth with his tattooed smile, Leto states his Joker’s conflict: ‘surrender becomes desire; desire becomes power.’ Joker and Harley are engaged in a reciprocal resignation of their performances: Harley’s pretention that she is functional, sane, and can operate as a psychiatrist; Joker’s that he is an unpredictable, immutable, chaotic force, invulnerable to human weaknesses of emotion and attachment. This is why he rescues her from the Ace Chemicals vat when—as Harley revealed to audiences in her introduction—she can’t swim, and lets out an uncontrolled, faster paced laugh after their kiss. Harley’s origin is a perverse set of vows (culminating in ‘I do’); their bonding visually indicated by the permanent dying of her hair from the coalescing colours of their shirts in the vat (which she cuts off in Birds of Prey following their breakup).
So, before we analyse the originally intended, and subsequent theatrically released, endings, let’s attempt to chronologically order Joker’s development:
1. Joker and Harley meet in Arkham, when she is assigned as his psychiatrist. Joker manipulates Harley, telling sob stories to entice her in aiding his escape.
2. Joker breaks out of Arkham, but not before torturing Harley for deconstructing his identity in their sessions.
3. Harley, liberated from inhibitions by Joker’s electroshock torture, pursues Joker on a motorcycle. She shoots an intervening civilian, and Joker rejects her.
4. [Cut scenes between here where Joker accepts Harley’s company].
5. Joker has Harley subserviently dive into an Ace Chemicals vat, initially intending to leave her to die, before begrudgingly rescuing her and showing that he is invested.
6. Joker and Harley operate out of a nightclub Joker owns. Tattooed Man arrives to flatter Joker and gain his favour. Joker offers him Harley, before being aggravated at his own incomprehensible jealousy and shooting Tattooed Man.
7. The two drive through Gotham pursued by Batman. Joker abandons Harley.
8. Joker later regrets abandoning Harley and formulates an elaborate plan involving blackmailing Griggs into getting her back.
9. All of this culminates in Joker’s attempted, and eventual, rescue of Harley.
Following all this, Joker hijacks one of Waller’s helicopters, posing as their extraction team. He sprays down a rooftop using a gold-plated AK, with Frost on a minigun turret, to cover Harley’s escape from the Squad. Following some dramatic music, solid choreography, and a good (if predictable) character moment for Deadshot, Waller has a second chopper separate the pair, with Harley believing Joker to be dead.
Until, that is, Joker’s intended reappearance in a now-infamous scene confined to the trailers, which would’ve seen Joker side with Enchantress—accepting her offer for he and Harley to become supernatural King and Queen of Gotham (Emperor Joker style)—only to be turned down by Harley who has found new acceptance in the Squad.
The only conceivable reason such an important scene would be cut—particularly considering its relevance as the driving motivator behind their breakup in Birds of Prey—is Warner Bros.’s mandate that nothing too consequential happen regarding their relationship to allow for spin-off films to be considered. It’s sheer artistic cowardice on the part of corporate committees governing the final product; Leto and Ayer are not to be blamed for any of this. Instead, we received a return-to-status-quo “surprise” ending of Joker busting Harley out of Belle Reve and going home.
Ultimately, Leto’s Joker is a self-conscious performance: Harley Quinn angers him because she makes their relationship dynamic into a power-play game, in which Joker initially has control, but unexpectedly allows her to peak behind his clownish guise. He maintains possession over her with ambiguous motivations: is he too prideful to destroy her, as his object, or, is he morbidly curious as to her ability to deconstruct his performance, and thus begrudgingly attached?
Is their dynamic consequential of a hemorrhaging script, torn between marketing Halloween costumes and quaint couples’ merchandise at Comic Cons? Or are these the remnants of a clever innovation by Ayer on Joker and Harley’s relationship: making Harley’s subsequent separation a less obvious choice, thus providing her character more agency than in the comics and animated series?
Of course, there’s a chance that I’m wrong about all of this: that any merit is a happy accident which narrowly evaded the scissors of Warner Bros. editors; a diamond in the proverbial dog-turd of Suicide Squad’s butchered plot. I may have intellectualised myself far from the truth, and insulated myself from the prevailing critique of Leto’s Joker with endless theories about the superior source material I hold so dearly.
Now that would be funny, wouldn’t it?