Why so serious (about the Joker)?

This article contains spoilers for “Suicide Squad” and DC comic canon.

Certain things just capture the ol’ zeitgeist. Cinematic adaptations of the DC universe occasionally manage to bottle lightning – 2008’s “Dark Knight” is probably the best example, though you could certainly make an argument for 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises.” (You’d be wrong, but you could make that argument.)

To some, David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad” held the same promise. True, watching the trailers gives one the distinct impression of a film that draws its influence from the chaos and trashy kitsch of a run-down beach boardwalk, not the gritty darkness of the Big Apple’s city streets. But wasn’t that the point, breaking out of the old mold into something new and technicolor and weird? God knows enough people have lamented about the over-noirification of recent installments of the DC film universe, comparing it unfavorably to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (And, of course, folks also rushed to justify that grittiness.)

First off: look. There’s no dispute. “Suicide Squad” is breaking records and performing very well at the box office. That is a fact. That still doesn’t mean it’s a good film.

Here’s the thing: many critics and fans both feel Ayer, or Warner Brothers itself, failed to deliver with this one. Of course, they come to that conclusion for entirely different reasons.

Critics tend to say the main sin is it’s just not consistent, and Leto’s performance feels cut-in. Fans tend to say Leto’s performance is barely there at all and they feel cheated, as the promo material so strongly featured him. It’s to the point that some guy and his lawyer brother either legitimately want to sue for false advertising or are doing some really excellent trolling. They may even be lampooning an angry petition that originally called to shut down Rotten Tomatoes because Suicide Squad is getting very bad reviews. (The petition was later changed to having a nebulous “anti-critic” standpoint, and subsequently locked.)

That last paragraph had a lot of information in it, but focus on this for a moment: Fans are pissed off that they are being catered to and subsequently shafted, as they see it. Most of Leto-as-juggalo-Heath-Ledger-but-not-in-a-cool-way’s Leto-as-Joker’s scenes were cut from the film, leaving him with relatively little screen time. He crashes a helicopter and shows up just in time to put in an appearance at the end, but that’s about it. It’s certainly not unheard of to use cut scenes in a trailer – anybody remember the “Fantastic Four” film? – but it does smack of bad practice, considering that Leto’s performance alongside Robbie was consistently hyped. Of course, his scenes were far from the only ones cut, even if you limit it to only scenes featured in trailers. Katana, Killer Croc, June Moon, and Diablo are all rumored to have had several scenes cut. Most of the comments on social media, though, fixate on the cut Joker footage specifically.

Also, fans are pissed off that reviewers are responding poorly to “Suicide Squad” – even though there are legitimate gripes with the movie, including what drew so many people in to begin with: Jared Leto’s performance as the Joker. In fact, I would argue that you could easily swap Leto out with any other public figure with a habit of edgelording – the result would’ve been the same. People are really proprietary over depictions of the Joker. Why?

Well, because it’s the Joker. Duh.

The Joker, if you’ve been living under a rock for the past 30 years since his rise to prominence, is Batman’s antithesis. With no cogent backstory (DC decided in May that there are three Jokers in comic canon but, in the words of Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of Nick Fury, that’s a stupid-ass decision and I’ve elected to ignore it), and no unified motive other than the pursuit of chaos and the desire to deconstruct society for deconstruction’s own sake, he’s sort of the embodiment of primordial chaos. Through his many incarnations, he’s spanned the gamut from nonsensical comedian-villain, dispenser of puns and terrifyingly good time to watch while still obviously villainous (Cesar Romero’s incarnation; Batman: The Animated Series), to a nihilistic crime boss bent on helping the whole world embrace the void – and, most particularly, Batman, his nemesis.

“The Killing Joke” is the clearest demarcation between the two in comic canon, though cinematic portrayals bounce back and forth (and the animated version embodied both extremes at various times throughout the series, at least, as far as a cartoon formerly aired on the WB can.) Weirdly, the more grim the character gets, the more obsessive the Joker following becomes. Not to overstate the man’s importance, but Heath Ledger has a great deal to do with that – at least, outside the circle of comic book fanatics that have been following the Joker for ages. He brought the darker incarnation of the clown prince into the main fold of pop culture. In a politically and socially uncertain time, some folks found that Ledger’s Joker’s message – that some men just want to watch the world burn – resonated deeply. He’s kind of like Tyler Durden if Tyler Durden upped his Nietzsche intake, took an improv class, decided to become a supervillain, and ran off to join a messed up circus. Some people just find the call of the void plus screwball dark humor plus Philosophy 101 rants really appealing in a villain – and there’s no shame in that.

This changes, though, when you introduce Harley Quinn into the mix and decide to treat the Joker/Harley dynamic like WB and/or Ayer, depending on what article you believe, did.

You could easily write an entire article on Margot Robbie’s depiction of everyone’s favorite ex-psychiatrist super villain (tl;dr: she did good, y’all), but I won’t. Suffice it to say that from the time when Harley became solidly entrenched in the popular mind as Joker’s sidekick – around the time of the animated series, which often featured her – she was treated the way you would expect a partner to be treated by someone whose main obsession is torturing some dude in a high tech bat costume. Essentially, the Joker abused her – throwing her from buildings, beating her, playing merciless mind games, pretending he didn’t notice her disappearing for months in order to give birth to their daughter. This is in character for the Joker. It is consistent with his established personality to abuse his partner, such as Harley is. This isn’t an excuse for abuse in general or the abuse of Harley specifically – Joker is A Bad Guy. He does Bad Things. He doesn’t care about Harley and he sees her as a tool that’s only useful occasionally. This is yet another demonstration that the Joker is a Very Bad Dude.

“Squad” saw the Joker and Harley advertised as a kind of #goals super villain couple. Not really a message you want to send to your audience, Warner Bros, but also the worst possible interpretation of the couple, such as it is. Apparently they deliberately went with a lighter studio-backed version after test screening instead of Ayer’s preferred cut – perhaps wanting to make the Joker more relatable.

Here’s the problem with that: the Joker should not be relatable – at least, not in that way. And generally, he isn’t. Maybe you recognize your urge to torch your student loan paperwork and drive off into the sunset in a stolen sports car in the Joker, but that’s supposed to frighten you, not entice you. Leto’s Joker didn’t do either for me – what little screen time he got just had me rolling my eyes. If you’ve ever heard of the Joker and Harley Quinn coupling before, the movie’s depiction probably struck you as inconsistent rather than endearing. The Joker’s whole subplot is getting back Harley – and everywhere else, it’s tormenting the Batman. He might try to lure Harley back with flowers in a hospital room, but it’s ultimately to further his personal goals, not for any great attachment to Harleen. What little of his plot exists is nonsensical, and inconsistent with almost every other depiction of him.

To be clear, many don’t think more of Leto’s performance would’ve saved the film, as what’s already there is deeply flawed – and that’s really a shame. The ensemble cast was as solid as it could be, given the atrociously written dialogue – Viola Davis stole the show every time she appeared, in particular, despite her clunkily written lines – but Leto’s performance felt almost superfluous. Why have the Joker in at all? If more of that footage was in the film, though, the trailer would’ve felt queasily disingenuous – originally, Joker shoves Harley out of the helicopter to kill her, not to save her, and the whirlybird goes down after the fact. Makes you feel a little uneasy watching Robbie scream “you’re ruining date night!” at Affleck’s Batman, yeah?

This is just the latest in a series of long missteps with the Joker – the “three Jokers” plot point in the comics being another prominent example. (Of course, the mishandling of Joker’s character arc is part of a wider narrative of incompetence across DC… but that’s a topic for a different day.) The characterization of the Joker, as a character, is falling apart. Unfortunately, this sometimes happens in all forms of serialized media. Famous characters with multiple incarnations written, drawn and played by dozens of different people will inevitably experience some inconsistency in characterization. Google your fave + “inconsistent characterization” and you will be led to a plethora of forum posts, blogs and angry graphics that point out everything out of character they have ever been made to do since 1964. (Hell, start with Clark Kent.) However, this is particularly devastating for Batman fans, and for the DC universe as whole, when it’s the Joker, precisely because he positions himself as Batman’s arch nemesis. He serves as Batman’s foil, and when the foil goes off-kilter, everything else follows; if the Joker loses consistency, Batman makes less sense, as does every non-Joker villain in the series, because they are all inevitably compared, and connected to him. If you have a bad Joker, your installment – be it movie, comic or cave painting – is going to fall a bit flat, at best. For all its good points, “Suicide Squad” suffers not only because Jared Leto’s Joker just isn’t consistent with the comic, but because it can’t even manage consistency within the film itself. It feels empty without his presence, but, really, would it be any better with him there? Therein lies the fundamental problem with the movie.

Fingers crossed that WB can right this before the next Joker incarnation on film, but… don’t hold your breath.

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Posted in Articles, Arts+Culture, Movies, Television

Ed Hirtzel is the Summer 2016 Fly intern. She’s currently an English Honors student at Millersville University. Her hobbies include scribbling, writing both fiction and nonfiction, and compiling useless information about cryptids.

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