2016’s Suicide Squad ranks among the worst movies I’ve paid to see in a theater. I found it to be nonsensical, grating, smug, sexist, racist, and performatively edgy without any substance to back itself up. When I left the theater, dazed and confused, I saw a group of kids leaving too. I wanted to comfort them en masse. I wanted to scream at them, “It doesn’t have to be like this! The future is brighter than this dumbass movie!” I wanted to erase everyone’s memory of having to sit through this destructive dogpile. In short, I didn’t like it!
Chief among the many strange flaws of the film is Jared Leto’s portrayal of Joker, a comic book villain you may have heard of. By 2016, we had been blessed with several iconic screen performances of the Batman archenemy, including Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, and of course the Oscar-winning Heath Ledger. These actors imbued the character with an alluring, expertly finessed mix of what made them successful as performers and what their corresponding project asked of them. As for Leto, well, I suppose he fits in with the rest of the film’s “what if a 2000s crime drama and a teenager throwing a tantrum at a Hot Topic got spliced together via the machine from The Fly” aesthetics and styles. His Joker is obnoxious, braggadocious, superficially mean, and completely unconcerned with any level of nuance or subtext. He’s “damaged tattooed on a face” rather than actually damaged. It is a choice, no doubt, but a choice that plays at one annoyingly loud note through an amp with the volume control ripped out. Unlike other screen Jokers, I couldn’t wait for him to get out of the frame fast enough.
So when I heard Jared Leto would be returning as Joker in Zack Snyder’s Justice League — uttering the words “We live in a society” in the trailer, no less! — I bristled, lowered my expectations, and steeled myself for what I was sure would be a round two of my Suicide Squad experience. But when Leto arrived in the Knightmare epilogue, I was shook. Gone was the false bravado, edgelord posturing, and sheer volume of his Suicide Squad Joker. In its place was a world weary, intriguingly idiosyncratic, and genuinely “damaged” shell of a man, one that successfully instilled psychological fear. I walked away from Suicide Squad hating Jared Leto as the Joker, but I walked away from this Snyder Cut sequence an absolute fan of Jared Leto as the Joker. How on earth did this happen?
Enormous credit, of course, must be given to Zack Snyder’s intentions as a filmmaker. In sharp contrast to David Ayer’s take on Suicide Squad, constructed of a series of relentless, aggressive, and screamingly loud choices (rumors of a true #AyerCut notwithstanding), Snyder’s brief Joker sequence strikes a quieter, moodier, and more melancholy tone. I love the way Snyder and DP Fabian Wagner smearily render their Joker in literally unfocused shots, their subtly handheld closeups reminding us the power of our own imaginations filling in the most fearsome details when we’re presented with the unknown (as opposed to Ayer’s methodology of “LOOK AT THE JOKER, EVERYONE!!”). Combine this with the welcomely slow editing rhythms of David Brenner, allowing Leto room to explore in his patiently paced performance, and suddenly I am leaning forward, waiting with bated breath to see what the Joker will do next, as opposed to Suicide Squad’s propensity to shout me backward.
Snyder and Leto clearly seem to have had a long conversation about how to recalibrate the latter’s performance of the DCEU Joker, with the wild number of extratextual circumstances (this footage was produced in a pandemic, it takes place in an alternate universe postapocalypse dreamscape, it comes after the general cultural thrashing of Suicide Squad and cultural praise of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker) making the success of this new version something of a minor cinematic miracle. Beyond Leto’s reprisal version of the Joker laugh — a series of clipped “HA’s” that feel torn at the vocal cords as if this Joker is a chain smoker — the character we watch feels like a completely new invention, something akin to Hamill’s strategy of playing The Last Jedi’s Luke as a different character. We often clown on Leto for his overcommitment to roles, his predilection for problematic method shenanigans, his overreliance on show-offy, superficial tics. Here though, Leto seems to trust the craft of his crew implicitly, secure in the knowledge that the visual language of the sequence will do more than enough of the superficial heavy lifting for him. Leto feels relaxed, confident, submerged. His Joker still has a sense of unpredictability and menace — enough to make Batman (Ben Affleck) drop an F-bomb-laden threat of murder — but it isn’t worn like an ill-fitting suit or, ahem, grandstanding face tattoo. He simply is unpredictable and menacing, and since he knows that, he doesn’t need to put on a show.
That is, unless he wants to. This brief version of the Joker still features viciously sardonic taunts, sudden shifts in voice pitch, and a general sense of clownery. The difference in quality between this and his take in Suicide Squad, despite some of these shared qualities inherent to the character, comes from dissemination in intention. Leto doesn’t solely play the character as “giving a performance.” He chooses a few careful moments to infect poor Bruce Wayne with a particularly charged comedic inflection in order to properly torture him about the blood on his hands. And beyond that, some of his most high-energy flashes seem to come from a place of self-amusement, a survival reaction to the horrificness of the, ahem, society he finds himself in (a word he simply does not say in this sequence, despite that trailer).
It’s an interesting mode to play the Joker in, shifting a character that’s usually an instigator to more of a reactor, to watch him simply stare at Batman silently when his most aggressive bluff is called. It makes for compelling cinema in a way I had simply written off Leto as being capable of when playing the Joker. In this brief, under five-minute sequence, Leto and Snyder do more for the character than Leto and Ayer ever could over their feature length film, thanks to a heavy dose of patience, intention, and interior confidence. I hope those kids I saw leave the Suicide Squad screening find this sequence well.
KEEP READING: ‘Justice League’: Jared Leto on What It’s Like Playing Joker in the Snyder Cut After ‘Suicide Squad’
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