Jared Leto’s Joker wasn’t the problem – it’s DC’s Extended Universe that’s the real failure

Leto's days playing the Clown Prince of Crime are reportedly "over" – but is he really to blame?

The Joker (Jared Leto) in Suicide Squad

How many Jokers are too many? That’s the question Warner Bros. was no doubt asking when it green-lit Todd Phillips’ Joker origin movie, mere months after the release of David Ayers’ Suicide Squad misfire.

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Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is the third big-screen take on the character in just 11 years. And those 11 years have given us three very different interpretations of Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson’s Clown Prince of Crime.

In many ways, Suicide Squad’s Jared Leto had an impossible and unenviable task – to step into the clown shoes of an actor whose portrayal of the character won him critical acclaim, as well as a posthumous Oscar.

Said actor, The Dark Knight’s Heath Ledger, had it noticeably less hard. The previous big screen Joker had been in 1989 when a portly and clearly-past-his-prime Jack Nicholson had breathed three-dimensional life into Batman’s most famous foe. (How good would Nicholson have been if that Batman movie had been made around the time of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest?). As impressive as Nicholson was, Ledger’s deranged, origin-less Joker was soon labelled definitive.

Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight
Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.

The first question marks over Suicide Squad’s take on the Joker came with those first released pictures. That tattoo reading ‘damaged’ on his forehead and that fluorescent green hair made him look more like a member of a rubbish punk band than a crazed criminal mastermind.

In the event, Leto’s Joker had just 10 minutes of screen time in 2016’s Suicide Squad. Both Leto and Ayer confirmed that much more footage was shot, suggesting that the Joker played a much more crucial role in earlier versions of the film.

Despite this, Leto – who, it’s said, became completely absorbed by his character on the film, gifting a live rat to Harley Quinn actress Margot Robbie, bullets to Deadshot actor Will Smith and a dead pig to the rest of the cast – appeared to have been looking forward to future outings as the Joker.

But Suicide Squad’s critical drubbing (the sequel, helmed by Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn, is said to be a soft reboot of the franchise, keeping all but a few of the first movie’s characters) and the poor audience reaction to Leto’s street hoodlum-like interpretation appears to have put the kibosh on further appearances. (He’s noticeably absent too from Warner’s forthcoming Harley Quinn-fronted Birds Of Prey movie).

The Hollywood Reporter’s recent news story about Leto’s attempts to shut down production of Todd Phillips’ film suggests that Leto didn’t want a rival Joker out there – and, in many ways, it’s easy to understand his hurt.

Jared Leto
Cindy Ord/Getty Images for 2019 Tribeca Film Festival

Recasting a role that he’d won just a year or so before looked to the world that Leto’s performance had in some ways failed. But the real failure, more than any individual performance in any of those movies, remains the concept of the DCEU (DC Extended Universe) itself.

A run of critically derided, and commercially underperforming movies had forced Warner and DC to rethink its big-screen strategy and Joker would become the first DC Comics-inspired film to be green-lit outside of the continuity-driven DCEU.

It was clearly never on the cards to drop Leto in Phillips’ origin movie. Had he been cast, not only would it have officially aligned Phillips’ splinter tale to a set of movies Warner was wishing away, but Joker’s reading of the character differed so greatly from the Suicide Squad interpretation that it would never have made sense to share an actor.

In the comics, the Joker has been through various incarnations, with different writers reshaping him and his origin. Joker is a great film, but it’s got little in common with any DC iteration of the character. Hell, Joaquin Phoenix only appears in full Joker get-up for the final 15 minutes of the movie. It’s more an Arthur Fleck film than it is a Joker one.

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If Matt Reeves’ forthcoming Batman flick decides to cast its own Joker, that’s fine too. If the film was tonally and stylistically distinct from Joker, then there’s no reason that a new actor can’t come in and make the character his own. Because if Joker’s epic box office has proven anything, it’s that this new, more experimental approach works better for DC than attempting to ape Marvel’s MCU.

So whether he’s to blame or not, Leto’s time as the clown prince of crime is most probably over. He’ll now be seen as the George Lazenby of Jokers, the one who didn’t quite cut the mustard.

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There’ll be other Jokers, for sure. And they’ll be as different from Joaquin Phoenix as he was from Jack Nicholson and as different as Jared Leto was from Heath Ledger. The Joker hasn’t had his last laugh yet, not by a long chalk.