Why Jared Leto’s Joker Is Both Problematic and Kind of Interesting
This weekend, Suicide Squad director David Ayer revealed our first look at Jared Leto in full Joker costume. It was a smart move, in a sense — this way, Ayer and Leto put the image out there ahead of any pesky on-set paparazzi pics, fully taking ownership of the new look before someone else could take the wind out of their sails. If they were to hide him during production with the intention of revealing the Joker as a surprise later on, fans would probably react more poorly than they did last night. The truth is, Leto’s Joker is both problematic…and not.
My immediate reaction to the image was shocked laughter, and the Joker is definitely supposed to be shocking and off-putting, but for all his twisted humor, he’s not supposed to be laughable. Fan reactions — including mine — were decidedly mixed, with most leaning toward despising the new look (and many fairly comparing Leto to a Juggalo or a Nu Metal Joker). It’s hard to top Heath Ledger’s Joker, which is why Ayer made the right decision going in a completely different direction. When Christopher Nolan revealed the first image of Ledger’s Joker, fans were similarly incensed — the Chelsea Smile scars were a particular sticking point for many. Nolan had the near-impossible task of creating a new cinematic Joker in a world where Jack Nicholson’s version in Tim Burton’s Batman had become the most iconic on-screen iteration. And like Nolan, Ayer is faced with the incredibly tough challenge of creating a new version of the character in a world where Ledger’s Joker is now our most iconic iteration.
Both directors chose to go in strange new directions with Batman’s most notorious villain, and while it’s impossible to predict how we’ll react to Leto’s Joker once we see him in action, there’s always the chance that once we see his performance come together with the look on screen, we’ll be impressed.
There are things to both like and dislike about this new iteration of the Joker. Ayer incorporates the classic shock of bright green hair and the pasty skin, though this Joker, as previously rumored, appears to have his skin bleached rather than painted. That’s definitely a striking look, and contrasts well with his hair, mouth, and tattoos (we’ll get back to those in a minute). Leto’s Joker wears only one of his iconic purple gloves, a nod to the classic depictions of the character, typically clad in a purple suit and gloves. In addition, his makeup accentuates his insane appearance — in particular, his eyes have the maniacal look of a disturbed person with insomnia.
Back to those tattoos, though. On the one hand, the prison tat concept is an interesting choice, confirming earlier reports that the Joker would be incarcerated at the outset of the film, likely in Arkham Asylum. The J under his eye, the spread of playing cards and the Joker clown all look like the sort of tattoos one might get in prison, and these three in particular (along with the stomach tat, which looks like it could read “Joker” in Old English or tag script) are the sort of tattoos one might find in gang or prison culture. The J under his eye is somewhat tear-shaped — the teardrop under an eye typically signifies the number of years someone has spent in prison, the loss of a loved one, or that the wearer has committed murder. You can guess which one of these the Joker’s tattoo probably represents.
But some of the tattoos are problematic. The “HAHAHAHA” is incredibly on the nose, though it does mimic popular imagery of the Joker, particularly from The Killing Joke and Hush. Ayer previously released a teaser image of Leto replicating the Joker’s famous pose with a camera from The Killing Joke, so we already know the director is taking some inspiration from Alan Moore’s divisive graphic novel. Leto’s Joker also has not one, but two tattoos featuring his unnerving and unnaturally large smile, including one on his hand — which gives the impression that he might stylishly cover his mouth with his hand before shocking someone by dropping it to reveal a much more terrifying grin.
The most bothersome tattoo is, of course, the “Damaged” on his forehead. Forehead tattoos are awful enough in real life, but this one reads like something a goth kid would want scrawled across their face. Damaged isn’t really the right adjective to describe the Joker anyhow, since it implies a past trauma that has shaped his worldview and actions. Sure, being dumped in a vat of chemicals and emerging as a deformed super-villain can be traumatizing, but “damaged” indicates a more sorrowful trauma, a wounded Joker. The Joker should not be empathetic, and never has been.
Mostly, this new Joker seems to call back to his own history, both on the page and the screen, combining elements of various versions of the character to create one new, hybrid Joker. It’s the next evolutionary step in the villain’s appearance, perhaps, which also incorporates more modern elements, like the tattoos and the style of his hair and makeup. What works the most about Leto’s version is both the classic components (hair and skin color), as well as his capped teeth. Traditionally, the Joker has not had great oral hygiene, but these new silver caps don’t feel like another stylistic or cosmetic choice, necessarily — they seem as though they serve a functional purpose. After years and years of fighting with Batman, it’s reasonable to assume that this Joker has had more than a few teeth broken and knocked out.
But what stands out the most is just how colorful this iteration is, in stark contrast to Zack Snyder’s creative direction for the DCU, which is so drastically gloomy and muddy. It’s unclear what Ayer’s actual film will look like, but judging by this image, it’s fair to assume that the Joker will offer a welcome pop of color, as he should — as the Joker, he needs to stand out.
There is a lot to unpack with Leto’s Joker, whose appearance looks busier than previous, more simplistic versions of the character. Perhaps removing a couple of those tattoos and that pinky ring would help. This Joker almost seems like he was created via a committee of people behind the scenes on Suicide Squad, resulting in way too many bold ideas slapped together. There is also the possibility that by putting this image out there now, Ayer and Warner Bros. are gauging reactions and may slightly modify Leto’s appearance. Or they might not give a damn, and this is your new Joker, like it or not.
Regardless of some of the more problematic elements, the Joker is meant to offend, to unnerve, to appear ugly and awful. We aren't meant to like him. We’re meant to hate him. And when have you not hated someone with a forehead tattoo? It’s the epitome of awful. Maybe that’s the point.
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