By Ryan Lewis Nair
In September 2014 Warner Bros. announced the release of supervillain blockbuster Suicide Squad, due for release in August 2016. Alongside the casting of A-listers Will Smith and Margot Robbie, the announcement that had all the world talking was regarding who would be playing everyone’s favourite anti-hero, The Joker. The last portrayal of the role was by the late Heath Ledger, who won a posthumous Oscar award for his performance in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 The Dark Knight. Ledger’s adaptation is arguably hailed as the most impressive interpretation of the character and doubly one of the best performances given by an actor this side of the millennium. What was so tragic about his extreme method acting is that it is subsequently what led to his death. Delving into the role, Ledger seemed to lose himself amongst the psychotic personality he was creating. The final words in the diary he kept during the making of the film simply read ‘bye bye’. Coupled with the overwhelming pressure of Ledger’s Oscar-award winning performance, there was now the flipside regarding the intensity of the role and the pertinent question, how far can method acting progress before it becomes life threatening? Given this sensitive stigma, a new Joker seemed off the cards for the foreseeable future. Fast forward six years though from Ledger’s portrayal, and in November 2014, Jared Leto was cast in the iconic role, the 44-year-old actor-turned rock star, who has starred in films such as Requiem for a Dream and Mr. Nobody. Notably, Leto most recently starred in Dallas Buyers Club in 2014 opposite Matthew McConaughey, as a transgender woman suffering from AIDS. The role earned him a Golden Globe, an Academy award and a Screen Actors Guild award.
The announcement Leto would be playing The Joker was met with a polarised reception, with obvious mutterings circling around showbiz that no one could live up to Ledger’s devotion to the role. Conversely, several fans, especially those of DC comics specifically were looking ahead to a new wave of Batman villainy, and who best to reboot the series than the best villain of them all? Backtracking to 2006, Ledger was announced for the role by Nolan’s team and similarly to Leto, fans firmly believed the actor was far from capable when it came to handling such a twisted and tortured character. One fan claimed simply, “Heath Ledger’s face says ‘boy next door’”. Well I think it is safe to say Ledger’s metamorphosis from teen heartthrob in Ten Things I Hate About You to his Joker is more than proof of his versatility as an actor. With this notion in mind, I among many was not so pessimistic and quick to judge Warner Bros. on their choice. I for one, coupled with unwavering optimism, was ecstatic about Leto’s upcoming interpretation.
During the promotional campaign for Suicide Squad, little information was disclosed regarding Leto’s precise plans for the role. Despite this, there was news emerging from the Suicide Squad camp that Leto himself was an extremely enigmatic presence both on and off set. From the get-go, he fully invested himself in the mind of the character, posting special ‘gifts’ to his co-stars before initially meeting them. Smith reportedly received bullets and Robbie was sent a live rat attached to a love letter. Joker-esque behaviour through and through. Even after seeing the man face-to-face on set, Smith went so far to say that he never met Jared Leto himself until shooting had wrapped up on the project. Leto apparently never broke character during production, committing himself one hundred percent to a method acting approach. Leto himself did tease a couple of minor details though in the run up to the film’s release, mentioning that he practised perfecting the famous Joker laugh whilst wandering the streets of New York and Toronto, scaring non-expecting pedestrians and seeing what laugh garnered the best response. Secondly, Leto visited and spoke to patients in a mental institute, listening to their stories in order to fully immerse himself in the mentality of a madman. Impressive research undoubtedly, but do these efforts not remind you scarily of another actor’s commitment to the role? Heath Ledger reportedly locked himself away alone in a hotel for four weeks, refusing to talk to anyone and deliberately forcing himself to sleep for only two hours a night. As aforementioned, Ledger also kept a diary during this time (arguably his only point of ‘vocalisation’ whilst preparing for the role) filled with his most twisted thoughts to imitate the personality he desired to express on set. Leto’s efforts do seem stellar, but could he really create a Joker as memorable as Ledger’s masterpiece?
On August 5th the film was finally released in cinemas to less than satisfactory reviews. Critics drew specifically on the lack of Leto’s screen time, which was arguably the biggest selling point of the film. The Joker’s screen time factually clocks in at around roughly a mere fifteen minutes. To put this in perspective, this is about the length of three 30 Seconds to Mars tracks on average (seriously). Leto has recently commented on this criticism in an interview with Metro, stating ‘I don’t know exactly what’s been cut out or not, but I do understand it’s a bit of an introduction to the Joker, it’s a bit more of a supporting part than maybe it could have been if they had used everything,’. After viewing the film, I left the cinema completely disheartened by The Joker’s lack of scenes. The character’s appearance is more of a cameo than anything, as the film has much more to do with characters such as Deadshot and Harley Quinn than the clown himself. In hindsight, The Joker is quite an irrelevant character in regards to the concrete plot line, excluding the final scene in which he breaks Harley Quinn out of prison after the squad’s re-incarceration. Arguably, it would have made much more sense to keep the reveal of a new Joker under wraps from the public until the end of the film, and throw Leto in as an actual cameo in an epilogue scene, paving the groundwork for a potential sequel or spin-off. The criticism regarding Leto’s absence from the film has led to one angry fan actually threatening in a Reddit post online to sue Warner Bros. for false advertising, as in the pre-release trailers snippets from the aforementioned cut scenes were used. Conveying his disappointment, the fan commented ‘If you advertise something, give me what you advertised. Period.” Pedantic perhaps, but you cannot disagree with his logic. I personally feel cheated by Suicide Squad.
As well as fans threating to sue Warner Bros. for their interpretation of The Joker, South-African rap-rave outfit Die Antwoord have slammed director David Ayer for supposedly ‘jockin’ their style and plagiarising their look as inspiration for The Joker and Harley Quinn. Group member Yolandi Visser wrote in an Instagram post (alongside a somewhat convincing video), ‘so it looks OK when u bite our black & white graf style & our opening sequence to umshiniwam [one of the group’s songs] & an all da lil tiny details u nibbeld dat other people wont see but we notice.’ Visser further addressed Ayer’s ‘two face nature’ claiming that both Cara Delivigne (who plays Enchantress in the film) and Leto had spoken to Die Antwoord personally about how much Ayer had been ‘flauntin’ them on set. Pure coincidence, or has Ayer oversold the prized couple of the film on entirely false grounds?
Taking everything into account, the question on my mind is, was Hollywood really ready for another Joker? Maybe it was too soon after Ledger’s interpretation for someone to come along and truly breathe new life into this hugely demanding role. Perhaps this notion is exactly what Ayer was afraid of and why he shied away from letting all of Leto’s scenes see the light of day. Alternately, maybe originality was the real problem afoot and this is why what we are given is an amalgamation of ideas: Ledger’s Joker, Die Antwoord’s rambunctious image and to top it all off, a modern-age gangster persona. Regardless of The Joker’s true genesis in Suicide Squad, Leto has recently described his role, in light of the film’s negative reviews, as a mere ‘glorified walk on’. He further commented in an interview to IGN, “I think that I brought so much to the table in every scene that it was probably more about filtering all of the insanity, because I wanted to give a lot of options… I always wished this film was rated R [the equivalent of an 18 rating in the UK), and I had actually said that when we were starting. It felt like if a film was ever going to be rated R it should be the one about the villains.”
Say what you want about Leto taking on the role, but you cannot argue with his opinion here. After everything, perhaps the real reason The Joker did not come to life in Suicide Squad is not because of previous interpretations or lack of originality, but rather censorship in the film industry itself. Just like any actor who agrees to take on the role of The Joker, an extreme and bold approach is a necessity and this is exactly what Ayer has missed. Conclusively what was absent from Suicide Squad was not the character or the actor playing The Joker, but the headstrong attitude to dare greatly and take the character where no one has ever taken it before.
Ryan Lewis Nair
This article was published in our September 2016 issue.