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Jared Leto’s Very Big Joke

The Joker we get in ‘Suicide Squad’ is not the one we were promised

Ryan Simpson
Ryan Simpson

There hasn’t been a great superhero villain this decade. Sure, there have been a few good ones: Loki in The Avengers; Loki in Thor; Loki in — you get the point. But there haven’t been any great ones. For whatever reason, no 2010s villain has truly owned the movie they’ve villainized. A 2010s villain has yet to take a superhero film, and all of its moving parts, by the throat.

Really, this is a problem most superhero movies have shared — it’s hard to create a compelling foil to someone with superpowers. But the movies that have done it most successfully have, as it happens, been Batman movies — and they’ve done it with the Joker: Jack Nicholson’s killer romantic in 1989, and Heath Ledger’s chaotic terror in 2008.

Jared Leto’s performance as the Joker in Suicide Squad is many things. The most surprising: a breath of fresh air. Rather than try to replicate Nicholson or Ledger, or “act well,” or “be in a good movie,” or anything quite so boring as that — Leto instead manages to achieve the middle ground that has proven so elusive over these last several years, between APOCALYPSE spam and “a misunderstanding among friends.” In Suicide Squad, Jared Leto finds the true north of superhero villainy: He’s just a fucking dick.

So let’s call it: Leto’s is the first great villain performance in a superhero movie this decade.

And that’s because it isn’t even really in a movie.

What do I mean? I mean that Jared Leto might be the first actor playing a villain in a 2010s superhero movie to finally grasp that a 2010s superhero movie is no place for a villain. I mean that Jared Leto might have been smart enough to realize that, no matter how well* he performed (*not well), and no matter how hard** he tried (**not hard) … no one was going to remember his Joker for something as ultimately disposable as Suicide Squad. And I mean that, instead, Jared Leto pivoted — into a simple, radical idea: the idea that he didn’t need Suicide Squad at all.

Which is to say that Jared Leto understood that there was another Suicide Squad text out there —one that told a far better story: the text of all of the other stuff. By “other stuff,” I mean the extra-text in our consumption of cinema now: everything from casting speculation, to casting news, to posters, to promotional stills, to teasers, to trailers, to on-set reporting, to blog posts, to think pieces, to star markets, to tweets, to Instagram posts, to Snapchat stories, and on and on and on — all the detritus that has rendered the movies themselves almost incidental to our experience of them. Jared Leto understood that if he could just harness that text … then he wouldn’t need the movie’s primary text. If he could be a great villain in the extra-text, then he could create a villain that would last forever.

Think of it like this: Jared Leto’s name turned up in Suicide Squad news for the first time in the fall of 2014. That’s almost two full years ago. That’s TWO YEARS of our lives that have been inundated with “Jared Leto, Joker” extra-text. Just think about that: two whole years! And how long was he in the movie for? TEN MINUTES? Ten minutes of text against two years of extra-text. Which of those do you suppose ended up having a bigger impact on you? On the culture at large? You can try to be a good puritan all you want, but rest assured: It will only get you so far. There’s simply too much, that lasts for too long. Against the extra-text, the movie itself doesn’t stand a chance.

Below, in abridged form, is what we’ll call the “Jared Leto As the Joker” Companion. For shorthand, think of this as a list of “The Most Unlikable Things That Jared Leto Has Done Since Suicide Squad Was Announced.” But mostly, just think of it as what it is — the “other stuff”:

Holy shit! Jared Leto is the worst person in the world.

I mean, OK: He isn’t, really. (Probably.) But hasn’t it been a blessing (A BLESSING) over these past two years to get to pretend that he is? Won’t “Jared Leto being the worst,” in the end, be what we’ll remember, and take with us, from Suicide Squad? Wasn’t Jared Leto’s performance as “Jared Leto’s performance” the most fun — like: easily the most fun — that any of us have had hating on a movie character in years?

What do we want from the Joker in 2016? Forget that, and skip to the more interesting follow-up: What would the Joker even be in 2016? Would he be an aging, charming, prankish, insecure, confrontationally-into-Prince browser history of Jack Nicholson’s loneliest faces, like the Joker of 1989’s Batman? (I don’t think so.) Would he be a mesmerizing, heartbreaking, tenderly performed Bush-era hologram/walking “chaos theory” subreddit like the Joker of 2008’s The Dark Knight? (I really doubt it.) No: When I think of what the Joker would be in 2016, I think of one word: troll. He’d be the world’s most unstoppable troll.

And while Suicide Squad was the worst, and while Jared Leto’s Joker was the worst, the extra-text of Suicide Squad gave us the Joker we deserved.

It gave us Jared Leto: troll.

And maybe that’s the point. Maybe Jared Leto, right under our watchful, meme-ing, Suicide Squad–panning noses, has been putting the finishing touches on a masterpiece of a different kind. Maybe, where every other recent superhero film has failed, Jared Leto has found the passkey to finally creating the great 2010s movie villain. Maybe, while every other villain has been focused on ending the world, Jared Leto has simply been focused on fucking annoying it.

And maybe Suicide Squad — for as truly terrible as it was — unlocked a Joker performance no less of note than its predecessors. Which is to say: Maybe Suicide Squad never even needed Jared Leto to become the Joker. Maybe Suicide Squad, all of this time, was about how the Joker becomes Jared Leto.