Okay, let’s start with the obvious thing that folks have been talking about for the past few days. The director of the upcoming Suicide Squad movie tweeted out a picture of Jared Leto in his full Joker costume, and the internet (at least the corners that I frequent) has gone bananas complaining about this take on the definitive Batman villain.
It’s definitely a different take from other versions that we’ve seen in the past (the comparisons to Heath Ledger’s version in The Dark Knight have been myriad), and I think there are some things about it that are worth critiquing, but I want to take a look at how the Joker has been portrayed in the past, and possibly glean some of the rationale behind this new version that seems to be leaving many people so underwhelmed.
First a little history about the Joker’s origins. There are a couple versions of the story of the Joker’s creation (Bob Kane, the co-creator of Batman, insisted that the Joker was solely created by himself and Bill Finger, while Finger acknowledged the contributions of Jerry Robinson to the character’s concept), but his first appearance in Batman #1 is universally accepted to be taking direct inspiration from Conrad Veidt’s character Gwynplaine in the silent film The Man Who Laughs (this character is disfigured with a permanent rictus like the Joker’s signature smile). In this original version, the grotesque nature of the Joker’s look was supposed to be a way to make him a memorable villain who couldn’t be easily discarded like the generic gangsters that Batman was typically confronting in his earliest adventures. At his outset, it’s important to note that the Joker was portrayed as a grim serial killer (the grinning motif, with his own smile and the effects of his Joker venom on its victims, played more for irony than as a complement to the character’s personality). He was scary because of his look, but there wasn’t a whole lot to his actions that was particularly horrifying (beyond the standard horror of dealing with someone who kills people as a pastime). My read on this original version is that the Joker was designed primarily to give Batman someone more interesting than stock villains to play against. He fit into the popular conception of dastardly villains, but he was just a little bit larger than life so that he could balance out Batman’s theatrical qualities.
The first major overhaul to the serial killer depiction that we see in popular culture was Cesar Romero’s portrayal of the Joker in the 1966 Batman television series. The entire tone of this series was pulled from the much lighter Silver Age stories of the fifties and sixties that were written to appeal to a primarily child audience with heavy oversight from the Comics Code Authority. Romero’s Joker was all silliness with virtually no menace (my favorite detail about the character that many people have pointed out in discussing the series is the fact that Romero, who had a very distinguished mustache, refused to shave it for the role, and instead simply covered it with the heavy white makeup he wore when in costume). He embraced not only the clown aesthetic, but also the clown persona. It was a significant departure from the character’s origins, but it was conceived in the spirit of what the character was at the time of production.
The comics depictions of the Joker saw a shift back toward a homicidal nature in the 1970s when the Comics Code Authority relaxed some of its restrictions on depictions of violence, but the next major popular conception of the character came with Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. This is one of the iconic depictions of the character, where Jack Nicholson combined the silly theatricality that was present in Romero’s Joker with the hard line brutality that Kane, Finger, and Robinson originally conceived in 1940. It’s also one of the classiest versions of the character, putting him in a version of the signature purple suit that the Joker’s known for wearing, complete with wide-brimmed hat, waistcoat, and long tails. The effect is a warped image of the high powered mobster that this Joker began as, playing on the original idea of a villain who was essentially like the stock criminals Batman faced before, but with a visual flair that made him distinctive. Nicholson did a Joker that fully succeeded in blending the two previously dominant versions of the character (his depiction also went a long way in inspiring the version seen on Batman: The Animated Series, whose voice, provided by Mark Hamill, is probably the most iconic one the character has ever had in non-print media).
So of course, when Christopher Nolan rebooted the Batman movie franchise and with a far less surrealist aesthetic than Burton or Joel Schumacher, everyone knew that his version of the Joker was going to have to be a major departure. The character concept is patently absurd outside of the visual sensibilities that Gold and Silver Age comic books fostered, so everyone was curious to see what Nolan would present. Heath Ledger’s casting originally met with some serious misgivings, as he was an actor previously known primarily for his roles in serious, but somewhat overwrought, melodramas and romantic comedies. No one was sure how he was going to present the character. Of course, then we got the first images of the grungy anarchist whose look nodded towards a clown motif, but in a way that was so degraded that it hardly resembled any previous versions of the character. This Joker had no high class pretensions; he didn’t come from organized crime like previous versions had, and his humorous aspects had been ground down to little more than nihilistic antipathy towards everything. He was grim and gritty in the best way, and ultimately became a pretty beloved alternative take on the character.
And that brings us up to the news of Jared Leto’s turn as the Joker. Suicide Squad isn’t set to release until 2016, so pretty much all of the conversation at this point is speculation based on what we’ve seen in promotional materials that have been leaked out. The weekend saw the release of the first photo of Leto in full costume, and it’s definitely a different interpretation of the Joker’s look. The details that most people seem to be deriding the most strongly are the overabundance of tattoos and the chromed teeth. There’s a lot of chatter calling this a Hot Topic version of the character, where all of his menacing features come off more as the affectations of a teenager than anything that conveys actual menace. I read somewhere that the multitude of tattoos make this Joker look more reminiscent of Victor Zsasz, a Batman villain who’s notable for carving a tally mark on his body for every person he kills (his torso is filled with them), though I think that’s more an accident than any deliberate attempt to blend the characters’ personalities. What I see most strikingly is the attempt at creating a version of the character that pays homage to the iconic panel from Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s story The Killing Joke that depicts the Joker’s break from sanity.
Leto’s costuming is different, but the pose and expression are clearly cribbing from that panel. The “haha” tattoos that cover his left shoulder evoke that panel without resorting to some kind of background. The chromed teeth look strange, but I prefer to think that they’re actually cheap metal replacements for his real teeth (which were punched out at some point) rather than a fake grill. The other tattoos (particularly the one on the forehead) seem like they’re trying too hard, but I feel like this version of the Joker will be played as a variation on the type that Nicholson perfected. That Joker was constantly playing with his appearance as a way of discomfiting people around him, and this version is probably doing the same thing, though with a pseudo-punk aesthetic.
I don’t have any particular interest in Suicide Squad, though I do plan on keeping up with its production now, just because I’m curious to see how this latest version of the Joker takes shape.