Happy Halloween everyone!! As the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead weakens (thanks Samhain…), we’ll spend the night with lighted jack-o-lanters to ward off nefarious spirits and decked out in all sorts of ghoulish garb to blend in with the dead who will traverse the land of the living. Or, you know, we may do all those things in the name of free candy (yay for Reese’s Cups!!!). Either way, today’s Halloween and that means I’ve only one Joker left to examine in this series. Yay! So let’s say hello to Mr. Jared Leto.
In honor of Halloween and all things spooky, I decided to dedicate October to exploring the Joker (at least his live action cinematic interpretations). The Joker has always represented FEAR in a very real way for me. As a kid – and, you know, as an adult – I’ve always hated clowns. Gah! They horrify me. So nothing scares me quite like the homicidal Clown Prince of Crime. But, as I’ve grown up, I’ve come to see that the character of the Joker isn’t just scary for being a clown but also for his symbolic representation of evil incarnate. In 2016’s Suicide Squad, Jared Leto took up the mantle of the Joker for the DCEU and continued this tradition. While critics and fans are divided over Jared Leto’s Joker, I find myself in the camp that enjoyed his take. He was sinisterly seductive and radiated a raw, unhinged anger that I haven’t seen in a Joker before.
Heath Ledger remains my all-time favorite but I respect what Jared Leto did with the character. However, when I think of the creepiness of his version, my mind drifts to my brother David. Of course David isn’t a homicidal maniac nor is he fond of wearing clown makeup (thank God…I couldn’t imagine enjoying hanging out with David if he was (or rather, I couldn’t imagine hanging out with David if he was)). David also isn’t a method actor nor has he ever mailed me the sorts of things (dead animals, used condoms, etc.) Jared Leto mailed his cast mates (again, thank God). But David is a HUGE Thirty Seconds to Mars fan and loves both Jared Leto’s music as well as his acting in everything from Fight Club to Dallas Buyers Club to Requiem for a Dream. Obviously David was excited when news broke that his boy Jared would be the next to wear the infamous purple suit. We couldn’t wait for opening night! However, it turned out I’d be in Champaign, IL for Jeff’s wedding weekend on opening night. Sigh… So David got to see Suicide Squad a solid four days before me :/.
Of course I texted him to ask what he thought of the film…and my phone filled with a slew of creepy-ass Joker pictures. David, you should know, is the king of texting spot on pictures and gifs for any occasion. It’s often HILARIOUS and I love it. I’m always excited to see a picture waiting for me in one of David’s texts. But this time he was channeling all the freakishness of this incarnation of the Joker. Can you imagine waking up to find that waiting for you on your phone?!? It was unnerving to say the least. If nothing else, it proved to me Jared Leto’s Joker is every bit as visually scary as his other big screen predecessors. Just looking at those images made me all kinds of uncomfortable. Once I finally saw the film, I found myself agreeing with David. Jared Leto did nail it. Of course it wasn’t anything like the Jokers who came before him but, to be fair, it shouldn’t have been.
I feel Jared Leto’s performance of the Joker is a bit underrated for the simple fact that he came so quickly (relatively speaking) after Heath Ledger’s visionary turn in The Dark Knight. Cesar Romero was the Joker from 1966-68. Jack Nicholson shows up twenty-one years later in Batman. Then it’s another nineteen years until Heath Ledger arrives in The Dark Knight. In 2008 (with the twin arrivals of The Dark Knight and the birth of the MCU with Iron Man) comic book movies become a major staple of our cinematic diet. When you combine their omnipresence with the cultural touchstone Heath Ledger’s performance became, I just don’t think we were yet ready to fully entertain another Joker. After all, Suicide Squad came out a mere eight years after The Dark Knight. Filtering that out and looking at the performance for what it is on its own I think there’s more to Jared Leto’s Joker than he’s often given credit for.
Granted we didn’t see anywhere near as much of the Joker in Suicide Squad as the marketing campaign would have lead us to believe. It’s been widely reported that DC and Warner Bros. decided to pursue a lighter tone with the film as opposed to the darker, more torturous one David Ayer and co. originally began to make. As a result, many of the scenes that delve into the back story between the Joker and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn ended up on the cutting room floor. Both Leto and Robbie have described the great lengths they went to in order to illustrate the twisted and dangerous nature of the emotionally and physically abusive relationship between Harley and Mr. J.
However, even with the majority of these scenes cut out, it’s still in this relationship between the Joker and Harley Quinn where I find Suicide Squad offers us the most instructive lessons on the reality of evil. If the Joker, as a character, represents evil incarnate then Harley Quinn represents the evil’s ability to seduce. Despite cuts, the film does give us glimpses of the backstory between Joker and Harley. Before embracing a soul-devouring relationship on par with Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, Harley Quinn was Dr. Harleen Quinzel. She was the Joker’s therapist during his time at Arkham Asylum. As they meet, the Joker begins to slowly yet successfully seduce her to the point where she falls for him, aids in his escape, and becomes a staple of his criminal entourage. Gone is the talented and respected professional Dr. Harleen Quinzel. In her place we find the damaged and dangerous Harley Quinn.
This is so important to understand when we are considering the nature of evil in our lives and in our world. We, as human beings, aren’t born evil. We are born good. We’re meant for the light and for healthy, loving, social relationships. But evil grows in and ravages our world nonetheless. Why? If we are made for goodness as all theologies attest (and biology affirms we are meant for social communities and psychology illustrates our default setting is most likely one of empathy and altrusim) why is there such evil in the world? The relationship between Harleen Quinzel and the Joker that gives birth to Harley Quinn gives us our answer. How is evil born in us and in our world? We succumb to temptation. And Jared Leto’s Joker is nothing if not sickeningly seductive in a truly terrifying way. We watch him crawl into her head and her heart, perverting her all the while.
But it isn’t the Joker who ultimately turns Harleen Quinzel into Harley Quinn. He assuredly leads the way but it is Dr. Quinzel who makes the choice to become Harley Quinn. In one of Suicide Squads most powerful scenes, the Joker stands with Dr. Quinzel above a vat of chemicals and asks her to pledge herself to him.
Joker – “Would you die for me?”
Harlene – “Yes.”
Joker – “That’s too easy a question. Would you live for me?”
Harlene – “Yes.”
This is the moment, in giving her whole life and her whole being over to the Joker, that Harley Quinn is born. Diving into the chemical bath serves as a symbolic baptism into her new life. The trick is, with Harley as with all of us, she has to choose this life. It has to be her free and full choice. Evil can’t take us. We need to offer ourselves to it. Yes, circumstances and perspectives can make this an easier choice to make. But it still must be a choice. To become evil’s, we must choose it freely and fully.
And once we have chosen evil, it doesn’t want to relinquish its hold. Jared Leto plays a dangerously obsessive/possessive version of the Joker. This obsessive/possessive note is the most vivid impression this Joker left on me. Completely driven by the need to find that which is his (namely, Harley Quinn), the Joker goes to dangerous and deadly lengths to hold on to what he considers his own. This Joker quickly and casually kills what threatens him and what threatens his possessions. And Harley has absolutely become his.
More than a picture of a therapist who’s gone insane, Harleen Quinzel’s transformation into Harley Quinn shows us how easily it is to let our guard down and be absorbed in evil. It look appealing, attractive, exciting. We might even think it’s healthy and equal. Worst of all, we may even think it can be love. But really it’s a destructive and dangerous relationship that will consume the best of us. True, authentic love can also consume and transform us and it is only in and through love that we can counter this darkness. So we must be cautious. We must guard ourselves against evil’s seductive pull as we always strive to combat it’s effects in our world with real light.
As a final word on the nature of evil, I fully acknowledge how easy it is for me to believe that, “All we have to do is live in love, to hug it out and wait for the Kingdom to come as a result.” Speaking as a white, college educated, American male, from a happy and supportive family, in a great relationship, with a fun and trusted group of friends around me, I am living the dream. There are no limits for me. I was one luckily born. As a result of that blessing, I have never known evil. I may have an academic understanding of evil. I can recognize the villain in a movie or a novel. I can look at the news and pick out what appears to be evil. I can read, discuss, and debate theodicy. But that is the extent of it. I have no experiential knowledge of evil. As such, I don’t know evil at all. But that blessing doesn’t free me from wrestling with evil nor from trying to do all I can to make the world brighter. We all must shoulder that burden. To remain silent or indifferent in the face of the atrocities of the world is to be complicit in them.
Evil often appears gentler than it actually is (Cesar Romero), silently spreading around us when we are often unaware (Jack Nicholson), and we can never hope to triumph over this evil through violence and aggression (Heath Ledger). But again we have to try to counter its infulence. By putting our faith in love, compassion, and mercy we do have the power to transform the darkness around us. So to end this October look at evil (and FINALLY stop thinking about murderous clowns for a little bit), I’m going to suggest everyone enjoy their trick-or-treating this evening and share a little love along the way. That, more than a lighted jack-o-lantern, is what will really keep the demons at bay.