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There’s only one way to be a bad Joker

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And it’s not Jared Leto

Photo by Murray Close/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

Everyone seems to be really mad about how Jared Leto, renowned actor, inarguably beautiful man, and part-time cult leader, plays the DC Comics supervillain Joker in the current DCEU. I think he’s great — maybe even fantastic! — for all the reasons you probably hate him.

OK, right off the bat, YES I HEAR YOU: Leto-Joker has a tattoo of the word “Damaged” on his forehead, potentially the first form of expression that even a Hot Topic teen would deem gaudy. Y’all have screamed about this tattoo so loudly that David Ayer, director of Leto-Joker’s debut Suicide Squad, admitted it was too much. Some dear soul even did the real world legwork on what removal of such a mark would take.

On the heels of Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn with the same character, Leto hammed it up as a goofy, grill-mawed club rat version of “The Clown Prince of Crime.” How dare he! Yes, how dare another Academy Award winner opt for a literal interpretation of an actual comic book clown that chews scenery far past the point of distraction and think it would be warmly received?

Ayer was sacked during editing by Warner Bros., which is why Squad is an especially awful film — far worse than the Joss Whedon-ized theatrical cut of Justice League. And because Zack Snyder’s original cut is being released next month, there’s fresh Leto-Joker angst because, well,

Sweet Jesus, amirite? But hey, that’s our Zack. Or maybe just mine.

I refuse to defend Suicide Squad. There’s a similar “Release The Snyder Cut” movement afoot to restore Ayer’s “vision” of that film, but with James Gunn prepping an amazing-looking reboot for this year, it’s time to move on. Also, have you seen Ayer’s deleted scenes? Because holy shit this dialogue.

Ah, but Leto-Joker! What a ridiculous, garish mess. Have I mentioned the Rick Ross video? BECAUSE I LOVE IT. It’s very Joker!

So let’s hold hands as fans with different opinions as I try to walk down two conflicting lanes of thought at the same time:

  1. It’s OK for fictional characters to exist in a variety of divergent ways, even when particular iterations are barely recognizable from the original.
  2. Leto-Joker is fine because there is no such thing as a bad take on Joker ... except the film Joker, which is a legit crime against humanity, and The Joker.

Part of enjoying comic book fandom is accepting that Groundhog Day iterating is bad for everyone. Riffing, getting weird, and creating something different is how we keep stories alive. It’s called mythology, and it’s fun.

This week, I saw this new version of Superman I really like, because it reminds me of my favorite Superman. I like this Superman, too. It reminds me of this Superman. That Superman is an interesting take that I don’t love, but I’m fine with because not everything is supposed to be for me, and we’ll all be dead one day anyway.

I think, being someone who thinks a lot about this at 39, that my favorite Joker is Zach Galifinakis in Lego Batman, just barely edging out Mark Hamill’s version on Batman: The Animated Series and the Arkham video games, as well as the comic book version written by Scott Snyder. There are many, many other versions I really enjoy — including Leto-Joker! — because the character’s purpose (chaos) and the fact he is a literal clown makes him malleable. He can be a serial killer, or a Shakespearan fool, or both.

Galifianakis-Joker is funny but still menacing, watchable but still dedicated to disruption, and embodies a wanton neediness for validation that feels very much of this moment. He is not all-powerful. He does not exist to justify the worst of humanity. He exists to prove that we need to look for good in ourselves and take care of others.

If art is commentary, I believe it functions as such to enlighten as an act of empathy. As a piece of art, the vaccousness of Joker voids the very concept of empathy. It can’t even be considered a cautionary tale about the loss of empathy, because that would imply any level of awareness. For over two hours this film drowns in navel-gazing vapidity.

It is selfish, cruel, meaningless, and masturbatory. It is a movie where bad things happen to a struggling person, who then does very bad things to many people. Then it ends.

There is no salient message, no purpose for the film to be, and no reason to call it Joker. Fans want studio executives fired over calamities like Joss-tice League, but because Joaquin Phoenix won the box office (and an Oscar!) for dancing in a refrigerator while answering the question “What if Jame Gumb, but Elliott Smith?,” bonuses get handed out. This isn’t a movie, it’s Incel Bisquick.

Yes, I am a firm defender of free expression. No, listening to Death Row Records didn’t make me shoot anyone when I was 13. No, too much Fortnite isn’t the reason your kids hate you today.

But the fact such an irresponsible, selfish message about culpability for violence exists as art doesn’t bother me. What bothers me — what scares me — is that this emo-bully-freshman-comp-bullshit is wrapped in one of the world’s most popular entertainment IPs FOR NO REASON AT ALL. This film has nothing to do with Joker, Batman, Gotham, DC Comics, or even the superhero archetypes.

“That’s because The Joker could be real!,” you sneer. No, he could not. Lex Luthor, a megalomaniac corporate titan enabled by a cuckold government to wage a tech war on an immigrant, could be real. The Joker, specifically the version in this movie, would be shot in the face “in the real world” by any criminal in under a minute. Pick your political flavor of real world bad guy: MS-13, Proud Boy, whatever. They’re going to shoot him in the face.

The Joker exists as an idea to be proven wrong. We can indulge ourselves in his argument, so long as his quest against the idea of A SOCIETY fails. He can have face tattoos, he can sound stupid, he can dress up like Jesus, but can’t prove his point. Joker barely attempts to make one, which is a problem, but how viewers interpret the detritus of its attempt is an even bigger issue.

If you find yourself confused, go with Zach Galifianakis, in this and all other things.