Did Suicide Squad Even Need the Joker?

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An unnecessary evil? Photo: Clay Enos/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Suicide Squad may be an ensemble film full of DC bad guys, but when it comes to infamy, there’s one character here that towers above the rest: the Joker, Batman’s longtime nemesis and the clown prince of crime. The marketing campaign for Suicide Squad leaned heavily on the character — not only does his twisted face loom above all the other antiheroes on the poster, but you can’t swing a dead pig without hearing tales of how Jared Leto went Method to play him. And yet, for all that fuss, he’s barely in the movie. Was he even necessary? What did he really add? And how do we feel about this brand-new incarnation of the Joker, who seems destined to recur for years in a way that the Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson versions never got to?

Vulture editors and agents of chaos Kyle Buchanan, Nate Jones, and Abraham Riesman got together to puzzle out what happened to the Joker, as well as what will.

Kyle Buchanan: Guys, I’m curious how you felt about the Joker’s minimal screen time. I had heard going in that he wouldn’t be a part of the main squad, but I think audiences will be surprised that he’s in barely more than ten minutes of the movie. Were you?

Nate Jones: I was surprised, yeah. I wasn’t plugged in too deep with the rumors, but from the tone of the preview I had assumed that Leto’s Joker would be the big bad guy of the film. He gets the mic-drop line at the end of the trailer, and everyone knows you only get the final line if you’re the villain, or a chubby kid who’s comic relief.

Abraham Riesman: Definitely not surprised. I guess that’s a legacy of my long-ago supposition that the movie would ape the DC animated movie Batman: Assault on Arkham. It’s another Squad origin story, one in which they’re sent on a mission to go after the Joker. He’s more of a MacGuffin than a foe in that one. Long after I’d learned that he wasn’t going to be the team’s target in Suicide Squad, I still suspected that Warner Bros. wasn’t even going to make him a focal point. Nevertheless, I’m guessing many viewers will be baffled, as he’s easily the biggest brand name in the cast.

KB: And the Joker isn’t even that well-used when we do see him! It would be one thing if he was limited to Harley’s flashbacks, leaving us guessing as to when and where we’d see him in the present day. But instead, he’s got a slim, parallel story line where he’s trying to find and retrieve Harley. Not only does it amount to very little, their reunion is over before it even begins. What do you think was the goal here? What was to be gained from using the Joker so sparingly, and in this way?

AR: Maybe to, uh, whet our appetites and make us beg for more? But no, that can’t be it — we probably won’t see Joker again until the still-unscheduled, Affleck-directed Batman solo outing. Why tease us that far in advance? I honestly can’t figure out what’s to be gained from giving him the same amount of attention as freaking El Diablo. Maybe he was supposed to be more major, but got a lot of his bits cut out as the script developed? Perhaps he had more time in the rejected cut that Warners allegedly produced? Leto has suggested as much.

NJ: The Joker’s brief screen time does seem a piece with the film’s general disjointed vibe. Of course a film with this many stop-start flashbacks is only going to use its most famous character for ten minutes. The lack of payoff for his scenes seems to fit the film’s general confusion about the Joker and Harley’s relationship: Is he using her? Are they in love? Did he use her, then fall in love? The film can never quite make up its mind, and so it can’t think of anything interesting for the pair to do when they’re together in the main timeline.

KB: That’s one of the other tricky things about the Joker’s limited screen time. Harley and the Joker have an awfully fraught relationship, to put it mildly. Is she a partner in crime who’s even more dangerous than he is, as Amanda Waller would have us believe? Or is she a sex doll he can abuse and lend out to Common in one random flashback? When the Joker is used this inconsistently, I’m not sure where exactly his relationship with Harley is supposed to land, even though the film seems to concoct scenarios where we’d want them to reunite.

AR: I’d say she’s just as dangerous as him, if not more so. Her fight scenes and her willingness to walk chin-first into danger made it clear that she’s a force with which one must reckon. In fact, one thing that was nice about this depiction of the Joker-Harley relationship was the fact that they were on mostly equal footing: They were both skilled at violence, they were both crazy about one another, and they were both just crazy. In other versions of their story, Harley has been something of a puppy dog, unloved by the Joker and comparatively weak. Not so here. The abuse seemed to stop after her initial brainwashing; after that, the sex-doll stuff was “consensual,” or as consensual as such things can be. I found their romance oddly sweet, though that was a problem in and of itself, as the movie was at its weakest when it was trying to have heart.

KB: I wonder whether the movie might have worked better if the Joker was actually used as the primary villain, or at least had some sort of proximity to the main event. Immediately, because of the Joker’s cultural cachet, you would understand Suicide Squad’s core conceit that it’s necessary to assemble these bad guys to fight someone even worse. And Harley’s forced participation in the squad as some sort of Joker-enticing bait dangled by Amanda Waller would have had far more rooting interest than the barely sketched relationship between Rick Flag and the Enchantress, who is Suicide Squad’s wan villainess. Would Harley go rogue during the mission and betray her new comrades for her old lover? Already, I’m so much more invested.

NJ: Yes, before going in, that’s what I assumed was going to happen. And I don’t think my disappointment with what we got onscreen was merely from having my expectations dashed — using the Joker as the primary villain would have worked wonders better than the villain we actually got. You can’t accuse Cara Delevingne of giving a low-energy performance, but man oh man, did the whole Enchantress thing not work on basically any level: logically, mentally, physically or emotionally. Think too hard about that business with the heart and you’ll end up looking like this.

AR: One more point about the Clown Prince of Crime that I want to bring up: Did you guys think he was funny? I’m not saying that’s absolutely necessary for a Joker depiction, but it would’ve been nice in a movie that was being marketed as manic fun. I, for one, found him to be a drag, except for the line about having some grape soda ready for his and Harley’s conjugal reunion.

NJ: You’re right, he didn’t quite have that manic “anything could happen” vibe that Heath Ledger’s Joker brought, which is perhaps an unfair comparison, except that Leto seemed to be incorporating some of Ledger’s verbal tics into his performance. If I had to pinpoint what he was going for, I’d guess “Scary Jim Carrey” was the goal?

KB: Forget funny, I just wish the Joker had been smarter. It’s become a regular thing for us to puzzle over the schemes concocted by comic-book villains, but this one was particularly limp: The Joker just texts Harley periodically to remind her that he’s coming, even though he likely could have snatched her at any time she was imprisoned, to judge by the film’s final scene. I wanted him to be clever and more diabolical than the rest of the Suicide Squad, the sort of high-functioning loose cannon we’d fear in future films. Without any sort of smart plotting, though, he’s just a flashy gangster with little bearing on the film’s story.

AR: That’s a really good point. In thinking about the Joker’s arc, one can quote Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters: “That was your whole plan? ‘Get her?’” There just wasn’t any compelling reason to have the character in the movie other than to have him present for marketing purposes. He served no interesting plot function, he wasn’t particularly menacing or comical, and Leto didn’t add a whole lot to the Joker canon other than a comic-accurate back tattoo. I didn’t not enjoy him, but I don’t think this already-bad movie would have been appreciably worse without him.