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The Untold Truth Of Jared Leto's Joker

Zack Snyder's Justice League showers fans with jaw-dropping Darkseid footage, massively increased development for Cyborg and the Flash, a whole host of extended action sequences, and a chilling vision of a post-apocalyptic future, where Batman, Mera, the Flash, Cyborg, Deathstroke, and the Joker improbably team up to save the world. It is, in short, a feast for DC fans who felt ill-served by 2017's Justice League.

Much has been made of the appearance of Jared Leto's Joker in Snyder's disastrous vision of the DC universe's future. The film offers a stunning reinterpretation of the character: Gone are the lurid face tattoos, metal teeth grills, and flamboyant suits, in favor of a long-haired, battle-worn version of the infamous clown. How did this transformation happen? Not easily, as ardent DC fans could tell you. The story of Jared Leto's performance as the Joker is a complex one, beset with rumors, passionate fandom, and a whole lot of behind-the-scenes mystery. This is the untold truth of Jared Leto's Joker.

Getting cast as the Clown Prince of Crime

In Justin Marks' original draft of the Suicide Squad screenplay, the Joker doesn't actually appear at all. David Ayer's revisions later added the Joker as a fundamental element of the story. Leto himself wasn't even the first choice for the character: Ryan Gosling had originally been approached for the role. Similarly, the Joker's longtime love interest, Harley Quinn, came close to being played by Cara Delevingne, before she snagged the role of the Enchantress instead.

Up to the casting announcement, Leto played coy. Believe it or not, he had originally looked into playing the titular character in Doctor Strange, but Marvel wanted a bigger star for the role, to sell a lesser-known character to audiences. This encouraged Leto to pursue Warner Bros., who jumped at the chance to cast the Academy Award-winning performer in such an iconic role. The rest is history — tattooed, purple-suited, nightclub-running history.

The path to Leto's Joker design

In March 2015, Suicide Squad director David Ayer started leaking images and news from the set's early days. Specifically, he revealed a shot of a pair of scissors poised to cut Leto's long locks of hair. Official set photos of Leto's Joker were released in April 2015, to mixed reaction. The photos show the actor sporting Joker's short green locks, pale complexion, and wild grin. These details were well-received, as they're central elements of the character's iconic look. Leto's Harlequin of Hate has another notable set of features, however, which were received with less enthusiasm: This Joker sports metal grills over his top and bottom rows of teeth, and a slew of tattoos.

Among his many tattoos are massive grins spread across his forearm and hand, a skull in a jester hat on his chest, dozens of iterations of "HA HA HA" down his arm, and the word "Damaged" written in cursive across his forehead, just beneath his hairline. One thing was clear: This Joker was an entirely new creation.

The many meanings of Joker's tattoos

Joker's "HA HA HA" tattoos nod at some heavily hinted backstory from 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which a Robin costume defaced by yellow letters spelling out "HA HA HA" is glimpsed among Batman's things in the Batcave. Knowing Batman, it's likely on display as a solemn reminder of his failure to protect Robin, who was supposed to die at the Joker's hand in Snyder's take on the DCEU. Snyder has said that in his version, this would have been the Dick Grayson version of Robin who died instead of Jason Todd, who infamously perishes in the comics.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Ayer further explained the Joker's look and its connection to Batman: "Joker killed Robin and Batman basically smashes his teeth out and locks him up in Arkham Asylum. It's in the asylum where Joker would have done the 'damaged' tattoo as a message to Batman saying, 'You've damaged me. I was so beautiful before and now you've destroyed my face.' That's where the grill comes from."

This explanation posits an understandable origin for the character's much-maligned tattoos, but Ayer has come to have reservations about the creative choice. When asked about the decision in 2018, he replied, "Yes I have to fall on that sword. It was one step too far." 

Leto's on-set antics caused rumors

Leto's behavior on the Suicide Squad set became the subject of much speculation and controversy. Rumors circulated about the "gifts" he allegedly sent to various members of the cast: Adam Beach, who played Slipknot, told E! that he sent the entire cast a dead hog, in addition to other strange items. "He sent [Margot Robbie] a nice love letter with a black box with a rat in it — a live rat," Beach recounted. "It was beautiful." The rat initially freaked out Robbie, but she eventually bonded with the animal and named him Rat Rat. Sadly, her landlord gave her an ultimatum on the pet. Things worked out okay, though: Reportedly, the rat ended up with Academy-Award-winning director Guillermo del Toro.

These antics gave Leto a curious reputation. It was (falsely) rumored that Leto sent a dead rat to his co-stars — likely the result of loose public memory of the very much alive rat gift. Moreover, speculation totally ignored the vegan cinnamon buns he sent Robbie.

Leto's Joker took a critical beating

Suicide Squad was met with overwhelming critical derision upon release, with Leto's Joker acting as something of a flashpoint of serious disdain. As Insider critic Jacob Shamsian put it, "Leto's version is ... a gangster who has a clown makeup fetish. He doesn't have any dastardly plans or even does anything particularly clever. He's just a really angry dude who probably regrets his tattoos." Other critics eviscerated the film's portrayal of the Joker-Quinn relationship as a facile romanticization of abuse.

All in all, critics and moviegoers ripped Leto's Joker apart. Suicide Squad's Joker became something of a symbol of the DCEU's failures: Just as that franchise was struggling to find firm footing in the cinematic landscape, so too did Leto's Joker flail his way into infamy. In attempting to create something unique, Leto, Ayer, and everyone else involved in creating this Joker only managed to stumble into something deeply embarrassing. Surely this is not the reaction Leto or Ayer aimed to receive.

Leto's Suicide Squad role was heavily reduced

For all the sound and fury kicked up over the Joker's role in Suicide Squad, the final cut of the film actually deprives him of any real spotlight. The Joker is, in fact, barely in the movie at all. Leto expressed significant surprise and upset with the exclusion. When asked by IGN if he was upset about the scenes that were cut, he responded, "Were there any [scenes] that didn't get cut? I'm asking you, were there any that didn't get cut? There were so many scenes that got cut from the movie, I couldn't even start. I think that the Joker ... we did a lot of experimentation on the set, we explored a lot. There's so much that we shot that's not in the film."

For his part, Ayer also expressed regrets about the Joker being so tangential to the story. As he noted, "Wish I had a time machine. I'd make Joker the main villain and engineer a more grounded story ... (And no, there isn't a secret edit of the film with a bunch of Joker scenes hidden in a salt mine somewhere.)"

Leto's Joker was supposed to star in a Harley-Joker romance

In August 2017, it was announced that a Joker and Harley Quinn movie was headed to the silver screen. The proposed DC romance was said to be a "criminal love story," memorably described by one source as "When Harry Met Sally on Benzedrine." It was intended to enter production after the then-planned Suicide Squad sequel wrapped up — but, of course, things did not work out that way.

While the film is still on Leto's IMDb page, it is heavily rumored to have been cancelled. This speculation, combined with Margot Robbie's dismissal of the Harley-Joker relationship and Birds of Prey's definitive ending of it, all signal that this film is extremely unlikely to happen. "When Harry Met Sally on Benzedrine" belongs to the graveyard of buried DCEU hopes now. But hey, it's not all bad — there's always fanfiction, right?

The solo Joker project now adrift in limbo

In June 2018, it was announced that Leto was going to star in a solo Joker outing. At the time, rumors were also swirling regarding two proposed approaches to the DCEU that could theoretically exist simultaneously. One slate of movies would maintain established continuity, while the other would do its own thing, allowing filmmakers to put their own unique stamp on these iconic characters.

At this point, both Leto's Joker film and the Todd Phillips-helmed Joker movie, released in 2019, were reportedly in development. Phillips' film was reported to be part of the branch of DC movies that would be distinct from the DCEU's continuity. As fans now know, having seen (and loved) Phillips' film, that is indeed what happened. But Leto's Joker did not come to fruition at all, as was initially planned.

Instead, DC moved on from DCEU continuity entirely, in a soft reboot of sorts. Harley Quinn has carried forward through Birds of Prey and into James Gunn's The Suicide Squad, but she has done so without her puddin'. In effect, Leto's solo Joker outing has been left in permanent limbo, with Leto reportedly feeling strung along by empty promises.

Leto's Joker was written out of subsequent projects

As initial plans for the DCEU were abandoned in light of the success of standalone movies like Joker, so too was Leto's Joker tossed on the scrap heap of cinematic history. 2017's Justice League does not include his interpretation of the character at all. Birds of Prey torches the Joker-Harley relationship without a single Leto appearance: The opening sequence of the film, which depicts the rise and fall of Harley and Joker's romance, is entirely animated, and opts for a Joker design that recalls Batman: The Animated Series' Clown Prince of Crime, rather than Leto's take. Matt Reeves' Batman films occur far outside the previously-established DC continuity. James Gunn's reboot, The Suicide Squad, tells a new story that is wholly separate from the first Suicide Squad film. It includes the return of a number of other DCEU characters — Harley Quinn is present and accounted for — and plays host to a whole bunch of new additions, mind you ... just not Leto's Joker.

Leto was reportedly upset with Phillips' Joker

Despite initial promises that Phoenix's turn as the Joker would not impede Leto's own standalone film, reports indicate that Leto was unhappy to learn of the competing film. Allegedly, Leto complained heavily to his agents at CAA and asked his music manager, Irving Azoff, to call the head of Warners' parent company in the hopes of ending Phillips' film. Leto's camp denies these claim, while Azoff, who has since parted ways with Leto, offered no comment.

Sources told The Hollywood Reporter that Leto felt his agents should have stuck up more fiercely for his take on the Joker, fought Phillips' movie more adamantly, and told him about the competing project sooner. Leto has since left CAA for WME, but his team claims the alternate Joker adaptation had no role in the decision. One unnamed source close to the situation declared Leto's Joker to be effectively dead, asking, "How do you play the Joker you established following [Phoenix]? It kind of ends his Joker run."

The Joker's inclusion in Zack Snyder's Justice League

2017's Justice League produced an outcry among fans. They argued that director Zack Snyder, who left the project following a family tragedy, should be allowed to recut and release the film to reflect his original directorial vision. Online fan campaigns called for Warner executives to "#ReleaseTheSnyderCut," a cry that was eventually bolstered by the film's own stars. Just when it seemed that Leto's future in the DC films was all but done, a surprising thing happened: In May 2020, Warner Bros. announced that the Snyder cut was real, and that they would be releasing it on the HBO Max streaming platform in 2021.

Among all the changes and additions the Snyder cut makes to Justice League is a post-apocalyptic future scene that includes a brand-new version of Leto's Joker. The scene envisions a dystopic DC universe where beloved characters have been lost and the world is ash, ruled by a tyrant. Our heroes are in such disarray they have to work with traditional villains — villains like Leto's Joker, back in the DC picture at last.

A brand new Joker design

That the Joker is part of Zack Snyder's Justice League is surprising enough. Even more jaw-dropping is the fact that this Joker is entirely and fully redesigned. Gone are the tattoos, the short hair, and the visible grill. Instead, we find an apocalypse-weary future Joker with a pained laugh, long hair, and multiple scars. He's no longer dressed as a flashy gangster, instead wearing long, threadbare clothing — which makes sense, as his criminal empire would have had to crumble in such a wasteland. Photos released in the lead-up to the debut of Zack Snyder's Justice League signaled this change in design: They reveal a menacing, weary, much more frightening version of the character than the neon criminal we saw in 2016. 

These aesthetic changes are meant to reflect changes in the character's circumstances. As Leto put it in an interview with Stephen Colbert, Suicide Squad Joker and Snyder Joker are "some years apart." The new look was met with a largely positive reception, especially when contrasted against the reception of the Suicide Squad design.

His viral line in Zack Snyder's Justice League was ad-libbed

When the February 14th trailer for Zack Snyder's Justice League premiered, fans celebrated the new Darkseid footage, enhanced battle sequences, and the brand new look for DC villain Steppenwolf. Another interesting addition also made its debut: A scene between Ben Affleck's Batman and Jared Leto's Joker glimpsed at the tail end of the trailer. His back turned towards the camera, the Joker mutters, "We live in a society where honor is a distant memory. Isn't that right ... Batman?" The scene that the clip is pulled from is the most substantial new footage shot for the 2021 film.

That particular scene was written in quarantine by Snyder, who coaxed a hesitant Leto into returning to the character for the project. The scene was filmed in three days with Affleck and Leto shooting in separate locations due to schedule constraints. The "We live in a society" line was actually ad-libbed by Leto: According to Snyder, "We went back and forth a bit, and I'll give Jared credit for that little ad-lib there, because it was really, really beautiful." The line certainly made an impact on audiences, and nicely showcases Leto's evolved take on the character.

Could there be more Joker in the Ayer cut?

As momentum built towards the release of Zack Snyder's Justice League, fans began to advocate for the release of an "Ayer cut" of Suicide Squad. As David Ayer has repeatedly insisted that the Suicide Squad that hit theaters diverges heavily from his intended vision, fans have quite a lot of ammunition. According to Ayer, the "first 40 minutes" of the film were cut. The film was also supposed to tie heavily into Justice League (the Enchantress was supposed to be under the control of a Mother Box), an approach that was abandoned.

Despite fan fervor, WarnerMedia Studios CEO Ann Sarnoff has stated bluntly, "We won't be developing David Ayer's cut." Almost immediately, fans ramped up their "#ReleaseTheAyerCut" campaign. The future looks bleak for the prospects of the Ayer cut, but with the success of the Snyder cut ... well, who knows?