Would it really be surprising that Jared Leto had tried to stop Todd Phillips’s Joker from being made? This is what a piece in the Hollywood Reporter suggests, though the claim is said to have been denied by a representative for Leto and by Warner Bros.
It might seem ridiculous to fans that a film that has taken more than $700m (£541m) at the global box office and (at least initially) wowed critics could have been swatted from the schedules at the whim of an actor who barely appeared as the clown prince of Gotham in 2016’s Suicide Squad. And yet that would be to forget the circumstances in which Leto found himself cast as Batman’s nemesis five years ago, and was subsequently thrown to the slavering hounds by Warner Bros.
In 2014, when the studio announced that Leto was to star as the Joker, the actor-turned-musician had just won his first Oscar, for playing a transgender drug addict in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club. Before this, he had hardly acted for five years, preferring to focus on his suddenly successful rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars. By all accounts, Leto was choosing roles very carefully during this period, so it came as a shock (and coup for Warner Bros) when he was announced as the world’s most infamous supervillain.
By all accounts, Leto threw himself into the role with method mania, reportedly sending a letter and video to fellow stars apologising for not joining them for early rehearsals, accompanying his missive with a live rat for Margot Robbie (his on-screen paramour, Harley Quinn), some bullets for Will Smith (Deadshot) and a dead pig for the entire cast. Warner suits, aware of the potency such a blend of recent Oscar-winner and iconic role would bring to the table, must have been head over heels at the publicity.
With all this fuss, fans expected Leto’s Joker to emerge as the leader of the Suicide Squad, a gang of colourful Dirty Dozen-style supervillain miscreants put together by questionable authorities (Viola Davies’s Amanda Waller) to take down an even worse threat: Cara Delevingne’s acting. We will never know quite what the original plan was, but when David Ayer’s film finally emerged, Leto was reduced to a bit-part player. A bit of torture here and there, some hanging around with Harley in nightclubs, and then completely absent from the movie’s main narrative.
The Oscar winner could perhaps have been forgiven for thinking that this would never have happened in the 70s. Imagine if Robert De Niro had gained 60 pounds for Raging Bull, only to be told that his scenes had been excised. Then imagine the shock when Warner green-lit a Joker origins movie starring Joaquin Phoenix as a completely different version of the supervillain. This was precisely the kind of movie Leto probably thought he was going to be making at some point when he signed on to play the part. The dream opportunity to get under the character’s powder-caked skin.
This kind of thing would never have happened at Marvel, either. The last time a star was cast in a big role at the Disney-owned studio, then kicked to the kerb, was 2010, when it was announced that Ed Norton, the somewhat sickly green giant in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, would not reprise the role in The Avengers (unless one counts Terrence Howard’s replacement by Don Cheadle as Colonel James Rhodes in 2010’s Iron Man 2, reportedly over pay). Leto had every chance to assume he would be playing the Joker in further movies over the next decade – otherwise why cast him in the first place?
Thanks to Warner’s chaotic approach to comic-book world building, that never happened. The Hollywood Reporter now suggests Leto-Joker is done as a going concern, something that ought to have been pretty obvious as soon as James Gunn’s Suicide Squad 2 and Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey were announced without the actor’s involvement. In any case, neither movie had an obvious place for the cackling villain, so it would not be a surprise to learn that Leto turned them down – perhaps fearing a repeat of earlier experiences.
Phillips’s Joker is the movie Leto really needed to showcase his talents and begin developing a multi-movie character arc, but Phoenix was handed the role instead. The whole thing smacks of terrible planning. Like the unfortunate Arthur Fleck himself in Phillips’s film, it seems Leto never really had a chance.