The Joker is not some sacred, impossible-to-touch character simply because Heath Ledger did a great job playing him in “The Dark Knight.”
Far from it, actually. The Joker remains one of the most potent, richly-imagined villains in all of pop culture, and the notion of DC movies being made moving forward without any version of The Joker popping up at any point is, frankly, ludicrous. As long as you are telling Batman stories, you will also at some point be telling Joker stories, and that's fine.
However, there's no denying that Ledger's version of The Joker is an impressive one. The mere fact that it was so well-liked after Jack Nicholson's version had been anointed by pop culture back in 1989 was impressive. After all, you could argue that without Nicholson, that first film doesn't become the phenomenon it eventually became. I think 25 years is long enough for me to let go of my resentments about that version, and more than that, I think the real lesson is that The Joker can survive any reinterpretation.
One of the most potent inventions of “Batman: The Animated Series” was Dr. Harleen Quinn, best known as Harley Quinn. Created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, she has taken on a rich and well-documented life of her own at this point. Her most important role, of course, is as the Joker's girlfriend and main accomplice, and she is a genuine threat as written. In recent incarnations, though, she has played a key role in the Suicide Squad, the team of DC universe bad guys pressed into service under the guidance of Amanda Waller.
I'm curious to see what storyline David Ayer plans to adapt for the “Suicide Squad” movie, or if he's going to simply use that as a springboard to an original story. There's a run of issues of several different titles that all tied together to tell the story of Harley, the Suicide Squad, the Joker's skinned face, and the settling of old scores. It's very creepy, not completely successful, and probably not what Warner Bros. has in mind when they're thinking about how they can compete with Marvel.
What that story represents, though, is a basic truth that I hope they keep in mind as they turn “Suicide Squad” Into a film. If you're going to use the Joker, as it's been rumored in the last few weeks, then you have to find a strong use for him, and telling a great Harley Quinn story is something we haven't seen so far in feature films. If Collider is correct and Margot Robbie is the person they're hiring to play the part, then I'm halfway to confident. Robbie was a revelation in “The Wolf Of Wall Street,” funny and dangerous and, yes, stunningly gorgeous. If they write a great Harley for her, she's going to eat it up. She's exactly the kind of actor to take that character and run with it, and it will take an actor of real weight to stand toe to toe with her as The Joker to make us believe that she would ever follow anyone. She's the right kind of star, still on the rise, but someone of substance, which suggests that they're taking the character seriously.
Rumors have Jared Leto circling the part, and it's an interesting choice, if a little on the easy side. He and his representatives have been looking for that giant post-Oscar payday, and this could be it, especially if there are options for other films that would bring Leto's Joker and Robbie's Quinn in contact with Affleck's Batman. You've also got Jesse Eisenberg playing Lex Luthor for “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and, presumably, in the “Justice League” films down the road, and Leto and Robbie feel like actors who would fit with Eisenberg.
I'm still not sure if David Ayer is going to be able to use Batman in any way, even as a background presence, but it seems clear that this is all meant to be the same continuity. If so, they're painting a far darker portrait of the DC Universe right off the bat, and that's an important decision. It's also one that I think carries a greater commercial risk. No matter how dark Marvel movies get, they'll always be Marvel movies, and there is a light pop comic sensibility that is part of the DNA of those movies. It was a big part of how they got “Iron Man” to connect, and it's been true all the through to this summer's monster hit “Guardians Of The Galaxy.” Even when they do “Civil War” or “Ragnarok” or the “Infinity War” movies, I guarantee they'll have plenty of big character laughs along the way. Used properly, The Joker and Harley Quinn may be making jokes, but they're the only ones laughing. They are disturbing, disturbed characters, and they can be written in a way that makes them worth exploration.
I'll be curious to see if this pans out, and if it does, I hope Ayer writes a great Quinn for Robbie to play. I think of what he did with Mirielle Enos in “Sabotage” as an example of how he handles a woman in a testosterone-heavy ensemble, and I am confident that Ayer can do the job and do it right. Now it's just a question of whether or not DC is serious about making films that stand apart from everything else in superhero movies right now, or if they're going to homogenize things in an effort to keep up.
“Suicide Squad” is set for release August 5, 2016.