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The Joker continues to run wild.

When Suicide Squad hit theaters in 2016, it represented the DC Extended Universe’s biggest swing yet. An edgy-but-playful villain team-up featuring characters most moviegoers were meeting for the first time felt like a gamble. Yet, thanks to a crackerjack marketing campaign, Suicide Squad killed it at the box office, bringing in $747 million worldwide.

In the years since, the movie’s standing has sunk, however. Generally speaking, even most DCEU fans regard it as one of the weaker installments. Part of this is due to changes behind the scenes on director David Ayer’s film. But another critical factor is the negative response to Jared Leto’s Joker. So we can hardly blame Birds of Prey for leaning away from it.

Jared Leto at the European premiere of 'Suicide Squad'
Jared Leto at the European premiere of ‘Suicide Squad’ | Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Jared Leto’s Joker just didn’t work

Over the years, the Joker has been reinterpreted in so many ways. Even setting aside the character’s countless comic book iterations, the big-screen Jokers run the gamut from one extreme to another. Consider the jester played by Cesar Romero in 1966’s Batman: The Movie and the anarchist Heath Ledger portrayed in The Dark Knight.

In that regard, Suicide Squad boldly aimed to carve out its own niche. The DCEU knew it had to distinguish its Joker from everything that had come before. But it chose to do so by tapping into gangland stereotypes and letting Leto off the leash on set. Rather than being intimidating or darkly funny, Leto’s Joker just fell flat for many moviegoers.

Suicide Squad intended to whet fans’ appetites for more of Leto’s version of the Clown Prince of Crime. Instead, the film put Warner Bros. in a difficult spot regarding DC Comics’ most famous supervillain. Leto’s Joker essentially proved to be a non-starter. So how does Birds of Prey address his role in Harley Quinn’s (Margot Robbie) story without alienating audiences?

How ‘Birds of Prey’ handles the Joker

Despite how big a commercial success Suicide Squad was, the DCEU has led to a lot of course-correction. Writer/director James Gunn’s 2021 release The Suicide Squad will be a reboot more than a traditional follow-up. And likewise, Birds of Prey is more a spinoff of Suicide Squad than a proper sequel to it.

The film focuses heavily on Harley’s freedom from the Joker — its full title, after all, is Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) — and, as such, doesn’t have much need for his presence on-screen. Director Cathy Yan confirmed the movie uses some archival footage from Suicide Squad to flash back to Harley’s “birth” at Ace Chemicals.

However, the movie conspicuously steers clear of ever showing the Joker’s face. The closest we get is a brief animated recap of Harley’s story and a caricature of “Mr. J.” And even this doesn’t reflect the Joker design from Suicide Squad. In a movie where the main character’s toxic love affair is so pivotal, Birds of Prey certainly shies away from committing to the Joker.

The DCEU’s elusive wild card

Of course, Birds of Prey isn’t about the Joker. That’s entirely the point. Yet, the lack of Leto feels like a deliberate choice for a shared universe that is very much in flux. After early films such as Suicide Squad and Justice League, the DCEU is in the midst of a rebirth. Joker feels like he’s very much part of that, and Birds of Prey gives the series the chance to buy some time.

For now, pivoting to Robbie’s Harley Quinn as a pillar of the new DCEU — alongside Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Jason Momoa’s Aquaman — is wise. However, we doubt Warner Bros. will keep the Joker out of the picture forever. So, at some point, the studio will have to officially cut ties with Leto, especially after a certain billion-dollar success story.

But we know Joaquin Phoenix and Joker director Todd Phillips have no interest in joining the DCEU. Just as it will need to introduce a new Batman, Warner Bros. will have to recast the Joker at some point. We can’t say whether he’ll bear any resemblance to Leto’s design when he does show up. But we have some suggestions for actors who’d be perfect to play the Joker.