On top of completely redesigning the character, Zack Snyder’s Justice League seems to have given Jared Leto’s Joker a messiah complex. In keeping with the director’s own penchant for religious symbolism and repeated Christ motifs throughout his work (including in the DCEU), the latest image of Leto’s reborn Joker shows him immortalized in a Caravaggio-like Christ pose, complete with a thorn of crowns. But why, in the logic of the movie and of Joker as a character, would he have gone from the Suicide Squad’s flamboyant crime boss to such a wildly different aesthetic?
Considering how little the Joker is involved in HBO Max’s upcoming version of Justice League, his involvement in the marketing has been surprisingly heavy. Snyder was very vocal on his appreciation of David Ayer’s vision for the character, even as both directors acknowledged the studio interference that changed what ended up on the screen for the theatrical cut. His involvement in the brand new Knightmare sequence is as intriguing as it will be thrilling for fans of the character and Snyder offering the money shot of the final trailer to his reveal was a huge statement of intent. So too is the decision to market Justice League with this clash of religious imagery and notorious pop culture evil, because, fundamentally, Snyder’s image airs squarely at the controversy and achieves it with aplomb.
But this is not just empty controversy, because Joker’s involvement in the Knightmare sequence offers some indication of why Joker might consider himself a messiah (even if the image is designed solely for marketing purposes). Fundamentally, the Joker-as-Christ motif is a provocation of Batman on one level, because Snyder’s future Dark Knight needs his arch-nemesis. In a perverse reversal of Heath Ledger’s iconic line in The Dark Knight, Ben Affleck’s Batman will seemingly be forced to acknowledge that he needs his enemy too. That sort of validation is the perfect excuse for Leto’s completely redesigned villain to gloat, but it may go deeper still: the Joker is, at his core, entitled and Batman turning to him for help could be fuel for his new-found saviour delusion.
Quite why Batman is coming to the Joker is the biggest unresolved mystery, but the trailer and marketing materials suggest that the pair are uneasy partners in the Knightmare future. One theory suggests that Joker is immune to the Anti-Life Equation, by virtue of representing complete disorder. There is precedent in the comics of certain characters who are immune thanks to loopholes (like Solomon Grundy being unaffected because he’s technically not alive) and Joker’s approach to life could easily be expanded to make him so. If Darkseid’s equation engulfs its targets in the hopeless certainty that free-will is pointless, it depends fundamentally upon the pre-existence of the opposite stance. What if Joker’s nihilism and embrace of chaos means he can’t be turned: the rearranged adage that if you believe in nothing, you fall for nothing. That would certainly fit with Batman seeking his assistance in Justice League’s Knightmare sequence and the Clown Prince of Crime getting something of a messiah complex because of it.
On a more symbolic level that may not be tied at all into the narrative, the idea of Leto’s Joker’s rebirth in Justice League is also hard to ignore. The greatest opportunity for the Snyder Cut, even for those cynical enough to have arrived at an opinion on the final cut even before seeing it, is an unprecedented chance to see art reclaimed. And the fact that Snyder chose to give Leto a second chance after Suicide Squad made him the DCEU’s biggest missed opportunity is a part of the project’s rebirth that deserves special acknowledgment. The messiah imagery is entirely befitting that opportunity, at least in the warped mind of the Joker himself and that’s precisely the filter through which that image is being offered.