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Opinion | Why Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix's 'Joker' is a meditation on the effects of bullying

What if The Joker was bullied? Todd Phillips' upcoming film presents that theory about one of the comic world's most notorious bad guys. This has Oscar all over it.
Credit: Warner Brothers

ST. LOUIS — "All I have are negative thoughts."

What if the Joker was bullied?

Imagine if one of the comic book's most notorious villains was pushed around as a young man, forcing him to reinvent himself as the deadly clown-faced criminal? Did a cruel society turn a regular joe into a full-blown monster?

Watching the new trailer for Todd Phillips' take on DC Comics' big bad, Joker, I got the sense that this was quietly a goal for the filmmaker's interpretation. Sure, there are the mass shooting and violence angle that is prevalent in the final preview, but both trailers have put out a view of Joaquin Phoenix's Arthur Fleck as a tortured man abandoned, or worse, not taken seriously by society.

The shades of Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy are there, and the reasons are easy to spot. Robert De Niro, who starred in the cult classic, co-stars here as a comedy show host who has a series of interactions with Fleck, pre-Joker and post-Joker. Fleck is an outsider who breaks bad, like De Niro's character in the Scorsese film. When it comes to movies, people rush to comparisons. I don't think this new film shares much real estate with any previous film. It's an entirely unique beast.

And it looks like a brilliant one at that. Watch the two trailers. Here's the first one, released earlier this summer:

I wrote a quick reaction to it, and after several viewings, I can stand by the fact that a cold, brutal world was being depicted by Phillips, who is widely known for The Hangover films and Old School, general, if dirty-minded, comedies. There's something sinister and malevolent to his makings here.

The second one dives deeper into Fleck's troubles as a struggling comedian (there's a small sliver of Phillips film history there) and self-defeated soul whose only place of acceptance comes with his mother (Frances Conroy), whom he takes care of and lives with. We see Fleck beaten up on the streets, rejected by his therapist, and slowly starting to come unhinged, at the same time as Gotham City is falling apart. 

Fleck is mocked by De Niro's host at one point, pushed around, punched by Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), and constantly harassed by strangers who see a grown man playing dress up. They just don't get it. Arthur finds some love in his life via Sophie (Zazie Beetz), but perhaps it's not enough?

This film isn't a part of the DC film universe you've already seen.The seventh interpretation doesn't have any strings. Christian Bale and Ben Affleck aren't showing up, nor will Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman. It's a standalone take on the arch nemesis, one that hasn't been tackled by filmmakers ever before. 

While Heath Ledger will probably retain the title of Best Joker Ever, Phoenix is just as talented as Ledger was, and can at least carve out his own invigorating version. He's a three-time Academy Award nominated-actor who constantly takes challenges, never cashing a paycheck or wasting your time. Phoenix, like Phillips here, is a risk-taking artist of the highest order.

Once again, it's the bullying aspect that strikes me most deeply about the film. If a filmmaker can make a comic book-inspired film that speaks to a real-world problem, the film gains reverence as a true body of power. That's what Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight did. Notice during the trailers that we don't see Fleck harm or kill anyone. This film is all about his re-awakening as The Joker. Other storytellers (Phillips co-wrote the film with Scott Silver) would have quickly switched to violent Joker mode, but Phillips is patient here, at least in the trailers.

He's trying to show us not just the man behind the tyranny, but the cause and effect in slow motion. Sometimes, normal people are pushed hard enough to where they become a mad man. Fleck suffers from a disorder that makes him laugh insanely at random times, so much that he carries a warning card with him to hand to strangers. Do you think those shooters who have walked into schools, malls, nightclubs, and public places were always evil? I don't think so. They were pushed at some point, at least some of them.

At its core, Joker is a meditation on the effects of bullying. How a little evil can lead to greater evil. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm right on.

We'll find out on Oct. 4.

One more thing. Phoenix's maniacal laugh tops Ledger's, in my opinion.