Much has been written about the legal stoush surrounding The People’s Joker, so much, in fact, that the film’s copyright issues have overshadowed its intentions almost entirely.
Having been one of the privileged few to catch a screening, I can safely say that Vera Drew’s take on Gotham’s Clown Prince of Crime is a work of wonder. To sum it up in one sentence: The People’s Joker is a mixed-media, trauma-induced (and inducing) trans allegory that skates the thin ice of parody by taking DC Comics characters and turning them into stock roles for the hero’s journey.
Ok, I’ll elaborate.
Retellings and remixes
Vera Drew, an American alt-comedian and filmmaker, formulated her idea for The People’s Joker when re-editing Todd Phillips Joker (2019). While working on the re-edit, Drew began to think about how the characters reflected her own life, telling TIFF (via Wired): ‘I knew I needed to do some sort of big creative project around gender, comedy, and mom issues’.
Originally a remix of clips from every single Batman movie, The People’s Joker instead became an indie flick where Drew’s takes her memories of growing up as a girl ‘born in the wrong body’ and presents them through the lens of a ‘Harlequin’ born in a ‘Joker’ body.
As per Drew’s description of the film on the teaser trailer’s YouTube page:
‘After years numbing herself with irony and an inhalant called Smylex, an unfunny aspiring clown grapples with gender identity, first love, and old foes all while founding an illegal comedy theater in Gotham City. It’s a queer coming of age Joker Origin story. Completely unlicensed by DC and Warner Brothers. Starring and directed by Vera Drew […]. Featuring the work of 200 independent artists on three separate continents, all made during a global pandemic.‘
Unashamedly referencing Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (what some may call the queerest Batman offering out there), Drew mixes real-life memoir with superhero piss-takes and lofty dreams to show us how one child’s encounter with very pointy Bat-nipples lead to an epic journey of self-discovery.
It’s Vera Drew’s journey of healing, writ large in a bonkers montage of greenscreen, 2D/3D and stop-motion animation, handmade costumes and props, and puppets.
Vera Drew’s friend IRL Nate Faustyn shines as The Penguin, who cofounds the aforementioned illegal comedy theatre with Drew’s Joker. Donning a hooked nose and slicked-back hair, he guzzles down animated fish and spits out Penguin-themed puns at a mile a minute. It’s an obvious riff on Danny DeVito’s Penguin from Batman Returns (1992), but Faustyn makes it his own. It’s a real joy.
Plus, it’s surely the only film where you’ll see a shoddily-animated ‘Lorne Michaels’ slip on a banana, lose all of his clothing, and get eaten by Poison Ivy’s triffid limb. Incredible stuff.
A joker with a lot to say
Not content with just gifting the world a beautiful and hilarious trans coming-of-age story, The People’s Joker also tackles mental health stigma (a version of The Scarecrow promises to make Drew ‘Super Sane’), abusive relationships (Drew’s boyfriend Jason Todd, an amalgamation of Robin and Jared Leto’s Joker, intentionally gaslights her – with an actual gas lamp), and the US comedy scene (in Drew’s Gotham, a version of SNL called UCB runs said scene with an iron fist).
The People’s Joker takes what Joker (2019) was trying to say about insufficient mental health treatment in the West and sends a much more obvious message: when a person’s desire to transition is seen as a mental disorder, their development into a fully realised human being is disrupted, and their livelihood becomes quashed.
Furthermore, when it tackles the abusive Joker/Harlequin relationship, which has been depicted many many times on screen and off, it takes time to reiterate that this is not an ‘I can fix him’ situation and that it should not, at any point, be romanticised.
As for the commentary on the US comedy scene – well, hardly anyone will miss the fact that UCB usually stands for Upright Citizens Brigade, a famed improv and sketch school that has birthed many a Saturday Night Live cast member. As mentioned before, Lorne Michaels, the showrunner of SNL, features heavily in the film, caricatured as a conservative comedy tyrant.
The film also features comedians Scott Aukerman, Tim Heidecker, Maria Bamford, David Liebe Hart, Robert Wuhl, and Bob Odenkirk in supporting roles, all poking fun at themselves. It comes across as gleefully satirical, and not bitter – well, not too bitter.
If you get a chance to see this film, be prepared to bust a gut laughing – but have your tissues ready by the end. It’s quite touching.
The People’s Joker is not currently available to watch – but that may change. Follow Vera Drew on Twitter for updates about when and where it may be screening.