In the DC Extended Universe, it’s not the villains who have identity issues, but the heroes. Bruce Wayne watched his parents get murdered, adopted a teenage sidekick and now spends his nights cosplaying as the creature everyone associates with vampires. Kal-El also saw his parents die and goes through life trying to pass as the earthling Clark Kent, wearing spandex under his work clothes, just in case. These are not the traits of well-adjusted normies, and as such, there’s enormous subversive appeal in seeing trans artist Vera Drew turn such iconic characters inside-out in the illicitly made marvel that is “The People’s Joker.”
Coming from a place of deep fan love and equally profound institutional mistrust, Drew’s anarchic feature-length parody impishly treads the line of fair use, so much so that the helmer pulled the film from the Toronto Film Festival after its raucous Midnight Madness premiere, citing “rights issues.” But what did she expect? The irreverent underground project reimagines the Joker’s origin story as a queer coming-of-age/coming-to-terms narrative, using a mishmash of styles: mostly crude live-action of the kind you expect from public-access programming (shot against greenscreens, then composited with rudimentary CG sets), embellished with various forms of homemade animation.
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It features licensed characters — including Catwoman, Poison Ivy and the Penguin — as allies to its gender-bending antihero, an aspiring standup comedian who calls herself “Joker the Harlequin.” So it’s only normal that DC would issue a cease-and-desist letter. These characters have emerged as some of American culture’s most beloved modern myths, rebooted and reimagined countless times by the company that controls them. Identification is actively encouraged, until it’s not — say, when a Joker-clad mass shooter unloads on a screening, or when a comedian accuses Batman of “grooming” his young ward.
Seeing as how both “The Batman” and “The Joker” have joined the conversation on toxic masculinity, they make ideal targets for a pop culture-savvy artist looking to embrace her inner female — provided she’s not shy about stirring up a few corporate lawyers in the process. In all fairness, DC is not the enemy here, despite wanting to protect its bazillion-dollar brand. The company has frequently been on the avant garde of queer representation: Robin came out as bisexual in the comics last year, and HBO Max’s adult-oriented “Harley Quinn” toon is constantly pushing the envelope.
Meanwhile, Drew knows what she’s doing. An experienced alt-comedy pro, she served as lead editor on Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who Is America?” and is a frequent collaborator with Tim Heidecker’s Abso Lutely Prods., whose gleefully junky postmodern aesthetic she wholeheartedly embraces here. Evidently, this project began as a challenge to recut the Joaquin Phoenix “Joker” movie for a friend, then morphed from a subversive resampling job (relying on footage from throughout the wider Batman media-verse) into something far more personal as Drew shed all those unclearable clips in favor of original DIY re-creations.
Relying on contributions of highly variable quality from dozens of other like-minded outsiders, Drew borrows “The Joker’s” idea of the character as a lousy wannabe comedian with mental health issues — except that in this case, instead of being an incel schizophrenic, the Joker is dealing with gender dysphoria awakened by Joel Schumacher’s “Batman Forever” (the film that famously put nipples on the Batsuit). “The People’s Joker” begins in childhood, as an unhappy boy — deadname bleeped — is dragged to Arkham Asylum by his controlling mother (Lynn Downey). There, a quack shrink prescribes him Smylex gas to combat depression. Right from the start, it’s clear that this renegade Batman movie takes place in a hall-of-mirrors version of the world Bob Kane created, where Batman TV shows and movies exist alongside the characters who inspired them.
Smylex puts an artificial smile on little _’s face, but what really amuses the poor kid is dressing up as a face-painted cross between Joker and Harley Quinn — that and watching the UCB sketch comedy show on television. Identifying as this misunderstood Batman villain, Joker enrolls in improv classes with Ra’s al Ghul (David Liebe Hart, about whom Drew directed the series “I Love David” in 2019). Failing those, she pairs up with a beak-nosed classmate (Nathan Faustyn) and establishes an “anti-comedy” club in an abandoned warehouse, attracting other Batman baddies to their open-mic nights. (Bob Odenkirk plays Bob the Goon, Robert Wuhl pops up as himself, and that Heidecker’s voice as the Alex Jones-like wingnut on TV.)
Most of the movie humor reflects the deliberately outrageous, ironically distanced variety found in internet memes and Adult Swim series. These Andy Kaufman-esque routines may be an acquired taste, but it’s encouraging to see the black box theater become a safe space for Joker and her friends — something like a virtual-reality room where outsiders come together in avatar form (which isn’t so far from how it worked for this pandemic-made project). While working there, Drew’s character falls for Mr. J (Kane Distler), another trans performer, this one modeled on the much-maligned Jared Leto Joker from “Suicide Squad.” Turns out, his childhood was even more screwed up than hers (the movie’s potbellied Batman had an active hand in that, recruiting young J to be his Robin), which makes for yet another unhealthy relationship in a film that ultimately insists, “Heroes and villains don’t exist. They were just invented to sell you soda. Life is not a comicbook movie.”
Maybe not, but Drew does her darnedest to make “The People’s Joker” reflect the life she knows, using millennial meta-irony — the sort of caustic cynicism that makes it tough to tell whether she’s intending to be satirical or sincere — to critique the institutions she once held dear. The film pokes fun at canceled comics Bill Cosby and Louis C.K., humiliates a Sim-looking version of Lorne Michaels, and describes John Lasseter as “a walking boundary violation in a Hawaiian shirt,” all while flaunting its own capacity to overstep. That Drew can amuse, offend and still bring it all around to a heartfelt emotional finale (featuring magical trans fairy “Mix Mxyzptlk”) is quite the hat trick.
Logically, “The People’s Joker” defies close analysis — in the sense that certain plot holes seem large enough to drive a Batmobile through — even as it gives media-literate, gender-studies-savvy college kids multiple levels to unpack. The version screened at TIFF (which is all but guaranteed to evolve) featured music there’s no way Drew can clear and overt homages to “Batman: The Animated Series,” redrawn by her own team. As attention-grabbing calling-card projects go (think the “Spirit of Christmas” short that launched “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s careers), this one more than demonstrates Drew’s ingenuity and organizing power. Now, if only she can work out those pesky issues, maybe the people can see “The People’s Joker.”
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