May 30, 2024 4:52 pm

The People's Joker
The People's Joker

The People’s Joker

Before you see a single frame of Vera Drew’s Batman-soaked satire “The People’s Joker,” you’re greeted with an enormous wall-of-text disclaimer: “This film is a parody and is at present time completely unauthorized by DC Comics, Warner Bros. Discovery, or anyone else claiming ownership of the characters and subjects that it parodies and references,” etc. Then, a smaller, more personal dedication: “To Mom, and Joel Schumacher.” 

This crystallizes the central conflict of “The People’s Joker” in a nutshell: Emotional freedom versus corporate control, fan reclamation vs. the tyranny of IP. The film has had a long road to wider distribution. Its 2022 TIFF debut was limited exclusively to its Midnight Madness premiere, as threats from Warner Bros. led Drew to pull it from subsequent screenings. Now it’s finally available for non-festival audiences, and we’re damn glad of it.

For Drew, a New York-based trans comedienne who works as an editor for alt-comedy shows like “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson” and “Tim and Eric,” “The People’s Joker” is less a down-the-barrel takedown of the world of the Caped Crusader than it is a Bat-filtered lens through which she channels her life story as a trans woman and underground comic artist. Like any good supervillain, Joker the Harlequin (Drew) has a traumatic origin story of her own: A sheltered Midwestern childhood, an absent father, a judgy, emotionally unavailable mother (Lynn Downey), the creeping specter of gender dysphoria. The only comforts she can find are in Batman comics, in watching Nicole Kidman play with Val Kilmer’s rubber nipples in “Batman Forever,” and in the clownish antics of an “SNL”-like sketch show called “UCB.” “As far back as I could remember,” she narrates, “I always wanted to be a Joker.”

Finally saving up enough to leave home, Drew packs up and moves to Gotham City to audition for UCB. But when she’s drummed out on Day One, she finds new family with fellow comedy dropout Penguin (Nathan Faustyn), and together they start an “anti-comedy” venue with the rest of the city’s villains. Along the way, she discovers her nascent transness—her own Jokerfication, if you will—thanks to a relentless schedule of sketch-comedy burnout and a prototypically toxic relationship with a fellow Joker (a Jared Leto transmasc type played by Kane Distler).

It’s a garish, anarchic gumbo that works because of, not despite, its messiness. Drew whirls us from one scene to another with all the fragmented logic you’d expect from the Clown Prince of Crime. Except this time, she’s the Clown Princess of Comedy, and the Batman trappings feel like a familiar, loving blanket with which she explores her frustrations with (and community found in) the comedy world. There’s the incestuous nature of NY comedy social climbing, the pricey comedy classes, the bleakness of its dating scene (one of Joker’s eventual rules of love she imparts on us: “Don’t date comedians. Ever.”) But it’s all dressed up in a fan-pleasing mélange of references from Batman stories across a number of mediums and eras—the ‘60s show’s whirling scene transitions, “Batman Begins”’ ice-sheet swordfight as Comedy 101 training, even “Joker”s revelatory stairway dance.

Like the best examples of anti-comedy, there’s an amateurishness to the material and the performances that paradoxically works to the film’s benefit. Drew is an assured performer, but her natural nerves on screen simply translates to Joker’s own shyness in the early stretches. When she begins to fully, as the Internet would say, become the Joker, she nails the manic cackle and Chaplinesque physicality required of the part. (Her sensibilities flit between Jack Nicholson and Joaquin Phoenix at the blink of an eye.) Downey and Distler acquit themselves well as the two devils pulling on Joker’s shoulder from opposite ends, letting us see the insecurities that fuel their various manipulations. 

Obviously bereft of the sky-high budgets DC movies typically command, “The People’s Joker” instead boosts Drew’s smart green-screen scenes with a lush, vibrant collage of animation styles ranging from crude Newgrounds-level cartoons to “Minecraft” environments and the kind of floppy CG models you’d see in those wacky Japanese news segments. She commissioned hundreds of artists to pull this off, and the resulting collage throws something new and unpredictable your way. It’s a film about outsiders, made by outsiders, that feels like outsider art, which is maybe the most exciting thing about it.

Watching “The People’s Joker” feels like getting away with something. And indeed, we, and Drew, are—freed from fealty to corporate IP and swimming in the transformative sea of fair use, the film is free to reinvent superhero cinema in her own image. The world of comic books, after all, is about masks and double identities, the new faces people put on to become who they’re meant to be. Why not transpose that to the two-faced world of professional comedy, and more importantly, to the journeys trans and nonbinary people take to find their own alter egos? In an age where more of us seem sick of superhero flicks than ever, maybe it’s time for a new clown to seize the town.

Before you see a single frame of Vera Drew’s Batman-soaked satire “The People’s Joker,” you’re greeted with an enormous wall-of-text disclaimer: “This film is a parody and is at present time completely unauthorized by DC Comics, Warner Bros. Discovery, or anyone else claiming ownership of the characters and subjects that it parodies and references,” etc. Then, a smaller, more personal dedication: “To Mom, and Joel Schumacher.”  This crystallizes the central conflict of “The People’s Joker” in a nutshell: Emotional freedom versus corporate control, fan reclamation vs. the tyranny of IP. The film has had a long road to wider distribution. Its 2022 TIFF debut was limited exclusively to its Midnight Madness premiere, as threats from Warner Bros. led Drew to pull it from subsequent screenings. Now it’s finally available for non-festival audiences, and we’re damn glad of it. For Drew, a New York-based trans comedienne who works as an editor for alt-comedy shows like “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson” and “Tim and Eric,” “The People’s Joker” is less a down-the-barrel takedown of the world of the Caped Crusader than it is a Bat-filtered lens through which she channels her life story as a trans woman and underground comic artist. Like any good supervillain, Joker the Harlequin (Drew) has a traumatic origin story of her own: A sheltered Midwestern childhood, an absent father, a judgy, emotionally unavailable mother (Lynn Downey), the creeping specter of gender dysphoria. The only comforts she can find are in Batman comics, in watching Nicole Kidman play with Val Kilmer’s rubber nipples in “Batman Forever,” and in the clownish antics of an “SNL”-like sketch show called “UCB.” “As far back as I could remember,” she narrates, “I always wanted to be a Joker.” Finally saving up enough to leave home, Drew packs up and moves to Gotham City to audition for UCB. But when she’s drummed out on Day One, she finds new family with fellow comedy dropout Penguin (Nathan Faustyn), and together they start an “anti-comedy” venue with the rest of the city’s villains. Along the way, she discovers her nascent transness—her own Jokerfication, if you will—thanks to a relentless schedule of sketch-comedy burnout and a prototypically toxic relationship with a fellow Joker (a Jared Leto transmasc type played by Kane Distler). It’s a garish, anarchic gumbo that works because of, not despite, its messiness. Drew whirls us from one scene to another with all the fragmented logic you’d expect from the Clown Prince of Crime. Except this time, she’s the Clown Princess of Comedy, and the Batman trappings feel like a familiar, loving blanket with which she explores her frustrations with (and community found in) the comedy world. There’s the incestuous nature of NY comedy social climbing, the pricey comedy classes, the bleakness of its dating scene (one of Joker’s eventual rules of love she imparts on us: “Don’t date comedians. Ever.”) But it’s all dressed up in a fan-pleasing mélange of references from Batman stories across a number of mediums and eras—the ‘60s show’s whirling scene transitions, “Batman Begins”’ ice-sheet swordfight as Comedy 101 training, even “Joker”s revelatory stairway dance. Like the best examples of anti-comedy, there’s an amateurishness to the material and the performances that paradoxically works to the film’s benefit. Drew is an assured performer, but her natural nerves on screen simply translates to Joker’s own shyness in the early stretches. When she begins to fully, as the Internet would say, become the Joker, she nails the manic cackle and Chaplinesque physicality required of the part. (Her sensibilities flit between Jack Nicholson and Joaquin Phoenix at the blink of an eye.) Downey and Distler acquit themselves well as the two devils pulling on Joker’s shoulder from opposite ends, letting us see the insecurities that fuel their various manipulations.  Obviously bereft of the sky-high budgets DC movies typically command, “The People’s Joker” instead boosts Drew’s smart green-screen scenes with a lush, vibrant collage of animation styles ranging from crude Newgrounds-level cartoons to “Minecraft” environments and the kind of floppy CG models you’d see in those wacky Japanese news segments. She commissioned hundreds of artists to pull this off, and the resulting collage throws something new and unpredictable your way. It’s a film about outsiders, made by outsiders, that feels like outsider art, which is maybe the most exciting thing about it. Watching “The People’s Joker” feels like getting away with something. And indeed, we, and Drew, are—freed from fealty to corporate IP and swimming in the transformative sea of fair use, the film is free to reinvent superhero cinema in her own image. The world of comic books, after all, is about masks and double identities, the new faces people put on to become who they’re meant to be. Why not transpose that to the two-faced world of professional comedy, and more importantly, to the journeys trans and nonbinary people take to find their own alter egos? In an age where more of us seem sick of superhero flicks than ever, maybe it’s time for a new clown to seize the town. Read More