‘The People’s Joker’ Review: A Trans Journey Through Gotham City

Shot over five days, this very indie movie stars writer-director Vera Drew as Joker the Harlequin and borrows liberally from the Batman universe to tell a story of personal discovery.

Vera Drew in The People’s Joker. Courtesy of Altered Innocence

The People’s Joker might be the most unexpected indie darling to hit art houses in recent memory. Originally premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2022 before being pulled from the schedule, The People’s Joker is a crowdfunded comedy in which transgender writer-director Vera Drew stars as Joker the Harlequin, an aspiring comedian living in a dystopian metropolis where performing comedy without a license is punishable by death. When she arrives in town, she hasn’t yet embraced her gender or sexual identity, and instead smothers her misery with prescription laughing gas that’s been pushed on her since childhood. Through her community of anti-comedians and a whirlwind romance with a fellow queer clown, Joker comes into her own and leads a siege against the comedic establishment.

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THE PEOPLE'S JOKER ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Directed by: Vera Drew
Written by: Bri LeRose, Vera Drew
Starring:Vera Drew, Lynn Downey, Christian Calloway, Griffin Kramer, Kane Distler, Nathan Faustyn, Phil Braun, David Liebe Hart, Scott Aukerman, Tim Heidecker, Maria Bamford, Bob Odenkirk
Running time: 92 mins.

I’ve buried the lede here: The film takes place in a bastardized version of Gotham City, and most of the characters are styled and/or named after figures from Batman stories. The People’s Joker riffs on just about every Batman movie ever made as well as a fair share of comics, cartoons, and games, but it’s not so much a parody as it is a personal reflection and power fantasy. The film pitches itself as autobiographical and uses familiar superhero iconography to dress up the characters in the author’s life, telling a sensationalized version of her own story and piling on layers of subtext from the pirated source material.

Vera Drew’s allusions rank from the obvious to the remarkably obscure. Some are pointed out directly to the audience by the lead character, who breaks the fourth wall for occasional narration and asides. Her relationship with her boyfriend, for instance, is based on the romance between Joker and Harley Quinn, which has been fetishized by some fans despite being textually abusive, and Joker the Harlequin chastises her past self for not recognizing the signs of her emotional captivity. Others require the audience to match the author’s level of obsession. One of the film’s several animated sequences (each created in a different style by different animators) is a climactic battle between Vera’s Joker and Batman, who is depicted as an abusive closeted gay man. This scene appears to have been traced over a dream sequence from Batman: The Animated Series in which Bruce Wayne is fighting himself, subtly evoking the idea of Joker triumphing over the self-loathing version of herself that she’s left behind.

Fans have always reappropriated corporately-owned comics characters to express themselves and tell their own stories, particularly in a queer context. (Gay Romance is the predominant genre in fanfiction the way Superhero is the predominant genre in American comics.) What’s audacious is to do so at the scale of a feature film and to dare the rights holders to stop you. The People’s Joker is anti-authoritarian in a way that even, say, the animated Harley Quinn series that features a bisexual antiheroine who explicitly voted for Bernie, can never be. No authorities were involved in the making of this motion picture and, if its initial but ambiguous removal from TIFF is any indication, said authorities would prefer you didn’t see it. Between its transgressive nature and its chaotic structure, that makes it the most Joker-like of any film to star the character. (Grant Morrison, a comics writer who wrote some of the best Joker stories and who loves weird metatextual experiments, would be proud.)

The fact that The People’s Joker’s very existence is transgressive accounts for a lot of its appeal, but even if you strip away the Batman of it all, you’d be left with a charming and weird mixed-media super-indie. The People’s Joker is shot primarily and very obviously on a green screen with a production quality just a hair above a Neil Breen movie. Some characters are lo-res 3D models, some scenes are performed with action figures, and everything feels cheap and handmade in a playful sort of way. This, the film seems to assert, is what it takes to create undiluted queer art. You can’t count on the support of people with money, i.e. the straights. Just call your friend who knows AfterEffects and work something out.

An animated scene from The People’s Joker. Kay Kypers

The aggressive DIY spirit of The People’s Joker makes it difficult to appraise critically. Most of the performances are stilted and amateurish, but that makes sense, given that many of the performers are either non-actors or members of the Tim & Eric anti-comedy oeuvre, where awkward unreality is the aim. There are no interesting photography choices except those borrowed from existing Batman movies, but what should you expect from something shot against a green screen over a span of five days? The narrative is undeniably self-indulgent, and though that’s certainly a criticism you can make of a film made using millions of studio dollars, I’m not sure it really applies to a crowdfunded movie made by a comedian and her friends. 

It’s also clear to me that, even if that’s how it looks from where I’m sitting, Vera Drew is not the only person being indulged by The People’s Joker. I can sympathetically and intellectually appreciate just how rare it is to see a wacky comic-book movie about growing up trans and finding yourself and your people, about coping with a repressive parent who takes your gender dysphoria as a personal affront, of struggling to build a healthy relationship when so many of your peers are similarly traumatized by a society that is hostile to their very existence. As a straight guy who travels in queer circles, I know how common these stories are, but they are not my stories, and seeing them projected on the big screen will never mean the same thing to me as to the people they happen to.

When I shared my initial response to watching my home screener of The People’s Joker, my (trans) colleague Claire Mulkerin said, “Trust me, the film gains a full star if you watched it in a packed theater of screaming trans people.” This is certainly the way it was intended to be seen, but if that experience is unavailable to you, there are still other avenues by which to appreciate it. For you, maybe it’ll be a laugh, maybe it’ll be an anthropological exercise, or maybe it’ll be a life-affirming moment of recognition. 

‘The People’s Joker’ Review: A Trans Journey Through Gotham City