The People's Joker

The People’s Joker is one of the boldest cinematic visions we’ll see this year. How bold? The movie opens with a card of legalese explaining that writer/director/star Vera Drew believes she’s operating within the “fair use” provision of copyright law. That disclaimer is necessary because post-premiere screenings were pulled from the Toronto International Film Festival when Warner Bros. Discovery allegedly complained about the unauthorized use of the DC Comics characters it owns. The company shouldn’t be worried. Aside from adopting those characters in a loving way, this is a funny and touching autobiographical story.

The main character is Joker the Harlequin (played by the filmmaker), and she appears in full costume to tell her story, which we see in flashback. Biologically a boy, she dreams of being on UCB Live, an SNL-type comedy show. Her mother, greatly displeased with her child’s gender dysphoria, forces her into an experimental treatment program at Arkham Asylum. There, the doctor prescribes Smylex, a drug that literally forces a smile onto the face of anyone who uses it. The drug doesn’t take away her belief that she was born into the wrong body. It does, however, spawn her new identity as a cross between the Joker and Harley Quinn.

Once that background is established, Joker the Harlequin starts up an “anti-comedy” show with friend Penguin (Nathan Faustyn), then sets her sights on hosting UCB Live, becoming Gotham’s first transgender hero in the process. She also starts up a relationship with Mr. J (Kane Distler), a brooding figure who resembles Jared Leto in Suicide Squad. Batman skirts around the edges of the plot, dropping in occasionally to assert his dominance in Gotham.

The People’s Joker does something extremely clever. People love comic book origin stories, where an incident of some sort turns a character into a superhero or supervillain. Vera Drew takes that same concept and applies it to transgender people. We’re encouraged to view Joker the Harlequin just as we would view Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, or Selina Kyle. I don’t know if it was the direct intention or not, but the movie could go a long way toward decreasing transphobia. The whole idea of transitioning is shown as a metamorphosis into a cool, exciting new identity, full of awesome possibilities.

This is done in the context of affectionate satire. There are wall-to-wall DC Comics references, jokes, and gags. The ‘80s/’90s Batman movies are prime targets. (The film is dedicated to Joel Schumacher, whose work on Batman Forever and Batman & Robin is the most obvious influence.) Among the amusing concepts are Ra’s al Ghul (David Liebe Hart) portrayed as an improv teacher and the Dark Knight himself as a purveyor of far right-wing politics. Despite the spoofery, the director’s respect for these characters never fails to shine through.

A fascinating low-budget aesthetic is what truly helps The People’s Joker to lift off. The movie embraces its lack of big bucks. Scenes are clearly filmed in front of greenscreens. Various forms of animation are used to tell parts of the story that would be too expensive to do practically. Action figures are utilized for an action scene. Certain characters, like Poison Ivy, are rendered via low-fi CGI. Unexpectedly, this course allows the film to feel more like a comic book come to life than most of the expensive Marvel flicks do.

That manic visual style does feel the slightest bit repetitive by the end, although that in no way dampens the fun. Often mirroring the structure of Todd Phillips’ Joker, The People’s Joker is a poignant look at why people transition and what it means to them. Instead of aiming for didacticism, Vera Drew takes a fun, irreverent approach. This is a celebration of comic book lore, but more importantly, a celebration of transgender people having the courage to stand up and embrace their true selves in a world that can be unfairly hostile to them.

out of four

The People's Joker is unrated, but contains sexual content and some strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.


© 2024 Mike McGranaghan