Though it was pulled from subsequent screenings, the buzzy Midnight Madness premiere of “The People’s Joker” at the Toronto International Film Festival will not be its last. Coming out as a bold filmmaker with a fearless voice, prolific alt comedy editor Vera Drew’s mixed media dystopia is an experimental trans coming of age story wrapped in a scathing critique and confident rebuke of mainstream comedy. Fiercely original and deeply personal, it’s too damn good not to be seen.
Though the film is steeped in the iconography of DC Comics characters like Batman, Penguin, and Joker, “The People’s Joker” takes more shots at “Saturday Night Live” and Lorne Michaels than it does at the Batverse. (Okay, diehard Batman fans may bristle at seeing him portrayed as a creepy groomer, but is that such a stretch for a vigilante billionaire with unprocessed childhood trauma?) The film’s pointed jabs at commercial comedy as a propaganda machine for the billionaire class has far more bite, and any attempt by a corporate entity to silence that message only proves the point.
In a statement on Twitter, Drew said she voluntarily pulled the film from TIFF after receiving an “angry letter” from a “media conglomerate that shall remain nameless.” Though Warner Bros. Discovery, which owns DC Comics, is the suspected culprit, Michaels and NBC aren’t likely to be too happy either. “I went to great lengths with legal counsel to have it fall under parody/fair use,” she wrote. An opening title card introduces the film as an unauthorized parody, citing Section 107 of the United States Copyright Act of 1976, “which allows ‘fair use’ for purposes such as a relevant criticism, social commentary or education.”
That’s a pretty solid argument when you consider the film is a loosely autobiographical experimental comedy about the filmmaker discovering she’s trans. Like most comic book movies, “The People’s Joker” starts with an origin story. Blending live-action and simple cartoonish animation, Drew plays both protagonist and narrator as she charts her journey from sad little boy to aspiring alt comedian to anarchist t-girl. Though she adopts the name Joker The Harlequin later in the film, her dead name is used but always bleeped out — except to pack an emotional punch in one pivotal scene.
Growing up in Smallville with an emotionally abusive mother and absentee father, the only joy in Joker’s childhood was the weekly broadcast of Gotham’s sketch comedy show “UCB Live.” (In Gotham, UCB stands for United Clown Bureau.) As it so often does for queer kids, lightning strikes at the movie theater, when she encounters the divine feminine via Nicole Kidman in Joel Shumacher’s 1995 “Batman Forever.” (The film is dedicated to “Mom and Joel Shumacher.”) In the car ride home, she tells her mom she thinks she was born in the wrong body. This being a villain origin story, she is carted off to a quack doctor who prescribes her Smylex, a laughing gas that will make her “Mama’s happy little boy.”
Her pain masked with drug dependency, she moves to Gotham City to pursue a career as a clown. With comedy criminalized except for the government-sanctioned UCB sketch show, she enrolls in clown school, where clowns can either be Jokers or Harlequins. Anyone who has attempted improv comedy will cringe in recognition as a young woman is forced to “yes, and” playing a stripper. “Sounds like a pyramid scheme,” Joker observes, before a puff of Smylex hazes her in the face, instantly relaxing her. “But it’s my dream.”
Disillusioned with the formulaic clown school, Joker and her punny friend Penguin decide to start an “anti-comedy” theater, where auditions attract the likes of a sophomoric Riddler and non-binary Poison Ivy. Still unsure of her sexuality, Joker cannot hide her swooning over Jason Todd, a troubled trans man with a neon green buzzcut who has a history with Batman. While their whirlwind romance helps her discover her gender identity, it comes at a cost. Trauma bonding soon leads to emotional manipulation and gaslighting, a dangerous dynamic she makes sure to warn the viewer against romanticizing.
As a TV editor and director, Drew’s credits include alt comedy mainstays “On Cinema,” “Comedy Bang! Bang!” and “I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson,” among others. With such bona fides, she has no qualms calling out the issues with mainstream comedy, even going so far as to include Lorne Michaels as a squeaky voiced cartoon man baby. Other markers of this distinguished background are the multiple times she breaks the fourth wall, Penguin’s steady stream of fish puns, and a direct call out of RuPaul’s fracking investments.
Making the most of a lean independent budget, the film’s creative use of mixed media is a visually clever way to mix its chaotic metaphors. DC may own the IP, but Batman has seen so many iterations that even the most superhero agnostic will recognize its many styles. The film includes visual references to the 1990s animated Batman series, the movies by Shumacher and Tim Burton, as well as to Todd Philips’ explosive 2019 “Joker.” This pastiche of interpretations seems to make a case for Batman as fair game for fair use.
Hopefully, legal woes will plague “The People’s Joker” just enough to drum up interest in Drew’s wild invention, but not enough to scare away the right distributor. Unlike many comedies — alternative and mainstream — “The People’s Joker” is not so in love with its own satire to rob it of any emotional truth. Underneath the satirical madness lies a genuinely moving story of self-acceptance, self-love, and the inspiring act of an artist stepping into her power. All jokes aside, the people deserve to see it.
“The People’s Joker” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.