Batman is one of modern pop culture’s most beloved myths—and by extension, so too is the Joker, the maniacally villainous flip side to the broodingly heroic Caped Crusader. That two different actors (Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix) have won Academy Awards for playing the Clown Prince of Crime speaks to the character’s status as a reflection and expression of myriad contemporary sociopolitical forces. He’s the anarchic madman of our comic book-fueled nightmares, ushering in nihilistic destruction with a giddy smile, although for Vera Drew, he’s also something else: a vivacious vehicle for processing her trans identity.
Directed and co-written (with Bri LeRose) by Drew, who also stars, The People’s Joker is a satiric queer coming-of-age story that’s filtered through a warped Dark Knight lens and constructed with ramshackle DIY verve. Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10, Drew’s feature directorial debut has the sort of gonzo spirit that marked her prior collaborations with Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim on Our Bodies, On Cinema and I Love David, melding rudimentary green-screen effects, wildly divergent animation and absurdist TV commercial spoofs for an off-kilter saga about the bumpy path to self-discovery. Made with the help of over 100 artists (including Bob Odenkirk and Scott Aukerman) who crafted their pieces of this scattershot puzzle independently during the COVID-19 quarantine, it’s a freewheeling and loopy affair that will feel familiar to fans of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! (and its offspring), albeit if that influential series had been consumed with all things superheroic.
Drew clearly knows her Batman lore, as The People’s Joker endlessly cites and riffs on a wide array of notable elements from the character’s multimedia history. Opening in Smallville, it first focuses on Drew as a young biologically male kid, who upsets and confuses her mom (Lynn Downey) by asking, “Was I born in the wrong body?” This query gets Drew sent to Arkham Asylum to see Dr. Crane (Christian Calloway), aka the Scarecrow, who prescribes a medication designed to squash any pesky gender dysphoria: Smylex, an inhaled gas that puts a big grin on its users’ faces. This doesn’t do the intended trick, though, and certainly doesn’t quell Drew’s desire to make it big as a comedian on UCB Live, a Saturday Night Live sketch-comedy show run by Lorne Michaels in Gotham in which men get to be boorish jokemen and women get to be sexualized harlequins—and which only hires those who’ve completed an educational course financed by Wayne Enterprises.
“As far back as I could remember, I always wanted to be a Joker,” says Drew’s Joker the Harlequin in a studio dressing room, thereby simultaneously referencing Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Todd Phillips’ Joker. The nods to movies, TV shows, and entertainment-industry clichés only escalate from there, all of them twisted into new and surprising shape by Drew, who upon arriving in Gotham immediately flames out in her UCB audition but befriends Penguin (Nathan Faustyn), who inspires her to set up her own anti-comedy troupe in an abandoned amusement-park warehouse. Before long, she’s assembled a collection of misfits who are all well-known Batman adversaries. More importantly, she begins mining her experiences for her routine—something that’s far more honest and productive than the insincere and awful sex-and-the-Holocaust joke she tries out on Penguin.
Drew soon falls in love with Jason Todd (Kane Distler), a former Robin who now resembles Jared Leto’s Suicide Squad version of the Joker, and while their romance is toxic, it proves a necessary step on our heroine’s journey toward figuring out who she is and what she wants. The guise she eventually settles on is Joker the Harlequin, a cross between the clownish baddie and his co-dependent girlfriend that comes across as a manifestation of Drew’s ongoing inner struggle. Drew embodies her protagonist as a thinly veiled autobiographical smart-ass who’s at once awkward, vulnerable, wounded and unhinged, and she narrates her tale with an emotional candor and sarcastic wit that helps offset occasional sequences that go nowhere or resort to imparting lessons about trans life via exposition rather than through inventive drama.
Joker the Harlequin’s odyssey leads to conflict with Batman (Phil Braun), here imagined as a fascistic corporate overlord, aspiring political candidate (now that President Lex Luthor, resembling a bald Donald Trump, has died), and pedophilic groomer with a taste for young trans wards. None of those critical characterizations are particularly novel, but The People’s Joker thrives less on singular originality than on melding various aspects of the Batman and Joker legends into an idiosyncratic funhouse mirror-esque saga about self-definition. Unhealthy boyfriends, disapproving mothers, exploitative (or absentee) father figures, and makeshift families all factor into the film, which delivers a steady stream of gags about the relationship between capitalism and authoritarianism, the fraught dynamics between internal emotions and outward appearances, and the difficulty of viewing everything (the world, conflicts, and people) in strict binary terms.
“‘The People’s Joker’ thrives less on singular originality than on melding various aspects of the Batman and Joker legends into an idiosyncratic funhouse mirror-esque saga about self-definition.”
After much madness, Joker the Harlequin nabs a groundbreaking guest spot hosting UCB Live and is trained for that momentous gig by her idol Ra’s Al Ghul (frequent Tim and Eric accomplice David Liebe Hart), a legendary funnyman who extols the virtues of humorous chaos. The People’s Joker is itself a demonstration of that ethos, throwing caution to the wind by indulging in uninhibited Batman-related nonsense. When the Penguin chides his friend for preaching iconoclastic outsider-dom and then eagerly selling out at the first opportunity, it’s a critique that Drew (and her on-screen proxy) takes to heart. The result is a finale that plummets into ever-trippier realms, all animated explosions of light, color and fluids, Saturday morning-style TV cartoon segments, variations on Phoenix’s Joker dance number, and random asides about how Pixar is “emotionally manipulative and John Lasseter is a walking boundary violation in a Hawaiian shirt.”
By the time The People’s Joker gets around to celebrating the birth of Rick Moranis (because, well, he’s great), Drew has long since fashioned her film into a collage of personal crises, entertainment infatuations, and gonzo non sequiturs. It’s probably not the trans origin story that DC Comics wanted, but it’s nonetheless one that many others will likely need.