‘The People’s Joker’ is a Wildly Funny Parody with Queer DIY Charm (Review)

by | Apr 25, 2024


After a successful crowdfunding campaign and years in legal limbo thanks to many cease-and-desists amid “rights issues”, Vera Drew’s coming-of-age parody film is finally being released in all its maniacal, surreal comedy glory.

Artists in all the various subgroups within the LGBTQ+ spectrum have had to rely on ‘do-it-yourself’ techniques of getting independent films off the ground in order to have any chance of breaking into the film industry on their own, with The Watermelon Woman being the prime example for Black lesbians in 1996. Transgender comedienne Vera Drew is poised to join the company of Cheryl Dunye as her own legend in queer cinema for her valiant fight against Warner Bros. Discovery to get her coming-of-age parody film The People’s Joker out to the masses, and for her debut feature film’s rebellious existence as a manic satire of society from the eyes of a trans woman, as well as an impassioned encapsulation of her life experiences through the famous DC Comics characters.

The People’s Joker is told in flashback by Joker The Harlequin (Vera Drew), who narrates an extremely irreverent and absurdist version of her life story, starting from her times as a male youth (the deadname of which is censored out) living in Smallville, Kansas. Drew recalls the moment where she realized she was a woman in a man’s body after young Vera (Griffin Kramer) sees a movie in a theater that clearly isn’t a stand-in for Batman Forever, and poses that question to her mother (Lynn Downey), who responds to this by taking her child to Arkham Asylum. Once admitted, Dr. Jonathan Crane (Christian Calloway) pumps her with a toxin called Smilex, which represses her gender dysphoria and sexual impulses with happy, cishet thoughts.

Flash forward to adulthood, and Vera has moved to Gotham City to pursue a career as a standup comic. Trouble is, the only comedy game in town is a nationally televised sketch comedy troupe called the United Clown Bureau that has Lorne Michaels (Maria Bamford) at the helm, as well as an ungodly amount of requirements to become a cast member. With the UCB out of reach, Vera joins fellow struggling comic Oswald Cobblepot (Nathan Faustin) in starting their own anti-comedy troupe in an abandoned theme park. It’s there Vera meets and falls in love with Jason Todd (Kane Distler), who helps her transition into a woman and her persona of Joker The Harlequin, but at the price of dealing with his emotional manipulation and toxicity. 

If that plot description doesn’t rope you into seeing The People’s Joker, neither will the DIY aesthetic of the film that layers footage shot on green screen over more footage shot on green screen amongst cheap animation effects that makes the garish darkness of Gotham City look uglier than it did in Todd Phillips’ Best Picture nominee, nor will its breakneck pacing. Jokes come a mile a minute to the point where even elements of worldbuilding and emotional development are easy to miss. 

But the frantic speed and DIY approach to The People’s Joker is not done without purpose. Like others in the transgender community who have faced an unfathomable amount of discrimination and bigotry in our country, Drew has a LOT to get off her chest, and does so through satirical dialogue that pokes fun at a society that promotes the illusion of accepting the LGBTQ+ community, such as far-right Presidential candidate Bruce Wayne (Phil Braun) monitoring Gotham with Bat-drones that conveniently come in rainbow colors for Pride month. There’s also a level of camp to be found in the script for The People’s Joker, like a scene early on when young Vera fights back against her mother pushing him into treatment by pleading, “I promise I’ll never even tell you I’m sad!”

And that’s not the only style of humor Drew uses to strong effect in The People’s Joker. Her experience working under Tim Heidecker (who also has a voice role here as Alex Jones-esque shock jock Perry Mason) pays off via surreal humor that adds both catharsis and a level of horror to Joker The Harlequin’s experiences. An example of the latter is when young Vera walks alone through a dark purple void surrounded by a myriad of television screens playing all the trash TV and news reports to visualize her isolation in the world. This exists in tandem with all the instances where Vera’s face distorts into a frightening smile after using a Smilex inhaler through animation not unlike the after effects in a YouTube video from artist David Firth.

As director, Drew dedicates The People’s Joker to her mother as well as Joel Schumacher, and she injects her first full-length narrative with the same youthful spirit as the late filmmaker did in Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Drew’s novel vision and energy only amplifies the dreamlike anarchy of her comedy through a hodgepodge of mediums to tell her story, from using neon-lit handmade miniatures of Gotham City and Flash animated sequences in homage to Batman: The Animated Series to 3D animated cars whizzing through the neighborhood and even fight sequences staged with action figures standing in for the famous comic book characters, all of which collectively add a childlike endearment to the events on screen.

It’s outrageous that Warner Bros. Discovery would want this to join their permanently-shelved Batgirl and Coyote v. ACME in the cinematic Phantom Zone, because The People’s Joker is a film made not only for her childhood self, but also the child inside transgendered people everywhere. Audiences will laugh at the recontextualization of classic lines from other Batman films, note the humorous use of all their favorite DC characters’ celluloid incarnations (Jason Todd is literally modeled after Jared Leto’s Joker from 2016’s Suicide Squad, ‘Damaged’ tattoo and all), and admire Drew’s vulnerability to tell her tumultuous life story with a demented and outlandish, but most importantly proud and well, happy face.

RATING: ★1/2

(out of five stars)