The People’s Joker, a hilarious trans riff on DC characters, shut down over ‘rights issues’

Polygon has a team on the ground at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, reporting on the horror, comedy, drama, and action movies meant to dominate the cinematic conversation as we head into awards season. This review was published in conjunction with the film’s TIFF premiere.

“This movie is not illegal. I just said that to get you to come.” So says Vera Drew, the writer-director-star-effects artist behind the queer Batman movie The People’s Joker. But before the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Warner Bros. served a cease-and-desist order against the film anyway. Subsequent festival screenings have been canceled, leaving the future of The People’s Joker in doubt.

Vera’s vision of DC Comics’ signature villain the Joker as a metaphor for the trans experience certainly should be covered by fair use and parody under the First Amendment, which protects creators’ right to use what’s now known as “existing IP” for comic effect. The key here is that a parody has to “significantly transform” that IP to make it clear that it isn’t an official release from the rights owner — not a problem when it comes to Vera’s wholly unique film.

Fanfiction might seem like an unlikely vehicle for real-life autobiography. But given how personal the relationship can get between fans and the pop culture they love, it makes sense that Vera, a passionate fan of the Bat-verse, would use the Joker’s character and lore to tell the story of her own transformation from a failed improv comedian into a gloriously unhinged trans agent of comedic chaos. The People’s Joker might even be called an act of comedic terrorism, if it wasn’t so damn sincere.

The movie started when a friend of Vera’s sent her $12 to make “the Vera Drew cut of Todd Phillips’ Joker,” an editing project that eventually turned into an ambitious crowdsourced production. In 2020, Vera put out a call to animators, comedians, and directors on her web series Hot Topics With Vera Drewwhich she described in The People’s Joker‘s post-screening Q&A at TIFF as existing solely “to get me sponsored by Hot Topic” so she can finally live out her dream of being a goth girl in her 30s.

Introducing the project in a YouTube video called “Welcome to The People’s Joker,” Vera asked viewers to send her snippets of themselves and their friends performing as Batman characters, promising she would incorporate them into her “trans coming-of-age story.” The film stars Vera in the story of her gender transition, “using Harley Quinn and The Joker as analogues for the gender experience.”

Hundreds responded. Combined with satirical in-universe TV segments — the most popular TV show in Vera’s Gotham City is a show called Suicide Cop — and green-screen footage shot in Vera’s home, the results were composited into The People’s Joker. Vera joked at the Q&A, “Obviously, I’m a maximalist.” Her film is a riot of visual styles, from classic 2D animation to hand-drawn backdrops of the abandoned theme park where her Joker gets her start as a performer to demented NPCs straight out of a funhouse version of The Sims. Key epiphanies in her protagonist’s life are illustrated with elaborately constructed psychedelic fractals that got applause from audience members for their audacity and artistry. These combine with deliberately crude 8-bit animations that replace expensive special effects, turning the film’s DIY origins into a brain-breaking punchline.

Vera Drew’s day job is at Abso Lutely Productions, the production company behind absurdist anti-comedy TV shows like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Nathan for You, and The Eric Andre Show. (She also directed the most recent season of On Cinema.) Tim Heidecker makes a cameo appearance in the movie, as do Bob Odenkirk and Scott Aukerman. Their own absurdist comedy is a useful touchstone for the sense of humor on display in the movie.

Tim and Eric regular David Liebe Hart plays a major role as Ra’s al Ghul, reimagined here as the guru of an exploitative improv school called UCB — the only legal path to performing comedy in Vera’s version of Gotham City. Saturday Night Live cast member Sarah Sherman plays SNL producer Lorne Michaels, reimagined here as a crudely rendered Lego-type figure with hot-dog limbs who meets his end falling naked down a flight of stairs after slipping on a banana peel. LA comedian Nathan Faustyn, a longtime friend of Vera’s, co-stars as the Penguin, a supportive friend (and alcoholic comedian) who encourages Vera/Joker to come out as trans.

The film isn’t entirely a comedy in-joke, however — which is good, because the story of Vera/Joker’s “anti-comedy” career is the most straightforward and least memorable aspect of the film. Lengthy discussions about the role of comedians as truth-tellers between Joker and the Penguin are standard stuff for podcasts and documentaries about the art form. Comedic first-person trans coming-of-age narratives, particularly ones where the transition is accomplished by falling into a vat of feminizing hormones, are more rare. Dedicated “to mom and Joel Schumacher,” The People’s Joker is also a sincere exploration of Vera’s journey towards self-realization, beginning with her childhood as a “miserable little girl” trapped in a boy’s body in Smallville.

The main character’s dead name is bleeped out whenever someone says it out loud, a humorous sign that this is a trans-made production. The film’s exploration of her relationship with her mother puts a Band-Aid of humor over real pain. At one point, Vera/Joker and her mom have a screaming match at a cafe, yelling, “You’re mentally ill!” “No, you’re mentally ill!” at each other. It got a big laugh at TIFF, as it should have.

Vera/Joker narrates much of the film in a Harley Quinn outfit, popping in for tongue-in-cheek “You might be wondering how I got here” asides that epitomize her witty, withering sense of humor. These combine with sincere odes to Batman stories like Hush, The Dark Knight Returnsand yes, Todd Phillips’ Joker: Vera/Joker is addicted to a laughing gas prescribed to her in childhood by a doctor trying to suppress her trans identity, and she does dance down a 2D rendering of the famous “Joker stairs” once her transformation is complete.

Image: TIFF

The character also has an emotionally abusive romance with “Mr. J,” a trans male version of the Jared Leto version of Joker from David Ayer’s 2016 take on Suicide Squad. One of the most surreal, quintessentially Vera Drew moments in the film comes when Vera/Joker and Mr. J lie in bed telling each other about their childhoods, rendering sincere gender trauma into absurdist comedy by virtue of face paint and a “Damaged” forehead tattoo. The film culminates in a deeply odd but moving musical number, where Vera/Joker wishes for just “one happy memory” from her childhood from a fairy puppet named Mx. Myxzyx.

TIFF Midnight Madness programmer Peter Kuplowsky has been a steadfast supporter of The People’s Joker. According to a member of the movie’s team who asked to remain anonymous, the fact that the film got even one public screening came down to Kuplowsky taking a stand on defying the injunction.

Warner Bros.’ cease-and-desist order came hours before the film was set to premiere, and at TIFF, the cast and crew described a stressful, uncertain leadup to the film’s midnight premiere on Sept. 13 — which, if they can’t get the film’s legal issues sorted out, may end up being its only public screening ever. Which would be regrettable — in an age where corporate IP has become a de facto religion in global cinema culture, The People’s Joker is a blasphemous Molotov cocktail of a movie, with a unique and valuable point of view. And it’s hilarious, too.

For the moment, subsequent TIFF screenings have been canceled, and the film’s future is unclear. It was scheduled to appear at other festivals later this year, including Fantastic Fest and Beyond Fest later in September. Vera was seeking a distributor for the film, a quest that definitely just got harder. But she’s clearly smart and savvy about her public image. With luck, she’ll be able to spin the inevitable publicity around the injunction to her advantage. If not, she might just have to unleash the film on the world herself, like the Joker she is.

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