‘The People’s Joker’ Review: Vera Drew’s Comic Parody Is Highly Unique, If Shabby Overall

Her film takes elements from other Batman movies and makes them intimate

Altered Innocence

Vera Drew’s “The People’s Joker” opens with a wall of text assuring us — or more accurately, assuring Warner Bros. — that it is legally allowed to exist. It features DC superhero characters like Batman, the Joker, Robin and Ra’s al Ghul, but it’s a parody; it’s not intended to confuse audiences with the “real thing.” But if we’re being honest, that should never have been much of an issue.

“The People’s Joker” was made with the tiniest fraction of even the cheapest modern DC superhero budget and, setting that aside, it’s also doing something a studio-driven superhero flick would never do. It’s saying something profoundly personal and deeply specific. It’s filtering Vera Drew’s autobiographical story through the lens of contemporary popular culture, transforming her own life into myth while transforming corporatized IP into punk rock anarchy.

“Shazam” and “Wonder Woman” are good movies but let’s be honest: They would never. Even Todd Phillips’ Oscar-winning “Joker,” which tried to transform a supervillain origin story into a complex drama a la “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy,” didn’t feel like a personal statement. Like “The People’s Joker” Phillips lifts from other media, copying dramatic and emotional beats from films like “The King of Comedy” and “Taxi Driver,” but it only transforms them by making them about the Joker. It’s too broadly painted to feel completely personal.

Vera Drew’s film, on the other hand, takes elements from other Batman movies and makes them intimate, even confessional. In every scene it transforms its many, obvious influences into new emotional, thematic and dramatic material. Despite its surface familiarities, “The People’s Joker” is about as original as a movie with these corporate icons can get.

Drew plays the title character, who grows up with an emotionally abusive mother (Lynn Downey) who enlists a psychologist, Dr. Jonathan Crane (Christian Calloway), to prescribe antidepressants — Smylex gas — to cure her child of being trans. That child grows up using humor to disguise her feelings and her queerness, and moves to Gotham City to pursue a career in comedy.

In the dystopian hellscape of Gotham City post-“The Dark Knight Returns,” entertainment is heavily regulated. Comedy is outlawed except for a single sketch comedy show, UCB (United Clown Bureau), run with an iron fist by Lorne Michaels (Maria Bamford). Disillusioned, Joker teams up with Penguin (Nathan Faustyn) to invent “anticomedy,” an experimental form of live theater that challenges social and artistic norms, which is legally distinct from UCB’s corporate product. Without a legal strategy, it seems that both “The People’s Joker” and the actual People’s Joker might be sued into oblivion.

It’s long been argued that the Joker — who our protagonist eventually becomes, after falling in love with Mr. J (Kane Distler) and falling into a huge vat of estrogen — is a character who represents chaos, but that’s only the start of an interpretation. Every Joker story that adheres to this concept must also explain what, exactly, “order” represents in the first place. In a functional world the Joker comes across like a villain. In “The People’s Joker,” Gotham’s version of order is extremely oppressive, so our hero’s chaos plays like heroism, messy and violent though that heroism may be.

In Drew’s superhero world Batman represents extremely mainstream media, hypocritical conservatism, and social and economic oppression. The so-called “villains” are only villains because they’re not allowed to be anything else. “Be gay, do crimes” the old adage goes and in “The People’s Joker” they all become legends in the process.

“The People’s Joker” is fabulously queer, down to its cellular structure. It opens with a dedication to Drew’s mother and Joel Schumacher, whose kitschy “Batman Forever” and “Batman and Robin” are one of this film’s key visual influences. Drew incorporates wildly disparate art styles — live-action, 2-D animation, 3-D animation, puppetry, the list goes on — but mostly evokes Schumacher’s “what if Gotham City was Las Vegas” aesthetic. Half the film looks like it’s taking place just off-camera from U2’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” music video.

By framing this story as an extended trans allegory Drew not only changes her own life into something grand but reframes the Batman mythos as something new and powerful. The reason these characters persist after all these decades is, after all, their malleability. They adapt to new storytellers and storytelling styles, and with a little finagling they help us understand ourselves and understand others. “The People’s Joker” celebrates the world it parodies and elevates the original material while boldly pushing it in new and challenging directions.

It’s a cheap movie, let’s be fair, but even that feels renegade since it’s the low-fi, performance art version of some of the most expensive corporate art in existence. It’s also not quite as laugh-out-loud funny as it’s trying to be, with only a few serious zingers truly landing, along with a couple lovable groaners. (Penguin refers to his fish-centric comedy style as “an aquatic taste” and that’s adorable. Burgess Meredith would have made a meal out of that line.)

As the social and economic significance of mainstream superhero movies starts to fade, at least a little bit, we’re finally seeing what they’ve wrought. For decades these characters dominated the pop culture discourse and now we’re watching their influence unfold, instead of just their continued exploitation.

“The People’s Joker” is a shabby work, but it’s an important work. It is, one hopes, an opening salvo for filmmakers yearning to say something real after decades of being subjected to flashy, entertaining yet market-driven art. It’s a Joker movie about actual people, with actual feelings and actual lives. It hand-delivers these corporate-owned characters to the audience members who love them, and declares they belong to us now. The Joker would be proud.

“The People’s Joker” is in theaters now.


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