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The People’s Joker Review: Trans Comic Book Allegory

Mad Joker in the film The People's Joker

You’ll be lost if you’re not on the wavelength of The People’s Joker, but it’s one of the most bizarrely personal films in a long time.

It takes balls to make a film like The People’s Joker. It takes balls to take the familiar tale of Batman and the Joker and everything within DC Comics lore and turn it into a trans allegory. It takes even bigger balls to do all of this without the permission of DC, Warner Bros., or basically anyone that owns the rights to any of these characters whose images have been so finely honed over the past century.

You may have heard some of the snafu over the film after its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, where it was quickly banned because of the aforementioned copyrights, or lack thereof. But Vera Drew, the film’s director/co-writer/editor/star, fought to get the film to see the light of day. Actually, the Batman angle of the film is only tangentially related to the film’s story, and sometimes feels shoe-horned into the allegory. The People’s Joker mostly serves as an autobiographical tale of Drew’s transition, and the difficulties she faced when coming out.

But wait, what does The Joker have to do with being trans? It’s a fair question, but Drew smartly frames it as a way to explore one’s queerness. As a boy growing up, Joker (whose dead name is bleeped out in these segments) was prescribed a medication called Smylex which suppressed the feelings of body dysmorphia and gave her the Joker’s trademark smile. So when the Joker grows into adulthood, she moves to Gotham, where she tries to make it as Gotham’s newest late-nite sensation. Most of the film’s second act revolves around Joker and her new relationship with “Mr. J” (Kane Distler), another hopeful comedian, as she embroils herself in a toxic relationship.

You’ll notice from the opening moments of The People’s Joker – just after the legal copyright disclaimer – that the film was not made with the kind of budget that previous Batman films had. Drew literally shot the live-action portions on a green screen over the course of five days in the back of an office. The film has the aesthetic in almost every manner of a community college student film; the CGI looks like it was done on a computer from 1994, and 2D and 3D animation isn’t exactly on the level of Avatar. And don’t expect anyone’s performances to land anywhere on the Oscar ballot next year. But, somehow, this imbues The People’s Joker with a specific charm which fits with Drew’s singular vision.

Joker (dressed as Harley Quinn) and Mx Mxyzptlk are on the stage in the film The People’s Joker
Joker and Mx Mxyzptlk (Vera Drew and Ember Knight) in the film The People’s Joker (Altered Innocence)

Not everyone will ride The People’s Joker’s wavelength, but that’s exactly the point. Though they’re slightly more prescient today, trans and queer stories like this have rarely felt this personal. Take the DC elements away, and the film could easily be seen as a kind of one-person show. In fact. those references don’t always work, especially as the film goes longer, and the humor is intermittent at best but as with all humor, your mileage will likely vary.

It’s ironic that Drew’s film is coming out now, in the wake of the death of mainstream superhero cinema. Here is a film that somehow spits in the face of comic book conventions, and embraces their quirkiness. And when was the last time any comic book, or franchise, film had more than an ounce of personality from its filmmaker? Drew’s story touches on not just gender and sexual identity, but self-acceptance, toxic relationships, mental illness, and surprisingly enough, the comedy industry. And that The People’s Joker exists as it does is all the proof that we need that her story deserves to be told.

The People’s Joker will open in NYC (IFC Center) on April 5, 2024 and in LA (Landmark’s Nuart Theatre) on April 12, with a national rollout to follow.

The People’s Joker: Trailer (Altered Innocence)
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