Credit: Vera Drew/Altered Innocence
by Ryan Coleman Featured Film Genre Views

The People’s Joker — Vera Drew

April 2, 2024

After generating a considerable amount of notoriety and speculation for a film of its scale, the people can now finally watch The People’s Joker. It has been a long, weird road for Vera Drew, who directed, co-wrote, edited, and stars in the film. What began as a tongue-in-cheek $12 Venmo commission by Bri LeRose, the film’s eventual co-writer, for Drew to make a “fart edit” of Todd Phillips’ 2019 film Joker mutated into an original, feature-length effort to tell, through the idiom of Batman lore, Drew’s twin coming-of-age stories: finding her place in the comedy world and coming out as a trans woman. The resulting creation, The People’s Joker, premiered in TIFF’s Midnight Madness section in 2022, but was pulled after a single screening following an “angry letter” from Warner Bros. In the same way that Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink went from festival sidebar oddity to word-of-mouth folk legend due to it being leaked and widely circulated online, Warner’s suppression attempt backfired, endowing The People’s Joker with a cult film aura alluring enough to secure distribution from Altered Innocence and multiply its audience many times over.

The People’s Joker tells Drew’s story from the first inklings of unbelonging in childhood through a dysphoric, closeted adolescence, to the great revolution of young adulthood — rejecting family and society’s controlling scripts, embracing her trans identity, and finding her comic voice. It is, in other words, a standard issue, 21st-century personal adversity narrative. Drew doesn’t trace a straight line through the familiar beats, but the frenetic hopscotch she performs ultimately touches down on most of them — the sinister doctor at the psychiatric clinic, the ingenuous mistake of hoping your first t4t relationship will save you, lines like, “Forget gender, I didn’t even know if I existed. Each morning I created myself and each night I smiled myself to death.”

The People’s Joker isn’t weaker for its borrowed parts. Indeed, formula and cliche are simply states that narrative types enter into after so much regurgitation and commodification. They can still be used to fresh and invigorating effect — just look at the work of filmmakers like Doug Campbell, Katt Shea, and Riverdale’s Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who work with rather than against formula to manipulate audience expectations and recover the visceral power of broadly familiar story beats. Trans stories are politicized whether they like it or not, so the work of mediating formula’s entropic effects is crucial. Fortunately, trans and queer artists are often the most gifted master narrative manipulators, having found their first community within media rather than real life. Drew displays a considerable dexterity for pop cultural recombination that likely comes as much from personal experience as professional — she was a long-time editor at Tim Heidecker’s Abso Lutely Productions, working on high-profile “anti comedy” projects like On Cinema and I Think You Should Leave. The People’s Joker utilizes formal elements like voiceover to both satirize the coming out narrative and exploit its comic potential, as in this early line: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a Joker.”

But the real paddles she takes to the coming out story and the adversity narrative are in the staging of her experiences within a surreal, disorienting reconstitution of the Batman universe. Drew’s character isn’t sent to a psychiatric clinic as a child (Griffin Kramer) when she asks her mother (Lynn Downey) if she was “born in the wrong body,” but Arkham Asylum. When she takes her shot at every comedian’s dream, she doesn’t move to New York to audition for SNL, but to Gotham to audition for UCB (the United Clown Bureau, a kind of devitalized, conformist mouthpiece for the ruling class, presided over by the sellout technocrat Batman, who has made comedy illegal). The conceptual gambit pays off. The highs (falling into a radioactive vat of feminizing chemicals as transition montage) and lows (finding herself trapped in an abusive relationship with a transmasc Jared Leto Joker [Kane Distler]) of her hybridized gender and comedy journeys rise with new life off the operating table.

The People’s Joker’s most effective experiment isn’t actually with story, but form. Drew’s Gotham is a dazzlingly crude formal jalopy. The primary mode is live action shot on green screen, onto which cartoonishly rendered digital art backgrounds and CG composites of various Gotham landmarks are projected. Before The People’s Joker had even entered the crowdfunding stage, Drew put out a call to trans and queer artists on her Highland Park TV webseries Hot Topics With Vera Drew to submit clips of themselves as Batman characters in their preferred artistic style. The highlights were culled and collaged into the final film, which phases seamlessly from 3D-rendered gameplay walkthrough footage, to “The Most Popular Girls in School”-style stopmotion animated Barbie action, to a scene animated in watercolors evolving over the turning pages of a book.

Your mileage may vary where the humor is concerned. And you can’t hide from it in a film so relentlessly parodic. Drew’s sense of humor, which has been described in numerous reviews as “anarchic,” can certainly be edgy (“I used to call my girlfriend’s pussy Treblinka — because it was next to the gas chamber” went one joke from a standup scene that drew the only winces from my very game audience). But her firm footing in comic book nerd culture and the slight, yet unignorable charge of theater kid energy make The People’s Joker read as much like Lin Manuel Miranda shitliberalism as it does like a sketch from The Eric Andre Show, the most radical property in her former employer’s portfolio.

What holds The People’s Joker back from realizing its truly subversive potential is its concession to the glib, hyperactive editing and “world-building” style that’s currently in fashion, best described as “bonkers” and best embodied by the wretched Everything Everywhere All At Once. One scene in The People’s Joker sees the final incarnation of Vera’s character, named Joker the Harlequin, travel into the “fifth dimension” and witness cutesy animations of “the birth of Rick Moranis” and “Richard Pryor and Marlon Brando having sex.” It isn’t a nod to Drew’s Adult Swim roots, but a regression to the terminally millennial, epic bacon roots of those roots. Roots we all ought to grow up and move on from. Fundamentally, however, The People’s Joker tells a story of adolescence interrupted. And it is a comic book movie. This is the domain of the multiverse. Drew’s formal ingenuity still makes for an invigorating experience at the movies, and the communal nature of The People’s Joker’s assemblage makes it more queer in spirit than somber snoozefests like All Of Us Strangers. Time will tell if it becomes a milestone for trans cinema, but for now, it’s essential viewing.

DIRECTOR: Vera Drew;  CAST: Vera Drew, Lynn Downey, Kane Distler;  DISTRIBUTOR: Altered Innocence;  IN THEATERS: April 5;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 32 min.