Polygon has a team on-site at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, covering the horror, comedy, drama and action films intended to dominate the cinematic conversation as we head into award season. This review was published in conjunction with the film’s TIFF premiere.
“This movie is not illegal. I just said that to make you 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. still banned the film. Subsequent festival screenings have been cancelled, affecting the future of The People’s Joker in doubt.
Vera’s take on DC Comics’ signature villain, the Joker, as a metaphor for the trans experience should certainly be covered by fair use and parody under the First Amendment, which protects creators’ right to use what is now known as “existing IP.” ” to be used for comedic effects. The key here is that a parody needs to “significantly transform” that IP to make it clear that it’s not an official release from the rights owner – no problem when it comes to Vera’s wholly unique film.
Fanfiction may seem like an unlikely vehicle for true 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 knowledge to tell the story of her. own transformation from a failed makeshift comedian to a gloriously unhinged trans agent of comedic chaos. The People’s Joker could even be called an act of comic terrorism, if it weren’t so damn sincere.
The movie started when a friend of Vera sent her $12 to make “Todd Phillips’ Vera Drew cut.” joker”, an editing project that eventually grew into an ambitious crowdsourced production. In 2020, Vera made an appeal to animators, comedians and directors in her web series Popular Topics with Vera Drewwhich she described in The People’s JokerThe Q&A after the screening at TIFF consisted solely of “to get me sponsored by Hot Topic” so that she can finally fulfill her dream of becoming a gothic girl in her thirties.
Introducing the project in a YouTube video called “Welcome to The People’s Joker,” Vera asked viewers to send her snippets of herself and their friends performing as Batman characters, promising to include them in 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 TV segments in the universe – the most popular TV show in Vera’s Gotham City is a show called Suicide Defendant — and green-screen images taken at Vera’s house, the results were merged into The People’s Joker. Vera joked during the Q&A: “Of course I’m a maximalist.” Her film is a riot of visual styles, from classic 2D animation to hand-drawn backgrounds of the abandoned theme park where her Joker starts her off as an artist to demented NPCs straight out of a funhouse version of The Sims. Significant revelations in her protagonist’s life are illustrated with elaborately constructed psychedelic fractals that have received applause from the audience for their daring and artistry. These are combined with intentionally gross 8-bit animations that replace expensive special effects, turning the film’s DIY origins into a brain-bending punch line.
Vera Drew’s job is at Abso Lutely Productions, the production company behind absurdist anti-comedy TV shows like Tim and Eric Great show, great job!, Nathan for you, and The Eric Andre show. (She also directed the most recent season of At cinema.) Tim Heidecker makes a cameo appearance in the film, as do Bob Odenkirk and Scott Aukerman. Their own absurdist comedy is a useful touchstone for the sense of humor shown in the film.
Tim and Eric regular David Liebe Hart stars as Ra’s al Ghul, here reimagined as the guru of an exploitative school of improv called UCB – the only legal avenue to performing comedy in Vera’s version of Gotham City. Saturday Night Live cast member Sarah Sherman plays SNL producer Lorne Michaels, here reimagined as a crudely rendered Lego-esque figure with hot dog limbs who comes to his end falling naked down a flight of stairs after slipping on a banana peel. LA comedian Nathan Faustyn, an old friend of Vera’s, stars as the Penguin, a supportive friend (and alcoholic comedian) who encourages Vera/Joker to come out as transgender.
The movie isn’t quite a comedy joke, though, which is a good thing, because the story of Vera/Joker’s “anti-comedy” career is the most straightforward and least memorable aspect of the movie. Long 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. Comical first-person trans coming-of-age stories, especially those in which menopause is achieved by falling into a vat of feminizing hormones, are rarer. Dedicated “to Mother and Joel Schumacher”, The People’s Joker is also a heartfelt exploration of Vera’s journey to self-realization, beginning with her childhood as a “wretched little girl” trapped in the body of a boy in Smallville.
The lead character’s dead name is beeped off when someone says it out loud, a humorous sign that this is a trans-made production. The film’s investigation of her relationship with her mother places a band-aid of humor over real pain. At one point, Vera/Joker and her mom are having a screaming match in a cafe, screaming, “You’re mentally ill!” “No, you are mentally ill!” to each other. There was a lot of laughter at TIFF, as it should be.
Vera/Joker narrates much of the film in a Harley Quinn outfit, with an ironic wink, “You might be wondering how I got here,” in addition to her witty, scathing sense of humor. These are combined with heartfelt odes to Batman stories like Quiet, The Dark Knight returnsand yes, Todd Phillips’ joker: Vera/Joker is addicted to a nitrous oxide that was prescribed to her in her youth by a doctor who is trying to suppress her trans identity, and she dances a 2D rendering of the famous “joker stairs” once her transformation is complete.
The character also has an emotionally abusive romance with “Mr. J,” a transmale version of the Jared Leto version of Joker from David Ayer’s 2016 version suicide squad. One of the most surreal, quintessentially Vera Drew moments in the film comes when Vera/Joker and Mr. J lying in bed and telling each other about their childhood, turning genuine gender trauma into an absurdist comedy thanks to face paint and a “damaged” forehead tattoo. The film culminates in a very strange but touching musical number, in which Vera/Joker wishes only “one happy memory” from her childhood of a fairytale doll called Mx. Myxzyx.
TIFF Midnight Madness programmer Peter Kuplowsky is a staunch supporter of The People’s Joker. According to a member of the filming team who asked to remain anonymous, the fact that the film got even one public showing amounted to Kuplowsky taking a stance on defying the injunction.
Warner Bros.’ The strike order came hours before the film was set to premiere, and at TIFF, the cast and crew described a stressful, precarious run-up to the film’s September 13 midnight premiere — which, if they can’t get the film resolved, could end up having legal issues. be the only public screening ever. Which would be a shame – at a time when corporate IP has become a de facto religion in global movie 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.
At this point, subsequent TIFF screenings have been canceled and the film’s future is unclear. It was slated to hit other festivals later this year, including Fantastic Fest and Beyond Fest later in September. Vera was looking for a distributor for the film, a search that definitely only got harder. But she is clearly smart and smart about her public image. With any luck, she can turn the inevitable publicity surrounding the warrant in her favor. If not, she may have to unleash the movie on the world herself, like the Joker that she is.