The Queer Anarchy of The People’s Joker Fixes the Superhero Movie

Movies Reviews vera drew
The Queer Anarchy of The People’s Joker Fixes the Superhero Movie

At a time when Warner Bros. isn’t even releasing its own movies, it’s a miracle that The People’s Joker found its way out of Gotham’s shadows and onto our screens. A feat of parody so outrageous that its legend (and strongly worded letter from corporate) precedes it, The People’s Joker is an endlessly amusing, deeply personal, wildly inventive collision of genres all bent to the will of filmmaker Vera Drew. The studio that controls the DC Comics universe almost made the punk-rock reclamation of villainy a one-and-done midnight screening out of fear for the safety of its precious Brands, but it quickly became clear that The People’s Joker puts the “trans” into “transformative fair use”—and it will not be contained.

In the quick-and-dirty summary, Drew’s queer coming-of-age journey is filtered through the language and imagery of Batman media, her transition and comedy ambitions all given hilarious reflections in the Rogues’ Gallery. But as she embraces her inner Joker the Harlequin to combat a fascist state (led by a Dark Knight stuck in the Bat-Closet), the rowdy, inventive form of The People’s Joker is what sprays you with laughing gas and inspires your most buried creativity. 

The People’s Joker uses its low budget to its advantage as we go back and forth through Joker the Harlequin’s life. Life is appropriately empty and bleak in the present, while the blurred edges of digital backgrounds establish her flashbacks as a multimedia memory-haze. Through the combination of DIY greenscreen work and effervescent, scrappy animation—produced by over 100 contributing artists, and sometimes captured in populist media like Minecraft and VR Chat—the film’s indie production is as winningly crowdsourced as the most charmingly cultivated queer spaces.

You never know what style you’ll get on a scene-by-scene basis, almost like flipping through a comic omnibus where the only colors are purple, pink and grimy green. The aesthetics range from Batman: The Animated Series pastiche to PlayStation 2 cutscene to “we’ve inserted a Cameo call we bought ourselves.” A classic Joker origin sequence is infused with estrogen; Mister Mxyzptlk becomes Mx. Mxyzptlk, who is a singing puppet; Joaquin Phoenix’s famous stairs get a dance far better than the entire movie Joker. And instead of Gary Glitter on the film’s soundtrack, there’s a certified gay bar banger: A phenomenally catchy Mimi Zima song with the repeated refrain “Acting like a slut while I’m looking like a bitch.” This messy mélange comes meticulously tweaked, warped with lo-fi CG, edited and overlaid with images upon images. It’s a fucked-up neon palimpsest you’d see projected on the underside of a bridge at an outdoor rave.

It’s all stitched together with anarchic zeal by Drew, an Emmy-nominated editor responsible for nailing the comic timing in shows like I Think You Should Leave and Comedy Bang! Bang! The resulting collage is like visiting your childhood bedroom, and relating the sticker-covered walls to facets of your adult life. It’s chaos with heart, leaking out of a subconscious too energetic to be suppressed. Also, all the stickers are voiced by people like Maria Bamford, Scott Aukerman, Tim Heidecker and Bob Odenkirk.

Drew herself is a charismatic star, embodying each cutting bit with a little anger, a little wryness and a little smugness. She’s the focal point of the film, and she captures our attention throughout. So too does Kane Distler, who plays her romantic foil (who is also a Joker, of the “damaged” Jared Leto variety). And he is damaged; they both are. It’s a familiar, painful relationship that can be both affirming and cutting, loving and cruel. There’s a stiffness inherent to the anti-comedy vibe, but both Drew and Distler project sweetness and hurt in their well-constructed dynamic. You’d never expect it, but at the heart of all this silliness is an insightful romance just as jarring as the best parts of Harley Quinn.

That said, it’s Phil Braun’s ridiculous Batman that always steals the show. His deadpan drawl balances out the very real toxicity at the heart of the film’s J4J relationship, as he and the other caricatures keep things lively. There’s a version of Alex Jones on the news, and a version of Lorne Michaels running a cultish UCB (United Clown Bureau)…everything’s a version of something, just like comedy is a version of the things comedians wish they could say seriously and our pop culture (including comic books about Batpeople and killer clowns) is a version of reality. It’s stupid, yet insightfulwhich is often the best way to dispense insight. If you ever wanted those preachy Barbie monologues to be about trans identity and the comedy school industrial complex, delivered by a villainous (or is she just queer?) clown, Drew’s got you covered.

This act of reclamation gets to the heart of what makes a good superhero parody. It’s got to be more than trope box-checking or Deadpool self-awareness. The People’s Joker isn’t just riffing on Batman being a creep who grooms orphaned acrobats. It’s personalizing the cognitive dissonance that has always been the company line: The mainstream media has been dominated by double lives and garish costumes and flamboyance of all kinds, yet it still hates queer people. The DCEU’s whole purpose seems to have been to blast away Joel Schumacher’s Batman canon with a heterosexuality cannon. Even as The People’s Joker gets into the weeds with its comedy industry takedown and repeats itself during its brisk 92 minutes, its metaphors are fresh and exciting. Its style is undeniable. Its passion is visible in every bombed joke and computer-stretched face. It’s a funky, janky, raw piece of autobiography, masquerading as the only thing the film industry makes anymore: A superhero movie. The riotous and weaponized result is everything the corporate use of the Joker isn’t, and everything it could be. If this media is all we’re given, The People’s Joker shows how we can all still warp it to craft our own unique origin stories.

Director: Vera Drew
Writer: Vera Drew, Bri LeRose
Starring: Vera Drew, Lynn Downey, Christian Calloway, Griffin Kramer, Kane Distler, Nathan Faustyn, Phil Braun, David Liebe Hart, Scott Aukerman, Tim Heidecker, Maria Bamford, Bob Odenkirk
Release Date: April 5, 2024

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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