The People's Joker


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The People's Joker
"It’s an anarchic mess – the sort of film the Joker himself might have made, and that’s part of its triumph."

If you’re a white man who can’t get laid or get his medication, Todd Phillips’ 2019 Joker seemed to say, winning plaudits for supposed depth and honesty in the tried and tested fashion of would-be comedians who have run out of ideas, it’s understandable if you go out and shoot a few people. Alas, poor Arthur! Had he never heard of the healing gift of laughter?

“Tell me about the saddest moment of your life,” says Drew/Joker/Joker the Harlequin (Vera Drew) – and then proceeds to laugh hysterically, whilst huffing on Gothamtastic purple gas, as each tragic anecdote is recounted. What might be understood as cruelty, however, emerges as something else. It’s an acute observation of the proximity of comedy and horror, of laughter as a reflex when a situation is too overwhelming to be met with any other response. It’s also an acknowledgement of that experience from someone who has been there.

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Shortly before this film premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, Drew, who also co-wrote and directed it, reportedly received a letter alleging copyright infringement, from an unnamed media conglomerate famous for having no sense of humour. The sort of titan which might eagerly cannibalise its own young filmic offspring, it seemed too much for an independent effort made on a shoestring to withstand, and yet, after two years of legal consideration and public discussion about the moral duty that copyright holders have to art, The People’s Joker is in US cinemas.

Nobody is going to mistake this for a conventional Batman universe blockbuster. Phillips need not worry that it impinges on his territory, either. Drew’s film is unashamedly trashy, with performances of wildly variable quality. Where live action isn’t an option, characters are animated, using a variety of methods, or just drawn. The CGI is home-made using tools that might easily date back a decade or more. In other words, it’s an anarchic mess – the sort of film the Joker himself might have made, and that’s part of its triumph.

Plotwise, it’s extremely personal. Playing a version of herself, Drew reflects on an unhappy childhood in the company of a mother who didn’t understand her and who freaked out when she said, with the limited language of a child, that she thought she might be trapped in the wrong body. She was immediately taken to a psychiatrist – only in this version, of course, that means Dr Crane in Arkham Asylum, and instead of tranquilisers she receives Smylex, a drug (later to be synthesised in the form of that purple gas) which ensures that she pleases those around her by always putting on a happy face.

Like many a lonely kid, Drew sought refuge in comedy (and comics), and fictional Drew runs away from Smallville as soon as she can to try to make it as a comedian in Gotham City. There she finds that, because she was thought to be a man, she could at least get a shot at being funny onstage, instead of being relegated to wearing a sexy costume and dancing in the background. (If you’re going to take on a media conglomerate, you might as well take pot shots at a few other institutions along the way.) When things don’t work out, however – because she just can’t connect with the formulaic style of network comedy hero Ra’s al Ghul – she teams up with Oswald Cobblepot and a collection of other famous rejects so they can create an illegal comedy troupe of their own.

Like Bruno Heller’s Gotham, Cathy Yan’s Birds Of Prey and, to a lesser extent, the Suicide Squad films, this is a film which blurs the moral boundaries of the Batman universe and positions the Caped Crusader himself in an uncomfortable light. It’s a rallying cry for outsiders and it could not be more timely with its questions about who gets cast as a villain and why. It also finds room for romance, but in exploring the relationship between our heroine and a certain Mr J – who is, here, trans himself, because no group of people gets a free pass – it doesn’t submit to the same restraints that forced Harley Quinn to find a different film and director before she could tell her exploitative other half where to go. For all its frivolity, it demonstrates much more maturity than most takes on the franchise where it counts.

The kind of Batman afficionados who style themselves as devoted fans and spend all their time online insisting that their hero would never go down on a woman will not have a good time watching this film, which sticks it to them like a pencil. Plenty of other fans will bliss out at its geekery, however, and packed as it is with in-jokes from every obscure corner of the comics and films, they never interrupt the flow, so relative newcomers can have fun too.

If you were the sort of kid who knew from an early age that there were people out there ready to frame you as a villain no matter what you did, and if you found hope in crafting your own imaginary world from the scraps of lore you could assemble, The People’s Joker will steal your heart. It’s full of heart itself, finding a wholesome ending in the most unlikely of places. Don’t stop watching before the very end of the credits because it doesn’t stop giving. There are some dreams and some realities which no law can contain, and having been reminded of that, you’ll leave with a smile on your face.

Reviewed on: 05 Apr 2024
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The People's Joker packshot
An aspiring clown grappling with her gender identity combats a fascistic caped crusader.

Director: Vera Drew

Writer: Vera Drew

Starring: Vera Drew, The People's Joker, Lynn Downey, Kane Distler, Nathan Faustyn, David Liebe Hart, Bob Odenkirk

Year: 2022

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: US

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