Vera Drew wields the comic book icon to tell her own story
After the fallout from the Tiff premiere for her comic inspired Magnum Opus The People’s Joker landing it in purgatory. Director Vera Drew decided to screen her film in a series of secret screenings, which is where I caught it on a Friday night in Philadelphia at a packed screening at the Philadelphia Film Center. I had heard there was a similar event the night before in NY, and while the web page offering free tickets made it pretty clear what we were possibly seeing, there was still some doubt until Vera came up, nervous and a bit taken aback by the packed house to do her intro. I mean this is where Bradley Cooper did his local premiere of A Star is Born and everyone there was ecstatic when we realized what we were going to see. I’ve personally covered/attended three festivals where the film was supposed to have screened, so I was happy to have finally gotten to see it.
The People’s Joker is a trans coming of age story, from the eyes of our co-writer, director, star and editor. The film takes place in this surreal DC reality that feels like it’s the late night live-action neighbor to the HBO Harley Quinn series. Here we meet our protagonist, whose deadname is bleeped out for the majority of the film as we witness her childhood sexual awakening during a screening of Joel Schumacher’s iconic Batman Forever, specifically in the scene where Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) runs her fingers over Batman’s (Val Kilmers) “Batnipples”. Well in that scene little Vera from Smallville, realized she was born in the wrong body — when she wanted to be Kidman rather than Kilmer.
After a rather rough upbringing due to growing up queer in a small town with a protective mother, Vera comes of age and immediately moves to Gotham to join the UCB, or the Upright Clown Brigade. There’s a lot of mythology here about how comedy is illegal in this universe, unless you are a licensed practitioner. UCB here is a show similar to SNL, that is even run by a CGI Lorne Michaels, but completely staffed by Joker-esque clowns and Harlequins in a dig on gender in comedy — Harlequins are essentially only allowed to be props to their male counterparts. After walking out of her comedy classes, Vera decides along with the Penguin and a few other villains, to start their own “Anti-Comedy” movement to be able to practice without a license. Its after opening a small club “The Red Hood” she meets Mr. J, who is a trans male version of Jared Leto’s Joker from Suicide Squad who can’t land a punchline to save his life.
Upon falling for Mr. J, Vera is inspired to finally be herself and begins dressing as a woman. Their relationship represents those fledgling first steps in her finally finding herself as Joker the Harlequin, a name that combines the both genders of comedy in this universe. But as her act begins to take Gotham by storm, shattering the glass ceiling of representation into UCB, she discovers she may have to go through a toxic ex, her mother, the multiverse and the Batman to find her happiness.
Vera (The Director), uses this film to both tell a trans love story, but also to dissect one of the most toxic and cringey relationships in comic fandom. I mean it’s a bad stereotype at comic conventions at this point the Joker/Harley “couple cosplay”. That’s the one thing here, there’s layers upon layers, upon layers, at work in this narrative. For this bit alone, there’s the obvious autobiographical relationship narrative being worked through here, then there is the visual component — since this film switches mediums at the speed of thought, and then there’s the comic language and commentary on the character and their respective arcs as well. Its self aware, meta and deconstructing/reconstructing itself and its medium all at the same time endlessly. It’s something I found both very indicative of this generation, that by using this style it managed to keep every compartment of your mind buzzing and engaging throughout the film.
The People’s Joker is what I honestly believe films will be like in a few years in that Vera uses the language of superheroes, multiverses and pop-culture as a baseline and shorthand, to tell this deeply personal story that alone is compelling in and within itself. Sure, if you stripped away all the bright colors and superheroes you’d have a compelling Trans coming of age story that might play at your local indie theater. But it’s through the comics language that not only gives Vera access to decades of character subtext, which is baked into anyone who has sat through probably 20 or 30 hours of comic films in their lifetime. But it makes the film instantly accessible and recognizable to a young kid also going through what Vera did, or even a parent who is trying to understand their trans kid.
As a 40 something straight white dude, who is also a big comic geek, The People’s Joker spoke my language and directly to me as a human being. I was immediately hooked right in, and I have to admit I felt a bit uncomfortable for bits and pieces, because it felt so deeply personal – like I was reading a stranger’s diary. I think that’s what makes this more than simply the gimmick of an unauthorized full length DC comic book film. In a time where the world is oversaturated with these stories of spandex-clad gods, this may be one of the few to actually attempt to mean something. I think that’s only because not only did Vera take this mythology for her own, but wielded it with no oversight or censors. Like Prometheus, Vera has stolen the fire of the gods and used it to give her take on the Joker, that will no doubt inspire others.
At the Q&A Vera promised the film would be released sometime. How or when is still unknown. But if you get the chance to see it with a crowd, do it.