The People’s Joker is a walking contradiction. Exactly what I expected and wildly above expectation. At the same time it was stylish and artless, genius and stupid, ironic shitpost and sincere masterpiece. This portrait of trans comedian Vera Drew, her life and struggles, through the neon CG-soaked veneer of DC comics was an unmatched experience that WB has no right, legal or otherwise, to keep under wraps. Very much built for a niche audience, the night I spent watching it left an indelible mark on my psyche and the certainty that The People’s Joker deserves to see the light of day. After years of uncertainty following illegal threats by WB, the film’s entry into small theaters and commentary on this inevitable challenge are a statement unto themselves, which manage to be smarter and more meaningful than the same attempts at meta-humor from corporate film.

The People’s Joker is a personal film, built around Vera Drew’s experiences first and DC comics second. That being said, I need to take a brief moment to talk about myself and the night I spent enraptured at its weirdness. It was a Thursday night in Philadelphia, a city I loved during law school but left long ago. I had a fever and I hadn’t slept well all week, but Philamoca was the only venue nearby that would show the film, and after years of waiting I didn’t want to miss this opportunity. The contact high I got waiting in line outside (do you think I accepted the offer of the person in front of me, oh never. Never would I do such a thing, as a critic and as a man of law and order, heavens no) left me reeling one step further than the sickness and lack of sleep. Enter an intro of neon lights and synth music to lull me into oblivion. I was in a higher, or maybe lower, plane of consciousness. A vibe in tune with the beat of an overextended mind, enhanced by the boxy venue, rebounding the sound in every direction and hyping a small but enthusiastic crowd. Waking the next morning I wondered if it was real or the product of my disordered mind, but objective evidence suggests that Vera Drew really did manage to pull it off, in 90 minutes of absurd but genuine magic. If you watch The People’s Joker on a Tuesday afternoon in your living room, you can’t get the right feeling out of it. I was in the right state of mind for something that would go on to exceed all of my expectations.

The People’s Joker surprises most in its ability to succeed where many similar works fail miserably. It uses meta-humor, irony, and purposefully “bad” aesthetics in order to make its point. It manages to impress because of the heart at the center of it, struggling to break through the artifice and architecture of normal story structures and make its own way. In doing so, it embodies everything I’ve been trying to get across about fan films: inviting you into the experience with warmth and acceptance, not mocking you for making the journey out. When the Matrix Resurrections, also directed by a trans filmmaker, or The Last Jedi makes a meta-statement to the audience, it was to avoid telling a story, joking at the idea that its creators would use their position to be sincere and care about the opportunity they were given to make a statement. The People’s Joker is the complete opposite. It makes clear that the meta aspects are in service of telling this story, and are the only way to make it real. The story is about being true to yourself, despite the expectations of your family, your peers, and corporate America. It’s not an assault on DC comics, but on the sanitized, inhuman way that comics and the film industry assault and limit art for the sake of profit. The very intimacy that limits this movie’s appeal gives it identity, and endears the audience who will give it a chance.

There’s a lot going on in The People’s Joker. Vera Drew tells her life story, shackled by the expectations of her mother and the industries of comedy and film. Its visuals are sometimes bad, but selectively so. The moments that are the most artificial, the most “shitty” are the ones where she is treated most male. But the film would fail if it were only a self-aware ironic shitpost. The moments that are real, when Vera is unleashed to full authenticity, look fantastic. The movie vacillates between tragic and comedic, knowing when to exercise restraint and when to let loose and go insane.

The course of the film takes you through Vera’s life, struggling to express herself as a person, as a comic, and as a member of society. Weighed down by expectations, her transformation into a joker is replete with pitfalls, including from other trans people, in the form of Jared Leto’s Joker. Their journey is similar, but misguided, falling under the weight of expectation so as to be defined by it. Rising above that comes with acceptance. Acceptance of self, but not the failures and unreasonableness of other people. Accepting this film means being a part of something that’s more than a pastiche of cultural motifs.

The DC license is a loose framing reference, using the story of a normal person falling to insanity as a metaphor for Vera coming into her own and leaving behind the expectations of society. It expands from there, using Batman as a stand-in for corporate America and WB, enemies of this film’s release and limiting factors on self expression. If there is any weakness to The People’s Joker, it’s in not pushing that metaphor farther into a larger commentary on the state of DC. It borrows more heavily for the sake of giving the film a more colorful aesthetic and costuming, but on their own the visuals speak strongly in the movie’s favor, helping it and its creator stand out from the crowd. That said, the mixed media and character references cross enough of DC’s history that it’s clear Vera’s appreciation for the source material is genuine.

Not for everyone, this raunchy, absurd life story becomes more than an assault on common expectations and decency. It grounds itself in one person’s ethos, life story, and personal influences, rounding out into one of the better examples of what fan films can achieve. Its surprisingly dense cast features appearances from Bob Odenkirk, Tim Heidecker, Scott Aukerman, and Maria Bamford, but its main cast of lesser known (to me at least ) comics lends an authenticity and warm humanity you would not expect from such a vulgar comedy. Fan films resonate so well because of their individuality, their personality, their choice of limited audience. Even without the fact that this is a trans-positive tale, The People’s Joker has a decidedly niche appeal that WB would never take a chance on. That appeal makes it the landmark experience that it was, something that fair use and freedom of expression could never silence. I don’t care if WB legally owns the rights to DC characters. Bill Finger is dead, but the artistic legacy of Batman and the Joker belongs to everyone. Even if this use of the license is inconsistent, it’s powerful and entertaining. I’ve never seen anything like it, but I hope that can change. Among the post credit scenes is a brief teaser that I hope to be more than a joke. Vera managed that with the rest of the film, and I couldn’t be happier to see more of this in the future.

John Farrell is an attorney working to create affordable housing, living in West Chester Pennsylvania. You can listen to him travel the weird west as Carrie A. Nation in the Joker’s Wild podcast at: https://jokerswildpodcast.weebly.com/

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“}]] The People’s Joker is a walking contradiction. Exactly what I expected and wildly above expectation. At the same time it was stylish and artless, genius and stupid, ironic shitpost and sincere masterpiece. This portrait of trans comedian Vera Drew, her life and struggles, through the neon CG-soaked  Read More