It’s a genuine miracle that The People’s Joker has managed to make it to screens unscathed, especially considering the legal battles which dogged the 2023 TIFF premiere could easily have left it trapped in the vault forever. Many of the rave reactions from that festival were written solely within the context of such lingering threat, with many critics doubling-up as armchair legal experts, not analyzing the qualities of Vera Drew’s film so much as they were assessing the likelihood of whether anybody else would ever see it. Now that this unauthorized take on the DC mythos is defiantly arriving on screens––albeit with a lengthy legal scrawl preceding the action itself––it’s immediately obvious that writing about it solely within the context of whether it constitutes a serious copyright violation is something of an insult.

Drew’s film isn’t a miracle because it has managed to skirt the wrath of David Zaslav, but for how it manages to weave cultural criticism, personal coming-out story, and frequently laugh-out-loud lowbrow genre parody into a cohesive package. The first-time director happily pulls from DC adaptations, ranging from those by Joel Schumacher (to whom this film is dedicated) to the self-consciously gritty likes of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad and Todd Phillips’ Joker, jumping from gauche green-screen sets to action-figure battles and animated sequences lovingly reminiscent of the ’90s Batman animated series––often within the same scene, her imagination managing to tie the scattershot visual references and varying interpretations of these characters into a surprisingly coherent narrative.

Despite its punk ethos, I found this something of a lo-fi companion piece to Marvel’s Spider-Verse animations (a comparison to a corporate work I hope Drew wouldn’t be offended by) which, despite their promises of multiverse adventures, work primarily because they’re intimate coming-of-age studies of an outsider grappling with disparate identities and how this juxtaposes them with the fully formed figures who typically surround them in comics canon. Naturally, Drew’s film is more uncompromising in its approach, but the reason it works is for the same reason the best comic book adaptations do: it’s not about the outlandish, costumed character, but the real person who informs that alter ego. The People’s Joker may take the shape of an unholy hybrid between personal essay and superhero-skewering satire, but it doesn’t forget what makes the best works within the genre it is parodying tick.

Set in a dystopia where comedy is outlawed, we’re introduced to the young, pre-transition Vera (Griffin Kramer) growing up in Smallville, where she has two formative awakenings: the desire to be a comedian on UCB Live––this universe’s equivalent to Saturday Night Live, albeit also overseen by Lorne Michaels––and the realization, upon seeing Nicole Kidman in a Batman blockbuster, that she’s a girl trapped in a body she doesn’t recognize. This complicates her comedy dreams––only male “jokers” can appear on TV, with women designated as “Harlequins” who only serve to laugh at men’s jokes––and when her mother (Lynn Downey) gets wind of her identity awakening, she’s hastily prescribed Smylex, an extreme anti-depressant that forces all its users to immediately put on a happy face and laugh through their problems.

Moving to Gotham later in life, Vera (now played by Drew herself) successfully auditions for UCB Live, but upon discovering it’s a pyramid scheme, hatches a plan with fellow comedian Penguin (Nathan Faustyn) to get around the ban on comedy by starting their own underground scene that they bill as “anti-comedy.” Via developing a fluid stage persona known as “Joker the Harlequin,” she becomes more confident to be open about her gender identity––right at the time she falls into an emotionally abusive relationship with a fellow comedian (Kane Distler).

The universe of The People’s Joker is similar to that of Amazon’s The Boys, or the R-rated Marvel effort Logan: a world where superheroes exist but have their mythologies heightened further via hagiographic movies and comic books whose fanciful narratives only serve to tighten their grip on power. This is something of a masterstroke in its deployment here––it allows Drew to speak direct-to-camera under the guise of personal essay as she discusses her relationships to fictitious characters she’s grown up with, while simultaneously commentating on an in-universe narrative that easily retrofits instantly recognizable characters as varying hurdles in her own journey. It’s not subtle as a deeply personal allegory, which might be why one of the purest joys of this film is that it still manages, when taken strictly at face value, to balance an earnest coming-of-age story with a plethora of lowbrow gags. Those looking for brilliantly executed dick jokes will be just as rewarded as anybody desiring a unique recontextualization of DC’s villainous outsiders within a heteronormative dystopia, where Bruce Wayne is the ultimate enforcer of this conformity.

That Drew, a seasoned comedy editor who honed her skills on the likes of I Think You Should Leave, Comedy Bang Bang, and On Cinema, has made one of the funnier films in recent memory shouldn’t be a surprise, but this remains in the shadow of the legal threats that have dominated all discussions of the movie to date. She may be bending a familiar universe so it forms a warped mirror to her own experiences, but the foundations of this world are equally determined by the jokes she wants to tell. If that means disregarding the mythology she’s developed for the sake of a killer punchline––e.g. taking potshots of various “canceled” comedians who wouldn’t be household names that could be instantly namechecked in a world where comedy is illegal––then so be it.

The freewheeling nature with which she veers between heightened, comic-adjacent antics and looser improv-stylings that are grounded exclusively within the audience’s frame of reference shouldn’t work, yet it’s the source of much of the film’s charm. Drew doesn’t aim to disguise the low-budget nature of the production, and rather than hope viewers suspend disbelief, she asks you to indulge in how she plays around with the genre’s artificiality. That this sledgehammer approach to narrative authenticity can co-exist with an earnestly heartfelt coming-of-age tale is one of many miracles of The People’s Joker. Getting this before audiences without any interjections from the Warner Bros. legal department may be the most talked-about hurdle, but pulling off a narrative that seamlessly blends lowbrow genre parody and heightened-but-heartfelt autofiction is Drew’s most audacious achievement. Just imagine what she could make with fewer constraints placed on her.

The People’s Joker opens on Friday, April 5.

Grade: B+

No more articles