"The People's Joker" is the not-so-serious trans coming-of-age film we've been missing

Benefitting from fair use exception, director Vera Drew puts a little sugar in DC Comics' tank and lights a match

By Kelly McClure

Nights & Weekends Editor

Published April 27, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

Vera Drew as Joker the Harlequin in "The People's Joker" (Courtesy of Altered Innocence)
Vera Drew as Joker the Harlequin in "The People's Joker" (Courtesy of Altered Innocence)

The entry point to superhero and anti-hero movies and TV shows is straight and narrow, in the most literal sense. At least that's what Reddit, much of the fandom and even a number of directors and producers would seemingly have you believe. But one of the key pleasures of being part of the LGBTQ+ community is that, with just a little effort of imagination, almost anything can be made gay as hell, if it pleases you so. And we're not the only ones with this superpower. Republicans do it all the time.

In the pre-vax COVID days, when the industry and everyone involved with it was at a standstill, Vera Drew — a Los Angeles based director, writer, editor and actor who worked on Tim and Eric’s "Beef House” and was nominated for an Emmy as lead editor on Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who Is America?”— decided to use her newly gained expanse of free time queering-up a re-edit of Todd Phillips' "Joker." This was done just for fun after reading a quote from the director in a Vanity Fair article, in which he said "something really stupid," as she correctly describes it. 

In the quote that became the spark of inspiration for Drew's autobiographical trans coming-of-age film, "The People's Joker," Phillips says, “Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture. There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore — I’ll tell you why, because all the f**king funny guys are like, ‘F**k this s**t, because I don’t want to offend you.’ It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right? So you just go, ‘I’m out.’”

To this, Drew thought, well then I'm all in.

While putting her spin on Phillips' "Joker," Drew began to connect lines between the character, as well as the "Batman" franchise as a whole, with the earliest inkling that she may be trans. This experience dates back to 1995 while watching what she calls "Joel Schumacher’s big-budget gay art film, 'Batman Forever,'" seeing Nicole Kidman’s character on the screen and wanting to be her, rather than sleep with her.

The People's JokerVera Drew as Joker the Harlequin in "The People's Joker" (Courtesy of Altered Innocence)She enlisted her friend Bri LeRose ("Lady Dynamite") to help her make something out of all of this, partnering in the writing of a script using DC Comics' characters to tell Drew's own story with a Gotham twist. The crowdfunded movie about a trans Joker began being shown at festivals, starting with the world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2022. But a major roadblock presented itself down the line: Warner Bros. Discovery, which owns DC Comics and holds the rights to those characters. Ultimately, however, those objections were thwarted by the studio's own version of Kryptonite, exemption under fair use, which makes copyrighted work fair game, more or less, so long as it's “transformed” into something new. And "The People's Joker" is definitely that.

There's nothing fruitier than a bunch of muscle-y dudes in tights BANG POW-ing each other.

Keeping the Warner Bros. Discovery legal team at bay with a parody label as the film's safety net, screenings picked back up in 2023 at Outfest LA, with select runs in U.S. theaters scheduled through June. But there's hope for an even bigger run, now that word is starting to spread. In the credits for the film, Drew thanks Warner Bros. for "giving the movie a ton of publicity."

And fun merch, like a Super Yaki collaboration for limited edition shirts reading, "I watched 'The People's Joker,' now I'm trans," add to the fun of this delightfully subversive project that focuses on the trans experience in a not-so-serious way, proving that woke can, actually, be hilarious, and that not every queer coming-of-age film has to be a tearjerker.

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"The People's Joker" uses a mix of live action, animation and computer-generated scenes to depict Lorne Michaels (voiced by Maria Bamford) as overlord of UCB (United Clown Bureau), the only outlet for performers in a time and place where comedy has otherwise been made illegal. As one might guess from Michael's name and that acronym, the film pokes fun at both "SNL" and the Upright Citizens Brigade – a comedy institution and training center co-founded by Amy Poehler that many of today's biggest comics have been affiliated with at one time or another. This is a world dominated by the "yes, and" male-dominated sketch comedy scene, wherein women are often seen as less than, resigned to dance sexy, have boobs and laugh at guy’s jokes. 

Gaining entry to UCB first as a Jokeman, as male comics are referred to here, she rebels against the system to carve out a new path as her new identity Joker the Harlequin. And she has plenty to mine after a childhood spent repressed by her mother (Lynn Downey) and Dr. Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow (Christian Calloway), who prescribed the young Joker Smylex as an antidepressant, which she forms an addiction to and makes part of her act as an adult. As copious amounts of alcohol get added to the mix, this all comes at the risk of her health and general sanity.

The People's JokerVera Drew as Joker the Harlequin in "The People's Joker" (Courtesy of Altered Innocence)In Drew's depiction of UCB, female comics — referred to as Harlequins — are merely support for men's gross jokes about what's in their pants and what comes out of their butts. This is all encouraged and guided by emcee Ra's al Ghul, played in a sleazy but, at times, warmly mentoring way by "Tim and Eric" alum David Liebe Hart, who chomps up every one of his scenes.

"In a school of clownfish, women rule," Ra's al Ghul tells Joker in a one-on-one, encouraging her to embrace who she is. "When the dominant female dies, the largest male will change his sex and resume her former role as mother of the school. Clownfish know that identity is not fixed. Who you were before is irrelevant to today.”  

"The People's Joker" will likely become a gateway for queers, of any age, inspired to right wrongs in a truly gay way.

Whipping together the finalized version of her Joker costume in a sequence accompanied by a song that sounds like a Prince track from the 1989 "Batman," tweaked just enough as to avoid further legal issues, Joker goes on to battle. Her opponent? Batman (voiced by Phil Braun), who, in this version of Gotham, is a closeted far-right a-hole with a handlebar mustache. He also happens to be the abusive ex of Mr. J (Kane Distler), her boyfriend who's a take on Jared Leto as Joker.

A number of the standard "Batman" villains are who we root for here, which is not a stretch. Joker has always been more fun to watch than a flying bat with rubber nipples anyway. And The Penguin (Nathan Faustyn) is Joker's main support, up to and through the musical number that closes out the film because, of course a musical number would close out a gay parody about Batman. 

Flipping comedy and heteronormative superhero tropes like two cheap tables at a bar, Vera Drew's delivery as Joker calls to mind Ezra Miller's acting style. You know, before the unpleasantness, of course. Which adds something to all of this that's hard to describe. It's almost like the film, in under two hours, allows queer viewers to reclaim a number of things we have lost. Queer actors we liked who ended up being problematic weirdos. Accepting outlets to tell our stories that make room for happy endings and don't just write us off to our graves. And the freedom to enjoy a comic book or movie based on a comic book without having to pass some acceptance test as to how or why we arrived at the fandom. Because, listen, there's nothing fruitier than a bunch of muscle-y dudes in tights BANG POW-ing each other, and Selina Kyle is undeniably more than a few lesbians' roots. These are just facts.  

Just like I came away from the experience of watching "Silence of the Lambs" in the theater as a gay teen in the '90s, suddenly taking an interest in the FBI because I wanted to kiss Jodie Foster on the lips — "The People's Joker" will likely become a gateway for queers, of any age, inspired to right wrongs in a truly gay way. As is our right. If you live in a "don't say gay" state, trans Joker gives you permission to say it with a smile.

"The People's Joker" is currently in theaters.

By Kelly McClure

Kelly McClure is Salon's Nights and Weekends Editor covering daily news, politics and culture. Her work has been featured in Vulture, The A.V. Club, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, Nylon, Vice, and elsewhere. She is the author of Something is Always Happening Somewhere.

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