The People’s Joker (Altered Innocence, NR)

The People’s Joker is — as both its title and aesthetics suggest — every bit as anarchically entertaining as the Clown Prince of Crime himself, or in this case, herself. This do-it-yourself spin on the ever-popular villain and their fellow criminals in Batman’s rogue’s gallery sees writer/director Vera Drew playing the title role, one that makes the Joker a vehicle for telling Drew’s autobiographical story of coming out as transgender.

Beyond that premise, it’s hard to know exactly where to start in praising this immensely praiseworthy film. There are so many bases it manages to hit, it would be impossible to succinctly address all of them in one review. The film not only exceptionally balances its DC Comics homage with serious discussions of identity and LGBTQ+ issues, but it also parodies today’s world of American corporate-sanctioned comedy, very pointedly calling out the improv-to-Saturday Night Live pipeline that seems to dominate the landscape (complete with a crudely animated Lorne Michaels, voiced by Maria Bamford). This absolutely makes sense when looking at Drew’s career. She has worked behind the camera on a number of television shows and web series led by the likes of Tim Heidecker, Nathan Fielder, Tim Robinson, and others in the “anti-comedy” world. Some stars of that world even show up for cameo appearances (one Tim and Eric regular has a major role — I won’t spoil it here).

The film begins with our Joker describing her childhood as a young boy (Griffin Kramer; Drew’s deadname is humorously withheld) with a troubled relationship with his mother (Lynn Downey). Some very Batman-themed props and characters stand in for bits and pieces of his mother’s attempts to make him preternaturally happy. As a young adult, our Joker moves to Gotham City to try to make it as a comic. Here, we meet fellow aspiring comedians who all parody various Batman villains, most importantly our Joker’s best friend The Penguin (Nathan Faustyn) and Mr. J (Kane Distler), a composite of Jason Todd and the Jared Leto version of the Joker.

Our Joker develops a crush on Mr. J and soon begins a relationship with him. It’s here we learn that Mr. J is in fact a trans man, and he encourages our Joker to transition herself. Though there is happiness and positive self-discovery associated with this relationship, Drew makes clear some of the abusive traits Mr. J displays, and how our Joker can take ownership of her emotions and come out on the other side even happier and healthier.

If it sounds like there’s a lot going on in this movie, there is. But it’s uniquely inviting, so much so that even when it switches from its native live-action with drawn backgrounds to full animation (and even some awesome puppet work), it’s so confident and so assured that it never feels as rough around the edges as it objectively is. The whole movie is like a homemade, nearly gender-abolitionist version of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. It also never feels like a lecture, even if you might disagree with some of Drew’s outlook on the comedy landscape and its political implications. It remains fun and totally heartfelt to the very end.

There’s no doubt in my mind that The People’s Joker will be remembered by many (myself included) as one of the funniest and most original movies of 2024. It first premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, but is only now making waves across the country due to rights issues associated with Batman iconography now owned by Warner Brothers. Drew and her team even poke fun at these potential legal pitfalls within the film itself. I humbly ask Warner Brothers: if we’re definitely never going to see Coyote vs. Acme, can we at least keep The People’s Joker? | George Napper

The People’s Joker continues its run in the Webster Film Series at the Winifred Moore Auditorium through Sunday, April 21. It will also be screening at the Arkadin Cinema & Bar from Friday, April 26 to Sunday, April 28.

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