Fantastic Fest Review: The People's Joker
Transgressive trans satire of superheroes is a victory for good
By Alejandra Martinez,
3:31PM, Wed. Sep. 27, 2023
The People’s Joker has traveled a long road since its scrapped world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival thanks to an angry letter from a certain studio last year.
Since then, the trans coming-of-age reworking of the Batman IP has become a rallying point for fair-rights use and telling trans stories. It’s managed to make a comeback at film festivals this year, including screenings at this year’s Fantastic Fest.
Some might think the hype surrounding The People’s Joker would outweigh the actual film, but I’m here to say you should believe the hype. The People’s Joker is a fearless, gloriously funny, and moving act of cinematic anarchy. Filmmaker Vera Drew (who also stars in and co-wrote the film) shows us what can be done with the superhero tropes we’ve watched take over filmmaking when someone decides to put real emotion and bold vision into it.
The People’s Joker follows Joker the Harlequin (Vera) as she recounts her life story. We hear about her hazy childhood in Smallville, Kansas, where she aspires to escape the grip of her emotionally abusive and oblivious mother (Lynn Downey) and make it to Gotham so she can be an alt-comedian on UCB Live - a deliciously scathing parody of SNL/UCB. Eventually, as a child, Joker is prescribed Smylex, a prescription drug that forces users to look happy, even if they’re miserable inside. Joker achieves her goal of making it to UCB Live as an adult, but when the reality of the mainstream comedy scene in Gotham sets in, she starts an alt-comedy club with her castmate, the Penguin (Nathan Faustyn). There she comes into her own, working with other familiar villains and creates a found family (no queer coming-of-age film is complete without it, Joker muses in voiceover). She also meets and starts a relationship with Mr. J (Kane Distler), a trans man, which encourages Joker to articulate her identity as a trans woman for the first time.
However, no hero’s journey is without its challenges, and Joker has to go through a lot to reach self-actualization. This honesty and emotionally grounded nature is a part of what makes The People’s Joker such an essential watch. It's funny (of course), but deeply vulnerable and genuine, too. Vera rewrites the rules of the superhero genre by engaging with them on a human level, far away from the stilted, distant nature of the franchises we’re used to, thank God.
As if that weren't enough, it looks cool as hell too! The film features a wild, engaging mix of styles ranging from 2D animation to computer graphics, with over 100 artists contributing background art and animations for the film. The whole movie is a loving mix of styles and influences, from Joel Schumacher’s take on Batman to Scorsese to experimental editing techniques that work together to create something anarchic, vital, and wholly unique.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the triumph of The People’s Joker comes at a time when trans and queer people are facing an abhorrent amount of hostility from our government. Transgressive cinema is rare and hard to pin down, but this is transgressive cinema tailor-made for our times. The People’s Joker is an essential, fearless, and fucking funny act of personal expression that deserves to be seen on a big screen by as many people as possible. Who knows how many young Jokers could see themselves on screen or gain the language to express their truest selves if given the opportunity? If The People’s Joker is truly freed (and widely distributed), we might be lucky enough to find out.