Movie review: 'People's Joker' applies wit to comic books, trans journey

Vera Drew is "The People's Joker." Photo courtesy of Altered Innocence
1 of 5 | Vera Drew is "The People's Joker." Photo courtesy of Altered Innocence

LOS ANGELES, April 1 (UPI) -- The People's Joker - in New York theaters April 5, Los Angeles April 12 and more to follow - explores a trans woman's journey through the characters of Batman and Superman comics.

Using popular characters is a keen way to translate her specific story, and the trans story has some insight into the comics too.


The film begins with a legal notice calling The People's Joker a parody and confirming it is unauthorized by Warner Bros. Discovery, the company that served the film with an injunction after its first 2022 Toronto International Film Festival screening.

After this notice is a dedication to Mom and Joel Schumacher, director of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. Both figures loom large over The People's Joker.

Writer-director Vera Drew plays Joker the Harlequin, reflecting on her life before a performance on Gotham City's live TV comedy show, UCB Live (United Clown Bureau, not Upright Citizens Brigade). Joker encountered many characters from DC Comics during her transition.


Drew, who co-wrote with Bri LaRose, has a sly wit about trans stereotypes, too. They portray things like the disgust a homophobe feels or the defensiveness Joker's mother (Lynn Downey) feels as extreme punch lines.

When young Joker (Griffin Kramer) comes out as trans, his mother sends him to a psychiatrist's office, which in this world is Arkham Asylum. The doctor is Dr. Crane (Christian Calloway), who fans know is the alter ego of The Scarecrow.

This is a valid commentary on trying to "cure" someone of their natural state. The drug of choice in Arkham is Smilex, both a stand-in for antidepressants and an explicit commentary on the demand upon women to smile more.

Drew and LaRose's script has wit, and the performers nail the delivery it requires. The film explores trans themes, toxic relationships, social issues, cable news, problematic show-biz personalities and more.

Yet, Drew did not have the resources to produce a traditional film. Instead, she used home-made techniques that become components of the film's unique aesthetic.

Every scene with actors is filmed in front of a blue or green screen, with backgrounds added in later. This goes for anything as simple as a bedroom or a stage with a curtain. There's no cloth curtain.


Other scenes are animated, and use multiple different styles of animation. In fact, each animated segment is credited to different artists.

The Batman movie that inspires Joker's transition is clearly Schumacher's Batman Forever. It goes by a different name in The People's Joker, but even has animated versions of those stars repeating dialogue verbatim, as the LGBTQ+ community has somewhat reclaimed the maligned sequels.

After coming out as trans, Joker also comes out as a comedian, which is even more controversial. She opens a comedy club with The Penguin (Nathan Faustyn).

One of the comedians is Jason Todd (Kane Distler), who now goes by Mr. J and also dresses like The Joker. In the comics, Jason Todd was the second Robin, who was killed by the Joker in the comics, so Drew restructures the Todd mythology for her story's purposes.

Many more comic book characters, from the popular to the obscure, appear in Drew's world. The villain Ra's al Ghul (David Liebe Hart) becomes a TV host akin to Jerry Lewis' character in The King of Comedy.

This becomes self-reflexive because King of Comedy was also an inspiration for 2019's Joker, with King of Comedy co-star Robert De Niro playing the talk show host to Joaquin Phoenix's obsessive comedian.


There are no doubt many personal LGBTQ+ films that get less attention. Using popular characters made The People's Joker notorious.

Now that The People's Joker is being screened as a work of parody, it earns its use of a notable franchise property. Drew and LaRose's script shows a winking knowledge of comic book lore and lived experience as LGBTQ+ women.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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