In the year 2035, Batman will enter the public domain. Superman and Lois Lane are set to be public domain in 2034. Dick Tracy will be public domain in 2027, hopefully before Warren Beatty finally croaks.

We are rapidly entering a Golden Age of the public domain. Within our lifetimes, we will gain ownership over a wide catalog of mainstream cultural touchstones. And as with Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse in recent years, we know that the initial wave of artistic output will be crude and irreverent parodies made to drag these icons through the mud.

On one hand, it makes sense that the first ones out of the gate would take the least creativity and effort to make. On the other hand, I don’t know if we can really claim these sacred cash cows as our own until we knock them off their pedestals and bring them down to our level. Y’know, break them in a little.

The Joker won’t be public domain until 2037, but it looks like Vera Drew took it on herself to invoke Fair Use and start the process early. Thus we have The People’s Joker, in which star/director/co-writer Drew co-opts the DC Universe to reinterpret the Joker through a transgender lens. For obvious reasons, this quickly became the most infamous and subversive shoestring indie film in recent memory, kicking up waves like nothing I’ve seen since Escape from Tomorrowland.

But is it any good? Well, it’s certainly memorable.

“Joker the Harlequin” (played by Drew as adult and Griffin Kramer as a young pre-transition kid) came up in the harsh midwestern town of Smallville, under a mother (Lynn Downey) who’s… a wreck. That’s the short explanation, her mother is a fucking wreck. She’s so selfish and incompetent and bigoted that she keeps her kid heavily medicated on Smilex (an antidepressant) so she doesn’t have to bother with actual parenting. I might add that in this continuity, Arkham Asylum and Dr. Crane (here played by Christian Calloway) are apparently in Smallville instead of Gotham. Whatever.

Anyway, our Joker sets out to Gotham to accomplish her lifelong dream of getting on UCB Live. In case it wasn’t obvious, UCB Live is a composite parody of the Upright Citizens Brigade by way of Saturday Night Live, complete with a shitty CGI Lorne Michaels voiced by Maria Bamford.

Go ahead and read that last part again. It gets worse.

See, Gotham has become a dystopian hellhole under the fascist regime of Bruce Wayne/Batman (another animated character, voiced by Phil Braun). As a direct result, UCB Live is the only sanctioned comedy act in town and it’s illegal to perform comedy acts anywhere else. Thus Joker bands togther with some other Batman Rogues Gallery All-Stars (most notably Penguin, the best friend role here played by Nathan Faustyn) to start their own “anti-comedy” club in Amusement Row, making their own performance art on their own terms.

But wait! There’s more!

Enter “Mr. J”, played by Kane Distler. Forgive the SPOILERS, but there’s no way to sufficiently describe the sheer lunacy on display here without going into detail about Mr. J’s backstory. See, what we’ve got here is the Carrie Kelley Robin who transitioned into the Jason Todd Robin. Then the closeted gay Bruce Wayne abused the orphan he adopted/groomed, and so Jason Todd became the Jared Leto iteration of the Joker.

Yeah. Let’s move on and circle back to that later.

The smartest thing this movie did was to lean hard and fast and heavy into how shitty the production is. We’ve got so many different kinds of CGI, 2D animation, puppets, and chroma key all slamming into each other. Most of the characters in here aren’t even live-action, they’re wretched cartoon abominations with voice actors who aren’t even trying to sound like any prior version of the characters. It looks awful, but it vibes with the story in such a way that it adds to the subversive charm. It’s a shoestring indie film that looks deliberately bad in a way that pre-emptively takes the power away from criticism against it.

Put it this way: Birdemic was a shoestring indie that took itself too seriously. If that movie had been more self-aware and more honest about how crappily it was made, would it be as much fun to poke fun at this? Moreover, because the film is so unapologetic in its aggressively campy and bugshit tone, it can get almost — ALMOST — get away with pulling deux ex machina shenanigans in the third act.

Another benefit of the hodgepodge production is that the film can pull from so many different aspects of the Batman/Joker canon. The Adam West show, the Burton movies, the Nolan films, the Joaquin Phoenix movie, the David Ayer Suicide Squad… I don’t remember anything from the Snyder films in there, but I’d be shocked if there wasn’t. The film opens with a dedication to Joel Schumacher, for fuck’s sake. EVERYTHING is fair game here.

That said, the plot most clearly pulls from the Joaquin Phoenix movie, following the same basic plot contours of a put-upon wannabe clown with crippling mommy issues trying to make it big in comedy. But what makes a big difference here is that Drew and her team aren’t working under pressure from a mainstream conglomerate eager to return their multimillion-dollar investment. As a direct result, these filmmakers can go so much harder in their examination of how demented and fucked-up somebody has to be to try and make a living in comedy. To emphasize the point, various characters explicitly name-drop the likes of Louis C.K., Bill Cosby, and the many comedians we’ve lost due to substance abuse. I might add that WarnerMedia is not likely to take any well-deserved potshots at the washed-up SNL anytime soon.

But at the same time, this is very much a movie about how and why we need comedy. The filmmakers have a lot to say about freedom of expression and speaking truth to power. As a reminder, this is a dystopian world in which comedy is practically illegal, all mass media is controlled by Bruce Wayne, and the accepted solution to feeling depressed or unhappy or misplaced is to keep huffing Smilex. It’s a harsh cinematic statement, but it comes from a sincere place of trauma that’s all too relateable.

And then we have the Joker/Mr. J romantic arc. Yes, it’s been well-documented that the Joker/Harley relationship is abusive and toxic. But this movie takes it a step further and explicitly details — quite literally, step by step, with title cards and everything — how Mr. J is a narcissistic douchebag. And then this movie goes even further by taking this well-established relationship and making it trans/trans. It gives the two characters something in common, something they see in each other that they might not necessarily find with anyone else. It’s a concrete reason for our Joker to stick around with her abusive boyfriend. Fascinating stuff, really.

There’s no doubt that The People’s Joker was made for a highly specific audience. To wit, I saw this movie with an audience that was cackling hard enough to drown out half the dialogue. For my part, I’m not convinced I’m part of that audience.

This is a tough movie to judge, because it occupies that defiant and self-aware space in which “good or bad” are immeasurable and irrelevant. The movie is an end in itself. The mere fact that it exists is the ultimate victory for the filmmakers.

All I can really say for a certainty is that this movie is completely unlike anything else in cinema, something uniquely and defiantly alive. This wasn’t always an easy film to sit through, but I’m nonetheless grateful it exists. I’m not sure I liked it, but I know I respect it. I’m happy for those who made this film and those whom it was made for.

This one is weapons-grade, folks. And as these characters inch closer into public domain, there will be more like it to come. Brace yourselves.

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2 thoughts on “Movie Curiosities: The People’s Joker

  1. I’ve heard a lot of conflicting things about this movie – some people are calling it a subversive masterpiece, others saying it’s on par with Doug Walker’s movies. While I have no interest in seeing it myself, based on what you’ve laid out, Vera Drew definitely wanted to tell a deeply personal story with a message, but it feels like she got a bit overly ambitious and some of that message got mangled in the presentation.

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