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‘The People’s Joker’ is here, queer, and the only viable path forward for superhero movies

Vera Drew's transgender take on the Batman villain's mythology isn't just brutally hilarious, relentlessly inventive, and profoundly moving. It's also a lifeline for the genre

By Abraham Josephine Riesman

Vera Drew in 'The People's Joker.' ALTERED INNOCENCE

We were supposed to get our first trans Joker 35 years ago.

In 1989, DC Comics published Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, a narrative exploration of Batman’s psychological problems, as well as those of his foes. Its scribe was an up-and-coming Scot by the name of Grant Morrison. And Morrison — who would later come out as “nonbinary, crossdressing, genderqueer” — wanted to show the Clown Prince of Crime in women’s clothing.

“The Joker was to have been dressed in the conical bra worn by Madonna for her ‘Open Your Heart’ video,” Morrison wrote in their nonfiction book Supergods. However, DC had a corporate parent, and it had been none too happy with the initial script: “Warner Bros. objected to my portrayal on the grounds that it would encourage the widespread belief that Jack Nicholson, the feted actor lined up to play the Joker in an upcoming $40 million Batman movie, was a transvestite.”

Warners was so outraged that it had threatened to cancel the comic entirely. Ultimately, Morrison compromised and was allowed to have artist Dave McKean briefly depict Joker in high heels, but that was it.

Three and half decades later, precious little has changed on the corporate side. As a classic queer-coded villain, a trickster, and shapeshifter, there’s always something inherently ambiguous about the Joker’s gender. We catch glimpses: Heath Ledger’s iconic scene in nurse drag in 2008’s The Dark Knight, or Mark Hamill’s Joker, coyly flashing a cute pair of pumps and a shapely, stocking-clad calf in a 1997 episode of the cartoon. But the full extent of the Joker’s genderqueerness has never been fully explored in any official DC text. 

Lucky for us, then, that there’s a trans auteur who is willing to spring the Joker from the prison of canon and send the character on an idol-killing spree. Vera Drew’s The People’s Joker, about a transfeminine version of the murderous jester,is brutally hilarious, relentlessly inventive, profoundly moving, and — most improbably of all — deeply empathic.

There’s a line in playwright Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “Dreams are private myths and myths are public dreams.” Unlike the increasingly anodyne and sterile offerings from the DC and Marvel superhero factories, Drew’s film exploits the conventions of the genre to at once make pop culture feel strange to us again and make a personal trans narrative feel familiar, even universal.

The film is not an authorised take on superhero fiction. Drew made her guerrilla production without any consent from Warner Bros. and received a rebuke from them right after it had a single screening at 2022’s Toronto International Film Festival, leading her to pull the film from the fest. It’s now finally seeing the light of day (on the uncertain legal ground of parody), and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Its limited-release debut in theaters this past weekend broke several cinema barriers. Never before has a trans character been the lead in a superhero feature. Never has a trans person directed, written, or starred in a cape-and-cowl flick — much less all three. (Marvel and DC hardly even depict gay characters onscreen.) Despite being made on a lunch-money budget during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the film has presented the world with the only viable path forward for superhero cinema. If that hoary genre is to survive onscreen, it has to get braver, more personal, and a whole lot queerer.

It began as a goofy experiment. Drew, a longtime video editor and comedian, wanted to remix footage from Todd Phillips’ hopelessly cynical (and, unfortunately, award-winning) 2019 DC flick, Joker. Her film could have easily become a mere parody of self-serious superhero cinema. But it evolved into something much more beautiful and unprecedented.

The movie was largely shot in five days, with Drew and a small coterie of mostly unknown actors performing in front of a green screen. After that, Drew hired more than 100 animators and video artists with very different styles to bring the footage and audio to life.

The result is a movie that, unlike most big-budget Marvel or DC pictures, actually makes a virtue of computer-generated imagery, rather than merely using it as a crutch. There is no attempt to convey realism. Instead, the live-action performers are placed into a surreal clash of images and aesthetics. The Gotham City in which this Joker finds herself is one that actually possesses the bold colors and eerie exaggerations of a great superhero comic, while never exactly trying to visually emulate one.

Similarly, it’s a superhero story that’s not a superhero story. It’s closer to Todd Haynes’ Superstar than Superman, more like the trans cult classic Vegas in Space than Guardians of the Galaxy.

The core narrative is an autobiographical journey based on Drew’s own queer coming-of-age — and coming-of-rage. While being raised male in the Midwest, Joker (whose deadname is always bleeped out, except for two intentionally jarring exceptions) sees Batman Forever in grade school, longs to become Nicole Kidman’s character, and wonders if she’s a girl trapped in a little boy’s body. Her emotionally abusive mother sends her to conversion therapy — in this case, at the hands of Batman villain Scarecrow. The scene in which both mother and doctor berate the child, leading the kid to tell her mom, “I promise I’ll never even tell you if I’m sad,” is more terrifying and viscerally upsetting than anything I’ve ever seen in a Batman movie before.

Joker grows up and, now played by Drew, makes her way to Gotham against her parents’ wishes, with the dream of getting into comedy. Unlucky for her, comedy has been all but outlawed, with the only licensed supplier being the United Clown Bureau (a truly vicious parody of both the real-life comedy incubator Upright Citizens Brigade, as well as Saturday Night Live).

Proto-Joker, not quite able to get laughs, goes underground to do edgy “anti-comedy” in a warehouse with a group of other defamiliarised Batman villains: the Penguin (whose parents cut off his allowance after he changed his college major to “thinkpieces”), Poison Ivy (they/them pronouns, please), the Riddler (he’s launching an app called Rddlr), and so on. Joker starts doing a drag act in face paint and girly outfits, not quite understanding why she’s drawn to it.

But the turning point of the film, and its emotional core, comes when she meets her first love: a trans man who looks an awful lot like Jared Leto’s Joker and goes by the name of “Mistah J.” Of course, love between two Jokers is never bound to go well.

The fallout of that relationship, combined with the ongoing transphobia of both Gotham at large and Joker’s mother in particular, is what leads this woman to turn on society and embrace her true self. As any trans person can tell you, such Jokerfication is all too understandable.

And yet, without spoiling the ending,The People’s Joker does not fall into the trap of cynicism that so plagued Phillips’ Joker. Drew is a humanist, and her film ends on a courageous, urgent, and musical note of hard-earned hope. I, a 38-year-old trans woman, watched the film twice, first with my 17-year-old genderfluid nibling, then with my 46-year-old genderqueer spouse. Both times, as the credits rolled, everyone concluded that it was probably the best superhero movie ever made. Take that for what you will.

The Superhero Boom is busting. Marvel and DC pictures aren’t making what they used to at the box office, reviews are generally abysmal, and fan enthusiasm is at an ebb. Meanwhile, the geeky viewing public keeps getting queerer and more trans with every new generation. If Disney and Warner Bros. could somehow look farther ahead than their next quarterly earnings report, they’d see that superhero fiction is fundamentally queer. From its very beginnings nearly a century ago, the genre has been steeped in motifs that resonate with queer people: hidden identities, strange awakenings, exclusion from normal society, colorful costumes, thrilling secret powers, and so on. If the corporate storytellers knew what was good for them, they wouldn’t be marginalising films like The People’s Joker — they’d be investing in them. 

There’s a word that Grant Morrison applied to the Joker in their Arkham Asylum story: “super-sanity.” A psychiatrist who has treated the homicidal clown concludes that he isn’t insane — in fact, he’s more attuned to reality and its details than you or I. He “seems to have no control over the sensory information he’s receiving from the outside world,” the doctor says. “He can only cope with that chaotic barrage of input by going with the flow.”

Drew chose to name-check Morrison’s “super-sanity” concept multiple times, and with good cause: The People’s Joker is a super-sane film. The movie, like any trans person coming out of the closet, opens itself up to the complete madness of contemporary life and cannot justify any of it. But this supervillainess knows that watching the world burn isn’t the fun part of being the Joker. The magnificent, liberating aspect of the character is, as the doctor in Morrison’s book puts it, the fact that the Joker “creates himself each day.” Or herself, as the case may be.

We should all be so lucky as to have that chance at transformation, transgression, and transcendence.

From Rolling Stone.