The democratization of culture thanks to cheap technology and crowdfunding has long promised a wave of passion projects that might, against all odds, catch fire on a global scale. But to date, that’s only happened sparingly, as such self-produced works either die on the vine or only capture the attention of supporters, loved ones, and folks who find them through pure happenstance. 

It’s a fate that could easily have befallen The People’s Joker. Filmmaker Vera Drew’s poignant, surreal, and hilarious debut feature set in a warped version of the DC Comics Universe was set to make its public debut at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival but was only allowed one screening due to pressure from Warner Brothers Discovery. 

The intent may have been to stifle this creative vision, but the opposite occurred. The buzz surrounding People’s Joker grew, lead to a hot ticket screening at last year’s Outfest in LA and a deal with Altered Innocence, a LGBTQ+ film distributor bringing Drew’s work to theaters around the US—including our very own Hollywood Theater starting this Friday. 

The other good news is that the hype about the film is entirely warranted. What began as a commission to re-edit Todd Phillips’ 2019 Joker origin story morphed into a brilliant original work using all-too-familiar comic book characters to tell a trans coming-of-age story that sharply skewers the superhero mythos and the gatekeepers / tastemakers of American comedy. 

Drawing from her own experiences and that of co-writer Bri LeRose, Drew plays a young comedian who ventures to Gotham City in hopes of landing a spot in the cast of a Saturday Night Live-like show run by the United Clown Bureau and its overlord Lorne Michaels (who appears in animated form voiced by Maria Bamford). After getting the gig, Drew's character (who at this point still uses her deadname, which is bleeped out) sours on the experience of training under Ra’s Al Ghul (Tim & Eric Awesome Show alum David Liebe Hart). With the help of Penguin (Nathan Faustyn), she opens an indie theater and pursues "anti-comedy."

It is in this new space—and through her first relationship with the ultimately toxic Mr. J, a Suicide Squad-styled Joker portrayed by Kane Distler—that she begins to fully come out as a woman, embracing a new persona of the Joker’s Harlequin, complete with fishnet stockings, luscious green locks, and a glorious eye makeup regime. She launches a reign of terror on the powers that be, even as she tries to process the trauma of growing up in a conservative Midwest town where she was prescribed Smylex, a quick fix drug meant to make its users instantly happy. 

Drew and her team pack a lot into The People’s Joker with live action segments (shot in only five days) nestled in among a mishmash of animation styles. The denseness allows the film to work in references to the various iterations of Batman and the Joker, make some truly vicious and necessary jabs at some of SNL’s current stars, and scatter a ton of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it jokes (a quick cutaway reveals that the Joker’s Harlequin’s cigarette of choice are "queen-sized Fags"). 

Jam-packed as it is, The People’s Joker never loses its focus nor its heart. The ache of a character searching for her true self and finding it through love and art is something that will resonate deeply with audiences, even cis ones. But that the film is telling an entirely trans-centric story is a detail that should be shouted about loudly. It centers the struggles of Drew’s character—and, by proxy, Drew herself—without resorting to the back-patting earnestness that sometimes befalls even well-intentioned films about human experience. The Joker’s Harlequin isn’t interested in making the cis world more comfortable with her and vice versa. She’s accepted who she is. So should you. 

The People’s Joker plays at the Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy, Fri April 19 - Thurs April 25, $10-$12, tickets here. And at Tomorrow Theater, 3530 SE Division on Fri May 3, 7 pm, $15, tickets here.