By Will Sloan
Because entertainment monopolies have plastered every visible surface of our cultural landscape with superheroes, a widespread perception has taken root that these characters constitute “our modern myths.” The companies themselves have helped foster this idea with such postmodern movies as The LEGO Movie (2014) and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), which state more-or-less explicitly that their intellectual property is a vast toybox where you—yes, you!— can romp around. Those films resonate because their characters really have lived long and large enough in the cultural imagination to be inextricably tied up in millions of people’s personal identities, and at a certain point, those people have some legitimate ownership claim on the characters—morally, if not legally. For Batman and Co. to really qualify as a shared mythology, everyone should actually be able to tell their stories, not just dream them privately.
With The People’s Joker, writer/director/star Vera Drew tells a personal story of coming of age as a trans woman through the settings and characters of the Batman universe. At its Midnight Madness premiere, the movie opened with a disclaimer noting that legal counsel had advised the filmmakers that its use of the Batman characters is protected under existing parody and fair-use laws. Even if it isn’t, it’s the laws that are wrong. In the cultural sphere, one powerful company keeps tight control over how a fictional character can be represented. In the political sphere, powerful forces seek to dictate how we live in our own bodies. The People’s Joker treats both as connected, and defiance as a moral imperative.
An editor and director of many of Tim Heidecker’s projects, Drew is clearly influenced by Tim & Eric’s love of outdated media aesthetics. The People’s Joker is shot entirely in front of green screens, not unlike an actual superhero blockbuster, but its Gotham is rendered in a dizzying range of styles, including pleasingly junky stop-motion, Nintendo 64-level CGI, and Bruce Timm-style animation. In this bizarro-Gotham, scenes, images, and characters from 80 years of Batman lore reappear in surprising new contexts: Bruce Wayne is a pedophile groomer; Jared Leto’s Joker is an abusive boyfriend; a class of “Jokers” perform tepid, sanitized comedy for Lorne Michaels; Joaquin Phoenix’s dance on the stairs becomes a moment of trans self-actualization; and one actual cast member from Tim Burton’s 1989 Bat-film unknowingly reprises his role. A sense of both excitement and doom hovered over the screening as rumours circulated that Batman’s corporate owners were on the case, and in the post-screening Q&A, Drew said that this would probably be the only time the movie screened in its current form. If that turns out to be true, it will be a tragedy, but digital files will circulate.