A Trippy New Movie Turns The Joker Into A Trans Origin Story

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Batman is one of modern pop culture’s best-loved myths – and by extension the Joker, the maniacally villainous flip side of the brooding heroic Caped Crusader. That two different actors (Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix) have won Academy Awards for playing the Clown Prince of Crime speaks for the character’s status as a reflection and expression of countless contemporary socio-political forces. He’s the anarchic madman of our comic book-fueled nightmares, ushering in nihilistic destruction with a dizzying smile, though for Vera Drew he’s also something else: a lively vehicle to process her trans identity.

Directed and co-written (with Bri LeRose) by Drew, who also stars, The People’s Joker is a satirical queer coming-of-age story filtered through a twisted Dark Knight lens and constructed with rickety DIY verve. Drew’s directorial debut, which premiered on September 10 at the Toronto International Film Festival, has the kind of gonzo feel that her previous collaborations with Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim on Our bodies, At cinema and i love david, a combination of rudimentary green screen effects, wildly diverse animations and absurd TV commercial spoofs for a bizarre saga of the bumpy path to self-discovery. Created with the help of over 100 artists (including Bob Odenkirk and Scott Aukerman) who independently crafted their pieces of this scattershot puzzle during the COVID-19 quarantine, it’s a freewheeling and fun affair that fans of Tim and Eric Great show, great work! (and its descendants), albeit if that influential series had been consumed by all things superheroic.

Drew clearly knows her Batman knowledge, if The People’s Joker endlessly quotes and riffs on a wide variety of notable elements from the character’s multimedia history. It begins in Smallville and first focuses on Drew as a young biological male child, who upsets and confuses her mother (Lynn Downey) by asking, “Was I born in the wrong body?” This question causes Drew to be sent to Arkham Asylum to find Dr. Crane (Christian Calloway), aka the Scarecrow, who prescribes a drug designed to crush any nasty gender dysphoria: Smylex, an inhaled gas that puts a big grin on the faces of its users. This doesn’t do the trick, though, and certainly doesn’t stifle Drew’s desire to make it big as a comedian on UCB Livea Saturday Night Live sketch comedy show run by Lorne Michaels in Gotham, in which men become crass pranksters and women sexualized harlequins – and which hires only those who have completed an educational course funded by Wayne Enterprises.

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“For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a Joker,” says Drew’s Joker the Harlequin in a studio locker room, at the same time referencing Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Todd Phillips’ joker. The nods to movies, TV shows and entertainment industry clichés only escalate from there, all shot in a new and surprising form by Drew, who immediately flares up on arrival in Gotham during her UCB audition but befriends Penguin (Nathan Faustyn), who inspires her to start her own anti-comedy group in an abandoned amusement park warehouse. Before long, she’s amassed a collection of misfits who are all familiar Batman opponents. More importantly, she’s starting to mine her experiences for her routine—something far more honest and productive than the insincere and awful sex-and-the-Holocaust joke she tries out on Penguin.

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Drew soon falls in love with Jason Todd (Kane Distler), a former Robin who now resembles Jared Leto’s suicide squad version of the Joker, and while their romance is poisonous, it turns out to be a necessary step in our heroine’s journey to find out who she is and what she wants. The guise she ultimately chooses is Joker the Harlequin, a cross between the clownish villain and his co-dependent girlfriend who comes across as a manifestation of Drew’s ongoing inner struggle. Drew embodies her protagonist as a thinly veiled autobiographical smartass who is at once clumsy, vulnerable, wounded and unhinged, and she tells her story with an emotional candor and sarcastic humor that helps compensate for incidental sequences that lead nowhere or resort to teaching about trans life through exposition rather than through inventive drama.

Joker the Harlequin’s odyssey leads to conflict with Batman (Phil Braun), depicted here as a fascist corporate executive, aspiring political candidate (now President Lex Luthor, who looks like a bald Donald Trump, has passed away), and pedophile groomer with a predilection for young trans wards. None of those critical characterizations are particularly new, but The People’s Joker thrives less on unique originality than fusing together different aspects of the Batman and Joker legends in a quirky funhouse mirror-like saga of self-definition. Unhealthy boyfriends, disapproving mothers, exploitative (or absent) father figures, and makeshift families all feature in the film, which spawns a steady stream of jokes about the relationship between capitalism and authoritarianism, the fraught dynamics between internal emotions and outward appearances, and the to view everything (the world, conflict, and people) in strictly binary terms.

After much craziness, Joker the Harlequin lands a groundbreaking guest spot as host of UCB Live and is trained for that memorable performance by her idol Ra’s Al Ghul (often accomplice Tim and Eric David Liebe Hart), a legendary prankster who extols the virtues of humorous chaos . The People’s Joker is itself a demonstration of that ethos, throwing caution to the wind by indulging in uninhibited Batman-related nonsense. When the Penguin scolds his friend for preaching iconoclastic outsider stupidity and then eagerly sells it at the first opportunity, it’s a criticism Drew (and her on-screen proxy) takes to heart. The result is a finale that plunges into more and more trippy atmospheres, all the animated explosions of light, color and liquids, Saturday morning-style TV cartoon segments, variations on Phoenix’s joker dance number, and random comments about how Pixar is “emotionally manipulative and John Lasseter is a walking boundary violation in a Hawaiian shirt.”

By the time The People’s Joker To celebrate the birth of Rick Moranis (because, well, he’s awesome), Drew has long since transformed her film into a collage of personal crises, entertainment crushes, and gonzo non sequiturs. It’s probably not the trans-origin story DC Comics wanted, but it’s one that many others will probably need nonetheless.

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