The Toronto International Film Festival’s hottest movie has everything: a trans coming-of-age story, an unauthorized take on an iconic comic-book villain, and a cease-and-desist from one of the biggest media conglomerates in the world.
Vera Drew’s The People’s Joker, an antic collage of live action and animation that stars the writer-director as a thoroughly queered version of Batman’s historic nemesis, had its world premiere at midnight on Tuesday, and by the next morning, it had been withdrawn from the festival, “due to rights issues,” according to a statement on the festival’s website. (Both Drew and Warner Bros., the studio that owns the movie rights to the DC villain, have declined to comment.)
Although The People’s Joker opens with multiple disclaimers proclaiming it an unauthorized parody and includes a full-screen credit for the production’s copyright lawyer, this is not exactly a surprising result. I was about 10 minutes into the movie’s press screening when I wrote in my notes “This will never be shown again.” (The screenings planned for Fantastic Fest next week have similarly been removed from that festival’s schedule.) But these abrupt cancellations are a vivid and particularly dramatic illustration of how little the principles of fair use mean when they come into conflict with a studio’s treasured intellectual property.
The movie stars Drew, who also wrote and directed, as Joker the Harlequin, a trans woman trying to break into Gotham City’s underground comedy scene. Along the way, she joins forces with Oswald Cobblepot (aka the Penguin) and enters an emotionally manipulative relationship with a character based on Jason Todd, aka Robin, a trans man who was once Bruce Wayne’s underage ward and was groomed to be his lover. The movie riffs on and quotes liberally from several Batman movies, with a special fondness for the campy, less-loved installments directed by Joel Schumacher, who earns equal billing with Drew’s mother in the opening dedication. Schumacher’s Batman Forever is the source of young Joker’s trans awakening when she realizes, during a love scene between Val Kilmer and Nicole Kidman, that she wants to be Nicole. (Drew said during the Q&A following the screening that an earlier version of the movie included scenes from 2019’s Joker, which screened at TIFF in 2019, but they were cut out before the premiere.) But it twists those scenes to its own ends, as when it recreates Harley Quinn’s tumble into a tank of acid from Suicide Squad but has the character plunge into a vat of concentrated estrogen instead.
It’s impossible to describe everything The People’s Joker does in its densely packed 92 minutes, especially since it’s assembled in a disjunctive style that flouts the rules of narrative as much as it does the laws that govern intellectual property. The live-action scenes often play out in front of digital backdrops, and the flesh-and-blood characters share the screen with digital avatars in a wide variety of styles. The end credits list more than a dozen animation teams, who seem to have been given free rein without much concern for how the end product would fit together. There’s a Lorne Michaels stand-in who looks like a nude mannequin and is voiced by a female actor, who runs a weekly comedy TV show called UCB Live (the letters are short for United Clown Brigade). When Joker, before she’s transitioned, goes to audition for UCB’s feeder school, a computer simply scans her genitals and determines that, as a person with a penis, she’s a good bet for success in the comedy scene. One running gag in the movie features aspiring comedians listing off comedy idols like Louis CK and Bill Cosby, reflexively adding, “before the unpleasantness, of course.”
In fact, although its very existence represents a full-frontal assault on the IP-driven practice of corporate moviemaking, The People’s Joker is more overtly hostile to mainstream comedy, which posits a narrow range of mostly cis, mostly white, mostly male comics as danger-courting truth-tellers while excluding people who have less shopworn truths to tell. What the two arenas have in common is that they’ve held onto an ethos of being ostensible spaces for rule-breakers and social misfits while securing their ironclad grip on the culture at large. That extends to slick, pre-packaged origin stories for trans people as well. “This is a queer coming-of-age film,” the movie’s Joker quips at one point. “I needed a chosen family.”
Even if The People’s Joker were to somehow prevail in a legal battle with Warner Bros., the movie has other issues that make it effectively unreleasable–among other things, the presumably uncleared use of songs by the likes of Pink Floyd and Eminem. But that’s part and parcel of its bomb-throwing approach, which might be the most sustained attack on corporate image ownership since a twentysomething Todd Haynes made Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which used Barbie dolls to depict the chirpy pop star’s fatal struggle with anorexia.
If companies like Warner Bros. and Disney hadn’t hacked the system to extend copyright far beyond its initial intent, the Joker, a character introduced in 1940, would long since have fallen into the public domain. That wouldn’t necessarily release us from the cycle of endless reboots–the fact that Disney doesn’t own Pinocchio only means we’re getting two Pinocchio movies this fall instead of one–but we’d be enjoying the products of a much more robust and imaginative range of stories, rather than waiting to see whether or not Ben Affleck is playing Bruce Wayne again. While the Batgirl movie featuring a trans actress as a trans character rots away in the Warner Bros. vaults, The People’s Joker goes along its merry, queer way, blowing open the doors and taking whatever it can get its hand on. It’s a sight to see–or it will be, if anyone ever sees it again.