Polygon has a crew on the ground at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, reporting on horror, comedy, drama, and action films destined to dominate the cinematic conversation as we head into awards season. This review was published alongside the film’s premiere at TIFF.
“This movie isn’t illegal. I just said that to get you here. So says Vera Drew, the special effects writer-director-star behind the queer Batman film The People’s Prankster. But ahead of the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Warner Bros. served a cease and desist order against the film anyway. Subsequent screenings of the festival were cancelled, leaving the future of The People’s Prankster in doubt.
Vera’s take on DC Comics’ signature villain, the Joker, as a metaphor for the trans experience should certainly be covered by fair use and parody under the First Amendment, which protects creators’ right to use what is now known as “existing PI” for comic effect. The key here is that a parody must “significantly transform” that IP to make it clear that it’s not an official version of the rights holder – that’s okay when it’s This is Vera’s very unique film.
Fanfiction may seem like an unlikely vehicle for actual autobiography. But given how personal the relationship can become between fans and the pop culture they love, it makes sense that Vera, an avid fan of the Bat-verse, would use the character and lore of The Joker to tell the story of his own transformation from a dud. improv comedian into a gloriously unhinged trans agent of comic mayhem. The People’s Prankster could even be called a comedic act of terrorism, if it weren’t so heartfelt.
The film began when a friend of Vera’s sent her $12 to make “Todd Phillips’ “Vera Drew Cut” Joker», an editing project that eventually turned into an ambitious participatory production. In 2020, Vera launched a call for animators, actors and directors on her web series Hot Topics with Vera Drewwhich she describes in The People’s PranksterThe post-screening Q&A at TIFF only exists “to get me sponsored by Hot Topic” so she can finally live her dream of being a goth girl in her 30s.
Introducing the project in a YouTube video titled “Welcome to The People’s Joker,” Vera asked viewers to send her clips of themselves and their friends playing the role of Batman characters, promising that she would incorporate them into her “trans coming of age story”. The film stars Vera in her gender transition story, “using Harley Quinn and the Joker as analogues for gender experience.”
Hundreds responded. Combined with in-universe satirical TV segments – Vera’s Gotham City’s most popular TV show is a show called suicidal cop – and green screen footage shot in Vera’s house, the results were composited in The People’s Prankster. Vera joked during the Q&A, “Obviously I’m a maximalist.” His film is a riot of visual styles, from classic 2D animation to hand-drawn sets of the abandoned theme park where his Joker debuts as a performer to demented NPCs straight out of a funhouse version of The Sims. . Key epiphanies in its protagonist’s life are exemplified in painstakingly constructed psychedelic fractals that were applauded by audience members for their boldness and artistry. These combine with deliberately raw 8-bit animations that replace expensive special effects, turning the film’s DIY origins into a punchline punchline.
Vera Drew’s day job is at Abso Lutely Productions, the production company behind absurdist anti-comedy TV shows like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Nathan for you, and The Eric André show. (She also directed the final season of On the cinema.) Tim Heidecker makes an appearance in the film, as do Bob Odenkirk and Scott Aukerman. Their own absurd comedy is a useful touchstone for the sense of humor displayed in the film.
Tim and Eric regular David Liebe Hart plays a major role as Ra’s al Ghul, reimagined here as the guru of an exploitative improv school called UCB – the only legal avenue for acting in Vera’s version of Gotham City. Saturday Night Live actor Sarah Sherman plays SNL producer Lorne Michaels, reimagined here as a crudely rendered Lego-like figure with hot dog limbs who meets his end by falling naked down a flight of stairs after slipping on a banana peel. LA comedian Nathan Faustyn, a longtime friend of Vera’s, stars as the Penguin, a supportive friend (and alcoholic comedian) who encourages Vera/Joker to go trans.
However, the movie isn’t entirely a comedic joke – which is good, because Vera/Joker’s “anti-comedy” career story is the most straightforward and least memorable aspect of the film. Lengthy discussions of the comedians’ role as truth-tellers between Joker and the Penguin are standard stuff for podcasts and documentaries about the art form. First-person trans coming-of-age comic tales, particularly those where the transition is accomplished by falling into a vat of feminizing hormones, are rarer. Dedicated “to Mom and Joel Schumacher”, The People’s Prankster is also a heartfelt exploration of Vera’s journey to self-realization, beginning with her childhood as a “miserable little girl” trapped in a boy’s body in Smallville.
The main character’s dead name is played every time someone says it out loud, a humorous sign that this is a trans production. The film’s exploration of his relationship with his mother puts a humorous bandage on the real pain. At one point, Vera/Joker and her mother confront each other in a cafe, shouting, “You’re mentally ill!” “Nope, you are mentally ill!” at each other. He laughed a lot at TIFF, as it should.
Vera/Joker narrates much of the film in Harley Quinn attire, appearing for tongue-in-cheek “You might be wondering how I got here” asides that epitomize her witty, withering sense of humor. These combine with heartfelt odes to Batman stories like Hush, the return of the dark knightand yes, Todd Phillips Joker: Vera/Joker is addicted to laughing gas prescribed to her as a child by a doctor attempting to suppress her trans identity, and she dances a 2D rendering of the famous “Joker stairs” once his transformation is complete.
The character also has an emotionally abusive romance with “Mr. J”, a trans male version of Jared Leto’s version of Joker from David Ayer’s 2016 version. suicide squad. One of Vera Drew’s most surreal and quintessential moments in film comes when Vera/Joker and Mr. J lie in bed recounting their childhood, turning heartfelt sexual trauma into absurdist comedy through paint. facial and a “Damaged” forehead tattoo. The film culminates in a deeply eerie yet moving musical number, where Vera/Joker just wishes for “happy memories” of his childhood from a fairy puppet named Mx. Myxzyx.
TIFF Midnight Madness programmer Peter Kuplowsky is a strong supporter of The People’s Prankster. According to a member of the film’s crew who asked to remain anonymous, the fact that the film had even one public screening is down to Kuplowsky taking a stand to defy the injunction.
Warner Bros.’ the cease and desist order came hours before the film’s premiere, and to TIFF, the cast and crew described stressful and uncertain preparation for the film’s midnight premiere on September 13 – which, if they can’t get the film legal issues resolved, it could end up being its only public screening to date. Which would be unfortunate – at a time when corporate intellectual property has become a de facto religion in global film culture, The People’s Prankster is a blasphemous Molotov cocktail of a movie, with a unique and valuable point of view. And it’s hilarious too.
At this time, subsequent TIFF screenings have been canceled and the film’s future is unclear. It was due to appear at other festivals later this year, including Fantastic Fest and Beyond Fest later in September. Vera was looking for a distributor for the film, a quest that became increasingly difficult. But she’s clearly smart and savvy about her public image. Hopefully, she can turn the inevitable publicity around the injunction to her advantage. Otherwise, she may have to cast the film on the world herself, like the Joker that she is.