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News / Life / Entertainment

‘The People’s Joker’ is bold parody

By Adam Graham, The Detroit News
Published: May 13, 2024, 6:02am

Vera Drew wasn’t sure anyone would ever see “The People’s Joker.”

“I think in the beginning it was just for myself to finally make a movie,” says the filmmaker, on a Zoom call last month from her home in Los Angeles. “I wanted to make a film my entire life and I just hadn’t yet, and it was the beginning of the pandemic and the world seemed like it was genuinely about to end and I was like OK, now’s my chance!”

That no-one’s-watching-so-who-cares-anyway freedom allowed Drew to make the bold, hilarious and — if you’re an attorney on the Warner Bros. payroll — disruptive superhero parody/trans coming of age comedy.

“The People’s Joker” uses familiar but extremely unlicensed characters from the “Batman” universe and other public figures who clearly were not asked about their participation in the story — “SNL” head honcho Lorne Michaels is one of the movie’s villains — to tell Drew’s story of her trans awakening, her frustration with the comedy world and what she sees as the “Joker-fication” of the entertainment industry.

“It’s not semi-autobiographical, it’s completely autobiographical. Like, it’s just my life,” says Drew, 34. “The only difference is I’m the Joker in it.”

Drew, who was born and raised in Chicago and studied comedy through Second City, has been working for years in behind-the-scenes roles in the comedy world, notably as an editor on projects from Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, Sacha Baron Cohen and on Tim Robinson’s “I Think You Should Leave.”

But she’d wanted to be a filmmaker since she saw “Back to the Future” when she was 6 — it’s her favorite movie, she says, along with “Showgirls” — and when COVID hit, she got to work.

Her very personal movie, which she co-wrote with Bri LeRose, tells Drew’s story through a superhero lens, from questioning her gender while growing up in Smallville to moving to Gotham City and pursuing comedy. It took on bigger significance when she crowdfunded the film’s low-six-figure budget, and more than 100 artists from around the world pitched in and provided backdrops and animation for the film. All of a sudden, a community was building around her DIY project.

Still, she thought she’d show the finished film to friends and those who helped make it on low-quality VHS tapes, and that would be that. But when she played it for her partner, who is also a trans woman, she was moved by her reaction. “She was crying, and I was able to see how much it resonated with her,” says Drew. “And then every step along the way, she was always like, ‘I think it’s gonna be huge.’”

“The People’s Joker” caused a huge stir when it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2022 due to its freewheeling use of trademarked intellectual property. After its premiere, subsequent screenings were pulled from the festival “due to rights issues,” and as buzz swelled, the movie hung in limbo as Drew scrambled for distribution (and likely spent a good chunk of time freshening up on copyright law.) The movie finally started rolling out in theaters in April, with a rather long disclaimer about parody and fair use attached to the front of the film.

The controversy certainly helped the film’s notoriety, and coupled with audiences’ reactions to the film, has made for quite the ride for Drew. “It’s been pretty hard to emotionally process any of this as it’s happening,” she says.

Nathan Faustyn, the Michigan-raised actor who plays Penguin in the movie, has been working with Drew for years, and has watched the film’s profile blow up from the safety of a passenger seat. “It’s been a really wild ride,” says Faustyn, a former partner at Detroit’s Burton Theatre. “I have to remind myself to take it in and enjoy it.”

Drew, who in the opening of the film dedicates “The People’s Joker” to her mother and to “Batman Forever” and “Batman & Robin” filmmaker Joel Schumacher, says she’s not equipped with the bone that would make her able to ironically appreciate art, or to enjoy things on a so-called “guilty pleasure” level. “If I had that muscle in my body, every single one of my tastes would be guilty,” says Drew, who also checks David Lynch and “Twin Peaks” as major influences on her art and worldview.