Update (9/16/2022): Since I wrote this review, Vera Drew posted a tweet clarifying the whole situation:
This is a review of a film that will never be seen again, at least not in the form it premiered as part of Midnight Madness at the Toronto International Film Festival. Mere hours after the premiere, it was reported that Vera Drew's Queer coming-of-age story The People's Joker had its repeat screenings pulled from the festival due to “rights issues,” which can probably be translated as a meaning the film received a cease and desist from Warner Brothers. As the film is protected by fair use parody law, this is the latest example of Warner-Discovery overstepping its boundaries when gatekeeping its DC intellectual property. I will now proceed with reviewing the film in its original form, followed by some additional commentary towards the end.
The People's Joker tells the story of Joker the Harlequin (Vera Drew), a trans woman who dreams of appearing on UCB Live, put on by the United Clown Bureau. However, when her audition doesn't go well, Joker partners with Penguin (Nathan Faustyn) and other DC villains to found the anti-comedy theatre the Red Hood Roadhouse. It is there Joker meets and enters into a somewhat toxic relationship with Mr. J (Kane Distler), a trans man with a previous history with Batman. As Joker the Harlequin becomes more confident in her identity, she prepares to crash UCB Live and have a confrontation with the Caped Crusader.
The People's Joker uses the world of DC and Batman to tell co-writer, director, and star Vera Drew's story as a trans woman working in comedy. Realizing she was trans as a child, Joker the Harlequin's gender identity is met with confusion by her mother (Lynn Downey), who sends Joker to Dr. Jonathan Crane (Christian Calloway), who prescribes her Smilex gas. However, when Joker is encouraged to risk everything to be herself, she sets out to be the clown that will rise and reclaim comedy.
It is evident that The People's Joker is a labour of love for Vera Drew, as the film was shot predominantly against green screens and made heavy use of animation in its creation of the world of Gotham City. In addition to referencing the various film iterations of The Joker, the film makes countless tongue-in-cheek references to the Batman franchise as a whole, including referencing Batman Forever‘s “bat-nipples” and a Cameo call with actor Robert Wuhl, known for his supporting role as Alexander Knox in Tim Burton's Batman.
This brings us back to the “rights issues” that resulted in the repeat TIFF screenings of The People's Joker being pulled from the festival. I can only suspect future festival screenings, such as one at Fantastic Fest, may also be affected. I find it curious that we can have films such as the Scary Movie franchise or the guerilla-shot Disney World-set Escape from Tomorrow released unscathed but that The People's Joker finds itself stopped in its tracks by Warner Bros.
Similar to the recent cancellation of the Batgirl movie, this is the latest example of the very strict gatekeeping of Warner Bros, towards its DC properties, especially after the recent merger with Discovery. It could have been very easy for Warner Bros to turn a blind eye and let this film that's very obviously a parody have its time to shine. Ironically, the cease and desist has now made The People's Joker more infamous than it otherwise would've been, and it already seems to be developing a cult following, particularly within the trans community.
How can I review a film that may never be seen again? I honestly don't know that question, but if it is possible in the future, The People's Joker might be worth seeking out.