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‘The People’s Joker’ is the superhero movie of the year

(3.5 stars)

Hollywood’s superhero blockbuster has grown creatively stale, but Vera Drew’s irreverent renegade opus ‘The People’s Joker’ is exactly the antidote the genre so desperately needs. Both a badass love letter to the commodified IP it satirizes and a scathing takedown of mainstream comedy institutions, this defiantly personal low-budget wonder is also a truly moving queer coming-of-age story that packs a more poignant punch than the most entries in the super powerful cannon. (Yes, that includes Todd Phillips’ gritty 2019 “Joker,” the original inspiration for this project.)

Even die-hard fans have never seen the Clown Prince of Crime like this. Make that the Clown Princess of crime. Combining her autobiographical story with a dazzling phantasmagoria of DC Comics iconography, Drew (also co-writer, director and editor) stars as Joker, a closeted trans woman and aspiring comedian who leaves her hometown of Smallville for the dystopian Gotham City, where the Caped Crusader is. a crime-fighting reality TV demagogue, comedy is regulated by the cult-like training program UCB – that’s United Clown Bureau – and having a penis is a prerequisite for climbing the strictly binary comedy ladder to star in the hit sketch show ‘UCB Live’ .

What’s a wannabe clown battling gender dysphoria, an addiction to the perma-grin-inducing antidepressant Smylex, and lingering childhood trauma to do? Our Joker sets out and teams up with the Penguin (an endearing Nathan Faustyn) to create her own illegal “anti-comedy” group of misfit DC villains, including the Riddler (Trevor Drinkwater), Catwoman (Daniella Baker) and a metamorphosis. non-binary Poison Ivy (Ruin Carroll). As she sparks a bad romance with edgelord fellow trans stand-up artist Jason “Mr. J” Todd (Kane Distler) and sparring with the fascist Batman (Phil Braun), she struggles with her gender identity and finds the confidence to become the person she is meant to be.

By the time she dances down the stairs (to Joaquin Phoenix) to the Prince sound-alike song “Partywoman” (to 1989’s “Batman”), with a new name (Joker the Harlequin) and a hard-won sense of self-acceptance, you root for this cackling anti-heroine with a penchant for anarchy to upend the social order of Gotham City, and perhaps the corporate order of Hollywood as well.

Written with Bri LeRose, told in flashbacks and drenched in a relentless barrage of references and visual gags, the garishly colorful “People’s Joker” bounces feverishly through a dizzying array of visual styles. (References are made to Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” “The King of Comedy” and many iterations of Batman stories, but it is “Batman Forever” author Joel Schumacher who, along with the filmmaker’s mother, is credited with the opening credits. )

Live action, animation, computer-generated pastiches and other elements sourced from more than 100 contributing artists give the film the feel of a green-screen psychedelic fever dream, even before a crude “Sims” version of “UCB Live” honcho “Lorne Michaels” (voiced by Maria Bamford) shows up and an interdimensional doll joins the party. Ultimately, the disorder settles into its own gritty imagery—the partially crowdfunded film had a low-six-figure budget—and Drew’s deadpan but uncynical performance anchors the film’s over-the-top antics.

Drew, an editor for Sacha Baron Cohen and Tim Heidecker (who plays Perry White through Alex Jones), gives a performance that, like the character, grows in confidence. Her fast-paced comedy chops come easily (a “yes, and” moment opposite David Liebe Hart as improv mentor Ra’s al Ghul is a cringe-worthy comedy highlight). But there’s also heartbreaking fear and tenderness that underscore her scenes with her unsupportive mother (Lynn Downey) and toxic boyfriend Mr. J, a riff on Jared Leto’s Joker that more than deserves the ‘Damaged’ tattoo on his forehead.

It would be easy to let this Joker sink into the darkness of her predecessors, but Drew finds a radically affirming way out. After the legal impasse with rights holder Warner Bros. Discovery infamously interrupted its 2022 festival circuit run – one pre-credits card claims that “any copyright or trademark infringement is not intentional,” while another cheekily thanks WBD for the free publicity – her film ironically proves the resonance and the expansive potential of its source material. All of this makes “The People’s Joker” the cinematic coup of the year, ultimately delivering the groundbreaking anti-heroine Hollywood deserves.

unrated. At Alamo Drafthouse Cinema (including Crystal City and Bryant Street) and Parkway Theater in Baltimore. 92 minutes.