Vera Drew in “The People’s Joker.” Photos courtesy of Altered Innocence

The movie: “The People’s Joker,” Vera Drew’s 2022 parody superhero film that was pulled from screenings after encountering copyright issues that have since been resolved, leading a theatrical release this month. (See for screening schedule.)

The premise: From writer-director-star Drew, the film adapts the established comics mythos of the enigmatic Batman villain into an alternate reality, trans coming-of-age story, while still making room for spot-on satirical broadsides against the comedy establishment (“Saturday Night Live” and the Upright Citizens Brigade are secondary villains), the underlying sexism in both the comedy and comics industries, superhero comics’ long-buried subtext of fascism in the guise of do-gooding, and more.

The star: Drew, a trans woman, plays the unnamed would-be Joker, her Gotham City dreams of stand-up stardom stifled by lifelong overmedication due to her parents’ rejection of her sexuality, the monolithic corporate comedy and entertainment world and a sold-out Batman, whose public retirement involves outlawing non-sanctioned comedy via a fleet of armed Bat-drones.

The style: Animation coexists with live action, composited, Adult Swim-style imagery, puppets and more. (Obvious comic forebear Tim Heidecker, of “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!”voices an Alex Jones conspiracy type who rails against everything from lizard people to “the trans menace” amidst the film’s swirling media dystopia.)

Vera Drew and Kane Distler in an animated scene in “The People’s Joker.”

The controversy: “The People’s Joker” makes full use of DC’s stable of heroes and villains. Apart from the Joker and Batman, eagle-eyed movie/comics fans will spot the Penguin (here Joker’s stoner stand-up pal), Catwoman, Mr. Freeze, Robin, The Riddler and more, with Drew fashioning her tale out of scraps of stories from DC’s comics, movie and TV universes. With all that, you’d imagine the filmmaker had some sort of legal permission to adapt comics’ most infamous villain into this deeply personal, totally nerdy tale. And you’d be completely wrong. “The People’s Joker” got a single screening at the Toronto International Film Festival before it was mysteriously pulled from that and all further engagements, presumably thanks to DC parent company Warner Bros. Discovery’s legal department.

Arguing “fair use” in transforming the source material into her singular take on trans life and comedy travails, Drew has improbably succeeded in booking “The People’s Joker” in an ambitious country-wide theatrical run this month, however. (An elaborate disclaimer regarding copyright at the start of the film seems to have been enough to fend off the lawyers – for now.) Portland’s Space was able to snap up one such screening last week, giving fans of comics, queer cinema, guerrilla filmmaking and the deeply strange a glimpse of this heroic underdog story and, like similar recent indie film scrapper “Hundreds of Beavers,” giving Maine moviemakers a blueprint for defiant DIY moviemaking.

The timeliness: Apart from Drew’s quixotic decision to flout the insanely powerful forces of capitalism and the comedy establishment (“SNL’s” Lorne Michaels, voiced by the brilliant Maria Bamford, is seen as a reactionary phony), her improbably touching and heartfelt story of coming to terms with her trans identity arrives at a perilous time. Hateful, violent anti-trans rhetoric is now Republican policy in America, and the LGBTQ+ community is under siege even more than usual. Drew’s Joker is standard-bearer for all those battling injustice and prejudice, all while couching its intimate tale of self-acceptance in day-glow absurdism in the guise of a comic nerd’s wildest fantasies.

The real hero: There was no earthly reason to expect this low-budget, self-made, copyright-baiting passion project to be one of the most original and refreshing superhero flicks in years. (The film currently sits at a 95% Rotten Tomatoes average.) Personally, while the action is sparse in this Joker tale, I’d take it over Todd Phillips’ own, overrated alt-reality “Joker’s” derivative take on the Batman mythos any day. (For one thing, Drew is upfront about cobbling together her Joker movie from other sources, rather than slapping some grease paint on two Martin Scorsese movies and calling it original.) This column has always celebrated indie film in all its scrappy, sometimes disreputable, do-it-yourself ingenuity and courage. “The People’s Joker” is indie to the core, boldly plucking a funny, weird and resonant story right out from under the noses of cinema’s most massively protected intellectual properties. You can’t get more indie – or heroic –than that.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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