a Joker figure with white face paint, green hair, and a red and yellow outfit sits and smokes a cigarette
A still from The People's Joker Credit: Chicago International Film Festival

A television screen flickers between channels, as it jumps from a daytime talk show to an Alex Jones stand-in complaining about the menace of transsexuality, before landing on UCB Live. The show is a not-so-subtle send-up of Saturday Night Live, even featuring Lorne Michaels as its domineering, uncanny valley, cartoonish director. Yet in The People’s Joker, a film that otherwise treads primarily upon the grounds of the well-known but fictional world of Gotham City, Batman, and the film’s titular antihero, UCB’s musical guest, Sinéad O’Connor, is a surprising, poignant connection to our world, one that otherwise appears only in the fun house mirror world of cultural parody.

For Vera Drew, director, writer, and lead performer in the film, O’Connor’s presence was significant. Even before the Irish singer’s untimely death in July reminded the world of her iconoclastic, defiant challenge to the Catholic Church—most famously on her 1992 SNL appearance in which she ripped up a photo of the Pope—the singer showed Drew, who grew up Catholic and witnessed the church’s abuse scandals as a kid, the importance of artistic freedom. As someone who commented “IT IS NO MEASURE OF HEALTH TO BE WELL ADJUSTED TO A PROFOUNDLY SICK SOCIETY” on her own New York Times profile, O’Connor’s words are themselves an apt descriptor of the role that the Joker has played in the Batman universe, a nihilistic outcast unable to cope in the fraying urban metropolis.

“In this world, we’re all obsessed with appearances and saying the right thing, and making sure we don’t say anything that gets us canceled or upsets either side of the aisle or whatever,” Drew says. “When you speak truth to power, especially in art, it’s always going to be a pathway to freedom. It’s not always going to be a smooth and joyful ride, but it’s gonna always lead to the other side.”

“A smooth and joyful ride” is not how you’d describe the rollout of The People’s Joker. Launching into wider cultural awareness on the heels of a viral movie trailer—which Drew began as a quarantine-inspired, one-woman project that eventually brought in over 100 remote collaborators—the film always ran uphill against the threat of copyright infringement claims launched by Warner Brothers. That’s kept the film in legal limbo, and while Drew has successfully shown the film at festivals around the world, including one cosponsored by the studio, she’s yet to clear a proper distribution strategy for its wider release, making its two screenings at the Chicago International Film Festival a must-see experience for anyone interested in the project.

The People’s Joker tells the story of [REDACTED], a young boy (whose deadname is bleeped out every time it’s used) who longs to escape the cornfields of Smallville and become a successful comedian in Gotham. Uncertain gender feelings expressed to his uptight, scared mother land our protagonist in Arkham Asylum, where Dr. Crane administers the teenage boy a hefty dose of Smylex, a drug otherwise used to dull the complaints of unhappy housewives, leaving its users in a state of numbed-out, forced-smile falsity. It’s a fitting origin story for the Joker’s disturbing grin: dysphoric feelings of gender discomfort masked with a drug-induced giddiness.

Drew has described the film as a coming-of-age story with parallels to her own, and while the people’s Joker needed to escape Smallville, Drew sought refuge in Chicago. Born in Joliet and raised in Mokena, Drew says her childhood trips to the city saved her life, even beginning her career as a teenager in the city’s many comedy clubs before she attended DePaul University. The city was a lifeline for Drew, a reminder that there would always be more than the stifling confines of small-town thinking.

“In suburbia growing up, I didn’t know I was trans, though I had a general idea that there was something a little bit queer about me, mostly because all the bullies would call me that,” Drew says. “In the movie, when her mom warns her by saying, ‘The city is full of leather freaks and neon biker gangs and cross-dressers,’ it was like, ‘Oh my God, that sounds great. Like, please send me to that city.’”

Of course, the Gotham that’s frequently seen in the Batman universe is one of despair and decay, its inequalities and rampant violence unmistakable. While the franchise obviously centers the exploits of Bruce Wayne, multibillionaire and dispenser of vigilante justice, Todd Phillips’s 2019 film Joker revealed the obvious: in a city that cannot meet its people’s basic needs, the idea of a Joker-like figure is inevitable, and “that character suffers because the state has failed him, like he can’t get the drugs or the mental health access he needs,” as Drew says. The People’s Joker only heightens these themes, further implicating trans characters who are so often made to be the villains, often against their will. 

“Trans people are completely villainized in this world, and the way a lot of us are portrayed in the media is already either oversimplistic, very heteronormative, or just offensive,” Drew says. “I wanted to subvert that by making all the villains in this parody version of the Batman universe queer, especially when the text itself is pointing out that the so-called ‘good guys’ of our society are always failing us.”

The People’s Joker
92 min. Chicago International Film Festival
Fri 10/13 at 10:30 PM, AMC NEWCITY, $15
Sun 10/15 at 11:30 AM, Gene Siskel Film Center, $22

Today, superheroes are more than just the good guys: in an age in which billions of dollars are spent each year making comic book adaptations, such content, whether you want to engage or not, has become effectively inescapable. Someone like Sinéad O’Connor, who used a fleeting moment in the spotlight to challenge a world-shaping institution like the Catholic Church, could catalyze people like Drew toward honest expression. Now, deep within a media culture that offers precious little oxygen for original thinking, Drew has reimagined one of our most widely-known fictional worlds toward her own ends, a defiance that uses these familiar scripts against themselves.

“If I have to walk down the street and see five billboards for the next Batman movie, I think I have just as much ownership over these characters as Warner Brothers,” she says. “It’s been shoved down our throats for years now that these superheroes are our modern myths, and if the function is about coming of age and understanding yourself and the world you live in, people like me should be making films like this.”