After a memorable first screening at TIFF, Vera Drew’s The People’s Joker was shut down over “rights issues.”
Vera Drew, the writer-director-star-effects artist, is behind one of the most anticipated and talked-about films at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. The trans coming-of-age film is a riff on DC Comics’ signature villains the Joker and Harley Quinn, using the character as a metaphor for the trans experience.
Despite the film being a parody, Warner Bros. served a cease-and-desist order against the film. According to a message posted on the festival’s ticketing page for The People’s Joker, subsequent festival screenings have been canceled over “rights issues,” leaving the future of The People’s Joker unknown.
The film is not licensed by DC or Warner Bros, but the film should have been covered by fair use and parody under the First Amendment. The amendment protects the creator’s right to use existing IP for comic effect, but the key here is that a parody has to “significantly transform” that IP to make it clear that it isn’t an official release from the rights owner.
Drew’s wholly unique film does just this by reimagining the Joker as "Joker the Harlequin," a trans woman trying to break into Gotham City’s underground comedy scene. The film riffs on and quotes from several Batman movies and has a fondness for the underappreciated, queer-coded, and campy Joel Schumacher Batman films.
The film also uses classic 2D animation with hand-drawn backdrops of abandoned theme parks and crude 8-bit animations that replace expensive special effects to showcase the film’s DIY origins into a delightful and sincere film.
So why might you never see this film?
Why You Might Never See The People’s Joker
The film opens with multiple disclaimers stating that it is an unauthorized parody and includes a full-screen credit for the production’s copyright lawyer. Slate’s Sam Adams recalls writing in his notes, “This will never be shown again,” about 10 minutes into the screening.
And Adams was right. After the cease-and-desist was served, screenings for the film were removed from TIFF and from Fantastic Fest next week.
A source close to the matter told IndieWire that Warner Bros. told the filmmakers about the copyright issues since the film uses characters that skewed closely to DC’s Harley Quinn, so the unlicensed movie was withdrawn from the fest.
The abrupt cancellations are a dramatic reminder of how little the principles of fair use mean when they come into conflict with a studio’s treasured IP.
During a post-screening Q&A, Drew talked about editing scenes from Todd Philips’ 2019 Joker out of The People’s Joker to avoid major rights issues, but her efforts were for naught. While the unique and disjunctive style plays with IP-driven practices of corporate moviemaking, the film is more overtly critical of mainstream comedy, which is dominated by mostly white, cis, male comics.
The Future of The People’s Joker
Companies like Warner Bros. and Disney have used the system to extend copyright far beyond its initial intent to keep characters out of the public domain. These companies know how to protect the IPs that do well in theaters and for years after.
We are in a strange era of cinema where IPs are dominant and seemingly inescapable. The People’s Joker is a unique and valuable point of view that isn’t trying to be anything other than original while playing with popular culture.
“This movie is not illegal. I just said that to get you to come,” Drew said at the film’s TIFF premiere, showing that Drew understands what her film is in both a legal and ideological way.
While Batgirl, featuring trans actress Ivory Aquino as a trans character, sits in Waner Bros. vaults, The People’s Joker may still find a way into our lives, and we will look forward to seeing the creative efforts put forward by Drew and her team.
Let us know what you think about the issue in the comments!
Update, Sept. 16: Writer-Director Vera Drew Says 'The People's Joker' "Will Screen Again"