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(3.5 stars)

Hollywood’s superhero blockbuster business has grown creatively stale, but Vera Drew’s irreverent renegade opus “The People’s Joker” is just the antidote the genre desperately needs. Both a tough-love letter to the commodified IP it satirizes and a scathing takedown of mainstream comedy institutions, this defiantly personal low-budget marvel is also a genuinely affecting queer coming-of-age tale that packs a more poignant punch than most entries in the superpowered canon. (Yes, that includes Todd Phillips’s 2019 grimdark “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. Blending her autobiographical story with a dizzying 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 Smallville hometown for a dystopian Gotham City where the Caped Crusader is a crime-fighting reality TV demagogue, comedy is regulated by the cultish training program UCB — that’s United Clown Bureau — and having a penis is a prerequisite for moving up the rigidly binary comedy ladder to star on the popular 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 goes rogue, teaming up with the Penguin (an endearing Nathan Faustyn) to start her own illegal “anti-comedy” troupe of misfit DC villains, among them the Riddler (Trevor Drinkwater), Catwoman (Daniella Baker) and a metamorphosing, nonbinary Poison Ivy (Ruin Carroll). As she sparks up a bad romance with edgelord fellow trans stand-up artist Jason “Mr. J” Todd (Kane Distler) and spars with the fascistic Batman (Phil Braun), she grapples with her gender identity and finds the confidence to become the person she’s meant to be.

By the time she’s dancing down a staircase (a la Joaquin Phoenix) to the Prince-sound-alike track “Partywoman” (a la 1989’s “Batman”), sporting a new name (Joker the Harlequin) and a hard-won sense of self-acceptance, you’re rooting for this cackling antiheroine with a penchant for anarchy to upend the social order of Gotham City, and maybe the order of corporate Hollywood, too.

Written with Bri LeRose, narrated in flashbacks, and steeped in an unrelenting barrage of references and visual gags, the garishly colorful “People’s Joker” bounces frenetically through a head-spinning array of visual styles. (Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” “The King of Comedy” and many iterations of Batman lore are referenced, but it’s “Batman Forever” auteur Joel Schumacher who gets the opening title dedication alongside the filmmaker’s mother.)

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

Drew, an editor for Sacha Baron Cohen and Tim Heidecker (who cameos as Perry White, by way of Alex Jones), gives a performance that grows in confidence as the character does. Her quick-fire comedy chops come easily (a “yes, and” moment opposite David Liebe Hart as improv mentor Ra’s al Ghul is a cringe comedy highlight). But there’s also heart-rending angst and tenderness underscoring her scenes with her unsupportive mom (Lynn Downey) and toxic boyfriend Mr. J, a riff on Jared Leto’s Joker who more than earns the “Damaged” tattoo inked across his forehead.

It would be easy to mire this Joker in the darkness of her predecessors, but Drew finds a radically affirming way through. After the legal standoff with rights holder Warner Bros. Discovery that infamously interrupted its 2022 festival circuit run — a pre-credits card asserts that “any copyright or trademark infringement was not done intentionally,” while another cheekily thanks WBD for the free publicity — her film ironically proves the resonance and expansive potential of its source material. All of which makes “The People’s Joker” the cinematic coup of the year, and finally delivers the boundary-obliterating antiheroine Hollywood deserves.

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

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