Batman: The Killing Joke
What’s it About?
As Batman hunts for the escaped Joker, the Clown Prince of Crime attacks the Gordon family to prove a diabolical point mirroring his own fall into madness.
Directed by Sam Liu
DCU’s mainstay animation director, Sam Liu (Batman Year One, All Star Superman, JL v Teen Titans) brings Alan Moore’s and Brian Bolland’s (who was inspired by the classic silent film “The Man Who Laughs” with Conrad Veidt) “The Killing Joke” to life along with comic book scribe Brian (Wonder Woman) Azzarello. The films marks the return of Mark Hamill (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Village of the Damned) voicing The Joker and Kevin Conroy (Batman: The Animated Series) returning as Batman. The Eisner winning graphic novel, which was released way back in 1988, was a seminal one shot book that set the bar really high and is considered to be one of the best Batman / Joker stories ever published. It includes a uniquely dynamic and visceral backstory in which Moore explores, in parallels, how The Joker came to be and how he still remains in the present, trying criminally to show Batman how they are actually so much alike as a result of “one bad day.”
The book also is very important for having a singular incident befall a beloved character in the DC universe, resulting in said character to absorb a completely new identity as hero in Gotham. Having re-read TKJ a year or so ago and trying to retain all the material, I must say that the book remains very relevant and completely absorbing psychologically and artistically. In other words, it still hold up.
Unfortunately, over 25 years later, as a adaptation to the little screen (Or big screen depending where you may have seen it), by Liu, DC and company, the film falls way off the mark and is surprisingly flat, boring, outdated and uninspired. A disappointing effort that, given the source material, is rendered practically inert by a distracting and protracted prologue at the film’s beginning that feels like fluff in order to whet our appetite for the actual meat and potatoes, which ironically, in turn seems rushed and expedited. The start of the “The Killing Joke,” AKA “Batgirl Gets Horny,” begins innocuous enough with a VO of Barbara Gordon (Tara Strong) as Batgirl.
She take us into her world of Gotham while expounding on the trials and expectations of looming dangers living in Batman’s world. Strangely, Batgirl comes across reckless, perpetually cocky, emotional and just plain amateur-ish at times as she tries to bring down an impetuous young mafioso in Gotham who has an Uncle in the way of his obtaining his empire in Gotham’s underworld. Within this story, Liu displays enough truck chases, fisticuffs, shots to the head and explosions to whet our palette, but I couldn’t help but feel like this whole affair was tacked on and just padding to fill out the running time. If it was the intent to add more depth to Barbara and Batgirl then it didn’t work and it just came off hokey and transparent. We already know and like Batgirl and have an emotional investment so why this prologue at all? Was it to set something up? If that was the case, then we’ve been played Batgirl fans.
What I think really annoyed me was the sexually driven narrative. I know better than anyone else that sex sells, but come on! Please, don’t insult my intelligence, DC. I won’t go any further than that, gang. Just be warmed. And in my opinion, it was all just unnecessary and comes across pretty trite. If Liu and Azzarello wanted to make a Batgirl flick then they should have made a Batgirl flick. Batgirl here, just comes across as a whiny, sexually frustrated and really immature hero that plays into the opposite of her also being a bad ass girl dark knight that can still kick your ass. Batman, here, only serves to swoop in occasionally and be broody and disapproving of Batgirl’s antics.
What is quite frustrating is that this intro leaves nothing to the imagination or provokes thought regarding the dangers and psychology of living as a dark hero in Gotham (Batman is kind of a moody version of a big brother scolding his carefree little sister trying to school her in being a better hero) and only serves as a disconnect to what come after.
And getting to that…when the film becomes the “Killing Joke” in true form, the first thing we notice is that the animation style stands out quite nicely but then eventually becomes a bit inconsistent. In some scenes, (Batman’s attempt to talk to The Joker in AA for example) it looks pretty well rendered in shadow and color while others look underdeveloped and thick, like Joker’s facial expressions (his eyes looking tiny and weird) and some backgrounds like those at the abandoned carnival grounds.
Liu and company try valiantly to replicate some fine moments from the Bolland’s art style in the book and succeed for the most part only in the animation but in the narrative and style in is sorely lacking in any real tension and build up. Do look for the great “pulled from the pages” shot of the Joker going mad after the botched robbery at the chemical plant, though! My only gripe with Bats here was his suit, bat emblem, ears and cowl. It all seemed a bit off to me but I am nitpicking and in the end is not such a distracting point. Perhaps it all was an attempt to emulate Bolland’s vision of Batman as a whole.
The film competently tries to follow Moore and Bolland’s book narrative regarding The Joker’s escape from Arkham, Joker’s flashbacks to his family and career woes, Batman trailing the Joker to the carnival including Gordon’s abduction and the almost demise of Barbara Gordon. I just wish they could have delved more into these story points with more depth and exposure perhaps using more dialog or even more visual explorations. Which brings me back to the forced rom com intro that needn’t have been thrust upon us in this particular DC animated outing (It also serves to sully and debase the character of Barbara Gordon imo). All it succeeded in doing was sucking the time that could have directed to more of the true Moore / Bolland story.
Hamill and Conroy slip right back into their character’s warm slippers and do a commendable job as the voices of the Joker and Batman. I knew, for obvious reasons, that this was the only real saving grace to be had from this convoluted mess. Hamill and Conroy are just barely enough of an excuse to watch “The Killing Joke” in my opinion. They elevated it to perhaps an “episode of the week” entry with strong interaction and dynamic voice ranges as their prospectative characters. It is just pretty cool listening to these two again but I would have wished it could have been as another story or adaptation or an original story for the screen. Any other circumstance but this film. Shit, I could listen to those two do radio car insurance commercials.
None of the real impact of the the book is on display here and any of the psychological manipulations the characters go through are made minimal here by an uneven pace and vapid deflections. None of the explored themes jump out at you and because of the lack of exploration there does not seem to be any real danger or connection felt between Batman and The Joker.
The fact that they do not fit in the real outside world but are so much alike is never really explored except through a lame musical number by The Joker which is just embarrassing to watch. Everything just reeks of average-ness in The Killing Joke which is a shame since this was a highly anticipated feature. Perhaps the book was kept shelved too long before being made into a movie, who knows? It could have been served better as a late 80’s or early 90’s live action adaptation made by Tim Burton or someone of his ilk at the time.
Liu and Azzarello just do not keep the focus on any one thing that made the book a stand out and as a DC animated film, it is only just a curiosity piece and nothing more. The high standards, with the exception of some of the animation and of course Hamill and Conroy, are not displayed here and I cannot fully recommend “The Killing Joke” to anyone who is a true fan of the Moore and Bolland collab. But it you must indulge, and are a completist and enormous Batman fan, since the film does have some neat action and mayhem in parts, then consider “The Killing Joke” only as a rental.