Batman: The Killing Joke
Should I mention Alan Moore in this introduction? The man has such an unrelenting hatred for film adaptations of his work I almost feel like it would be an insult to him. Instead, how about Bruce Timm, the superhero animation behemoth whose name adorns some of the very best DC offerings? Back as a producer for the character that defined his career, it’s Timm being the major propelling force behind this, the latest in a long line of “DCAMU” Batman stories, the Dark Knight being the most popular target of DC’s animation department by a long margin.
Indeed, it’s probably the fact that the caped crusader is so well-used that The Killing Joke, one of the darkest Batman stories ever written, is getting the animated treatment. The Dark Knight Returns got a two-parter after all, and where do you go from there? Perhaps only Moore’s seminal Joker story does more in pushing the envelope. So, with the most well-regarded voices for Batman and Joker back before the microphones, and long-time DC directing supremo Sam Liu at the helm, was The Killing Joke a fitting adaptation of a work almost beyond iconic, or another damp DC animated squib like the last one I watched?
On the rooftops and in the alleys of Gotham City, Barbara Gordon (Tara Strong) struggles with her role as Batgirl and her partnership with Batman (Kevin Conroy), who fails to see her as an equal. An entanglement with a sociopathic mob boss leads to heartbreak for Barbara, and deep unease for Bruce Wayne, taking him to the asylum where his deadliest enemy, the Joker (Mark Hamill), is locked away. Or, so he thinks. When the Clown Prince of Crime escapes, those closest to Batman will be the ones to suffer the most.
“You didn’t think the story would start this way” says Batgirl as things begin, or something to that effect. And she’s quite right. If nothing else has galvanised debate about this animated movie, it’s the opening act, wherein the production team create their own beginning focusing on Batgirl before moving into what is largely a purist adaptation of Moore’s work, the measure of satisfaction you get from the film largely dependent on your tolerance (or intolerance) for such purism.
That first act is so separated from the rest that it’s practically its own beast, an attempt to greater imbue Batgirl with some character and relatability so that the inevitable tragedy that centres on her is as hard-hitting as possible. But the results are decidedly mixed: while the story-telling is mature for the genre, and not afraid of ruffling the feathers of those more in love with the established nature of the characters, there is a certain level of goofiness in the way that it is presented. This kind of rigid western animation, good at stillness and not so much with intimate moments, doesn’t do sexual charged interactions all that well, and the effect of Barbara confiding in her gay library friend about her “yoga instructor” is more like a rom-com thing than dark and edgy graphic novel.
And the way that it all just drops off a cliff around the half-hour mark, as the actual adaptation kicks into gear – right with a shot of rain hitting puddles – is also disconcerting. The first half-hour has its own unique central character, its own unique villain, its own unique supporting cast and set-pieces, that all vanish, by and large, as soon as the Joker is introduced, and that’s not great. If the team behind The Killing Joke really wanted to make more of Batgirl, I feel they would have been better served integrating the extra materiel featuring her, rather than placing it all at the start.
But from there it is in to what we know, and what we know is an engrossing story of Batman facing into a possibly climactic encounter with the Joker while we take a glimpse into how Gotham’s key resident psychopath came into being. In all of this, the material is taken so directly from the pages of Moore and Bolland that it feels a bit like Zach Snyder’s Watchmen: Yeah it’s neat to see all of these beloved pages turned into moving pictures, but there’s a certain soullessness to it all. You can’t just copy, you have to adapt, if you really want something top of the line.
It’s a horror story in many ways, and one that really allows for a fascinating insight into the Joker, with Hamill back in a role he has long since become a master class in performing. His Joker is demented, tormented yet still strangely relatable: Hamill can rein it in effectively, doing particularly well in those flashback sequences featuring a down on his luck stand-up comedian pushed into a dangerous robbery. It’s the transition from that to the Joker of today, fixated on proving that all it takes is “one bad day” to make someone turn insane, that The Killing Joke works as well as it did on the page. Humanising the Joker serves to make his current state even more terrifying.
Following the Joker’s utterly crazy mission to force Commissioner Gordon into the kind of psychosis that so affected him leads to dark twisted places, that The Killing Joke is not afraid to show vividly, though the delivery of some monologues suffers from some of that aforementioned purism. The script itself, when given the chance to be unique, works really well in the first act, notwithstanding some awkward moments of forced badassery for Batgirl, like when she violently interjects in a couples argument because she’s momentarily annoyed at Batman.
But then there are those wonderful interactions between Batman and the Joker towards the conclusion, as the Joker elaborates on his world view, his similarity to Batman in so many ways, and how he can’t see the world as anything other than a bad joke nobody else has the decency to laugh at like he does. These two, probably comic books’ most famous adversaries, end up confiding in each other, and the moment where the Joker actually turns genuinely serious is one that is worthy of a big-screen adaptation. It’s here when Hamill shines the brightest, every inch the performer who has been waiting to deliver these lines for a very long time.
Around the Joker and Hamill, everyone else just sort of fades into the background: Conroy has only sparse opportunities to actually be the Dark Knight, and seems less interested than he was before, a man perennially undertaking his last role as Wayne, while Tara Strong, quite brilliant at giving Barbara Gordon the right voice, still largely disappears from affairs for the second half. The film is so focused on making the most of what time they have with Batgirl that Batman himself suffers: we never get his perspective or reasoning on a vital plot point in that first act, only hers, which damages a tale where the cowled one takes over completely for two-thirds.
So, it’s the Joker show, and that’s largely the case with the better moments of animation. The moment of the Joker’s birth; the eyes reduced to pinpricks of light as he shoots Batgirl; that demented song and dance number towards the conclusion. At every turn, it’s the Joker getting the lions share of attention from the animators, and in truth the rest of the film suffers as a result. What computer effects are used seem clunky and obvious, and action scenes early on, like a car chase, are remarkably poor, from the vehicles, to the backgrounds, to the awkward sight of a badly inserted Batgirl appearing to run on the spot and be moved magically instead of, you know, running. Some unintended visual humour is the other hallmark: an intimate scene panning upwards to a leering gargoyle isn’t as haunting as the animators probably hoped it would be.
For fans of the graphic novel, The Killing Joke is bound to prove itself a treat, or at the very least an interesting diversion. But I feel like an opportunity was missed here, to really make something truly special. When the credits rolled, I felt like I had seen a decent half-hour Batgirl story, albeit with some issues, and then a 60 minute read-through of the comic with accompanying visualisation, that I could just as easily have done at home with the book itself and my imagination. Adaptation has to have a point beyond just replication: otherwise it’s just not a worthwhile exercise. The DC animated movies have been stumbling for a while now, and I don’t think that The Killing Joke really bucks that trend. It’s not Throne of Atlantis bad, but it’s not very good either. It feels like a long time since the likes of Mask Of The Phantasm. “It doesn’t have to be good to be a classic” opines the Joker in one memorable moment. Yeah, but it doesn’t hurt. Partially recommended.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).