Batman: The Killing Joke (2016) – Movie Review
WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR ‘BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE’ AND HAS BEEN WRITTEN UNDER THE ASSUMPTION THAT MOST READERS ARE FAMILIAR WITH THE ORIGINAL TEXT. THERE WILL ALSO BE DISCUSSION SURROUNDING SEXUAL ASSAULT. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Batman: The Killing Joke
Directed by: Sam Liu
Written by: Brian Azzarello
Starring: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong & Ray Wise
Music: Kristopher Carter, Michael McCuistion & Lolita Ritmanis
Release Date: August 8th 2016
The late 1980s is thought to be the end of the “Bronze Age” of Comic Books, a period where comic books were able to step away from the watchful eye of the Comics-Code Authority and could tackle more mature stories, incorporate social commentary and real-world parallels. After 1985, we entered the “Modern Age” of Comics which was ushered in by much darker (both literal and metaphorical) titles such as 1986’s “The Dark Knight Returns”, 1986/87’s “Watchmen” and of course 1988’s “Batman: The Killing Joke” with the latter two being written by Alan Moore. It’s thought to be the quintessential Batman and Joker graphic novel.
But another quintessential adaptation is “Batman: The Animated Series” created by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski where Batman was voiced by Kevin Conroy and the Joker was voiced by Mark Hamill. Hamill had retired from the character after the “Arkham” Video Game series but had stated that he would always return for an adaptation of “The Killing Joke” and thanks to Bruce Timm and Warner Bros. Animation we have a feature-length, animated version of Moore’s iconic title with Conroy and Hamill returning for what could be the last time. But with so much pedigree attached and with such a solid track record have expectations gotten too high? And can you actually turn a 60-page comic into a satisfying feature-length movie?
In Gotham City, Batgirl a.k.a. Barbara Gordon (Strong) is helping Batman (Conroy) fight crime. However, a chance encounter with a particularly sadistic individual puts her expertise to the test while Batman believes that she is not capable of doing her job and forces her to retire. Meanwhile, Batman pays a visit to the Joker (Hamill) in Arkham Asylum hoping to appeal to his humanity but finds the Joker has escaped and is concocting his darkest plan yet which involves crippling Barbara Gordon and kidnapping her father Commissioner Gordon (Wise). Has the Joker finally gone too far and can Batman stop his plan before the two wind up killing each other?
Those of you familiar with Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” will be glad to know that the plot remains mostly untouched…save for a 30 minute prologue which I basically summarised in the first two sentences in the above plot synopsis. This prologue not only allows ‘Batman: The Killing Joke‘ to be feature length but it also expands on Barbara Gordon’s character as she mainly existed in the original graphic novel to be shot in the spine by the Joker and become paralysed from the waist down. Not a terrible idea on paper.
Except literally nothing works in the first 30 minutes. And I’m not even being hyperbolic here. Literally nothing.
Basically the sub-plot she’s given involves her getting too personally invested in a criminal who seems to fetishize her very existence and it’s implied that she might actually be into it while the criminal exploits that weakness in her. We also have her revealing that she has romantic feelings for Batman and in order to open up to one her friends about it she pretends that he’s her yoga instructor. It’s not just bad enough that the guy she’s talking to is a complete homosexual stereotype but her and Batman being romantically linked demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of their relationship.
Basically, in the “Bat Family”…Batman is the FATHER.
And to top it all off, almost every moment where Batman is on screen scolding her for her behaviour essentially consists of Batman looking directly into the camera and saying “Women. Amirite?”. It feels like a huge betrayal of Batgirl as a character and the worst part of the whole thing is…it has NOTHING to do with the Batman/Joker storyline that everyone actually wants to see. Seriously, it does nothing to set up Batman’s thought-process with villains, it doesn’t add any additional dimension to Barbara or her Commissioner Father in order to make her impending paralysis more effective and the nebulous connection of “This is what happens when you get too personal with a rival” feels tacked-on at best. This whole prologue also has the unintended consequence of making her paralysis and Batman’s attempts at justice less a case of Batman wanting to save and protect his friend like it was in the original and now it comes across as Batman wanting to avenge his squeeze. It’s pretty gross.
It’s almost as if Tara Strong had recorded her lines for the main plot of ‘Batman: The Killing Joke‘ but the sound-team still had the recording booth for an additional hour and got her to record something off-the-cuff and they just thought to animate it and include it. That’s how much of a narrative afterthought the opening 30 minutes are. So almost 40% of the runtime of ‘Batman: The Killing Joke‘ is not only absolutely terrible in both content and spirit but it’s absolutely irrelevant to ACTUAL selling point. Wonderful.
So what’s the ACTUAL “Killing Joke” segment of the movie like? Well, with it being a mostly faithful reconstruction of the original graphic novel with most of Alan Moore’s dialogue appearing un-touched (with random omissions and random inclusions that I’ll touch on later) it still works as the quintessential Batman/Joker story in theme and subject matter. Batman travels to Arkham wanting to talk to the Joker because he believes that one day the two will wind up killing each other and he wants to find another alternative. One reason “The Killing Joke” became such an iconic graphic novel was because it depicts a potential end-game scenario for both characters with an ambiguous ending and for the most part we have an adequate re-telling.
But there are a few oddities in this version and not just the omission of some of the most iconic dialogue such as “Madness is the emergency exit” and the fact that the 30-minute prologue doesn’t focus on Commissioner Gordon despite him having a much more pivotal role in the story, but once again it comes back to Batgirl. In the original text the Joker shoots her through the spine, undresses her unconscious body and photographs her in order to show her father the photographs to make him go mad. While it’s never explicitly stated in the text, some have theorised that the Joker could have also raped Barbara but there’s no evidence in the graphic novel to back this up.
Here, it’s pretty cut and dry that he did.
While trying to investigate the Joker’s whereabouts Batman goes to Gotham’s red-light district and speaks to a group of prostitutes who the Joker visits after he breaks out of Arkham Asylum. But the prostitutes tell Batman that after his latest escape, he didn’t visit them with one of them suggesting that the Joker may have found a new woman; a.k.a. Barbara Gordon. There is literally no other logical way to interpret that in this context. Bruce Timm has denied that this was the intention in interviews but…there’s no other reason to include that scene except to make that implication. It just shows that in terms of adapting this story that Bruce Timm and the creative team he’s assembled really had little idea as to what they were adapting and how their story-telling came across.
Although I will partially forgive them for making the same mistake as the original story; why are Joker’s henchmen trying to kill Batman at the fun-fair even though the Joker’s ultimate victory involves Batman bearing witness to what he’s done to Gordon?
One of the best aspects of this animated adaptation is how well portrayed the flashback segments are for the Joker’s potential origin story and how it paints this failed comedian in a sympathetic light as he attempts to assist in a robbery in order to provide for his wife and unborn child before having them taken away from him and the robbery going wrong anyway. And the punchline towards the end showing that the Joker’s past is “multiple choice” still hits like an effective bombshell that gives us a great origin but without actually confirming its legitimacy. The movie also gives us a unique interpretation of Batman where we only see about 1 minute of Bruce Wayne in the Batcave. Batman is Batman throughout almost the entire film so this is a story that humanises the villain far more than the actual hero.
But one of the main reasons ‘Batman: The Killing Joke‘ had so much pre-release hype was because Batman and the Joker would be voiced by Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill and…to be honest, the hype really didn’t deliver. We still know that Kevin Conroy can be a great Batman thanks to the “Arkham” game franchise but it often felt like he was half-asleep during the delivery. He’s a fine Batman here but…it feels like this was an off-day for Conroy. As for Hamill, he’s terrific as both the Joker and the nameless comedian during the flashbacks but it seems like he’s been directed in a way that acts counter to the actual dialogue and the source material. The iconic “Why aren’t you laughing?” monologue towards the end is partially delivered through yelling and shouting which feels so at-odds with the actual words being spoken. All that aside, this is unquestionably Hamill’s show and he rises to the occasion even if his recent turns in the “Arkham” games feel like a more effective portrayal.
Animation-wise, while most the panels of the original comics and the settings and the environments are recreated it does feel like the movie’s attempts to recapture the noir-esque flavour of Brian Bolland’s original artwork fall noticeably short. Obviously this is meant to be a straight-to-DVD title and won’t have a huge amount of money thrown at it, but even when it comes to the shadows and the shadings it feels like a downgrade from much older animated efforts such as ‘Batman: Assault on Arkham‘, ‘Batman: Under The Red Hood‘ or even the theatrical (though similarly budgeted) ‘Batman: Mask of the Phantasm‘.
There are some striking visuals and interesting angles and design choices but those moments almost feel negated through action sequences that feel like a high-end fan-made flash creation with many jerky movements. The music, while decent, doesn’t rise above simply adding to the atmosphere. You can tell that ‘Batman: The Killing Joke‘ was originally ONLY intended to be a straight-to-DVD movie and not the theatrical experience it could also be seen as.
‘Batman: The Killing Joke‘ gets off to an incredibly poor start with a 30-minute prologue that has zero redeeming qualities. It leaves a poor taste in audiences’ mouths right off the bat and unfortunately the actual adaptation of Alan Moore’s work in the second half of the movie never rises above average in order to justify the slog. Batman-fanatics will surely find redeemable values in seeing one of their favourite comics in motion and hearing Moore’s dialogue coming out of Mark Hamill’s mouth but aside from that this version, with its weak additions and questionable omissions really should have been much better on almost every front.
I give ‘Batman: The Killing Joke‘ 2 stars out of 5.
Oh yeah, and stay through the credits.
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Posted: 2nd Oct 16