BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE Review

As a young man growing up in the nineties it was next to impossible to not be infatuated with Batman: The Animated Series. Whether you'd seen any of the Adam West series or not there was something immediately intriguing about Batman and his alter-ego, billionaire Bruce Wayne. While the animated series that ran from 1992-1995 would more or less become the definitive Batman of my generation little did I know that at the same time I was celebrating my first birthday author Alan Moore and illustrator Brian Bolland were releasing what would become something of a seminal piece of work in the bat universe that would forever influence the tone and depiction of Jerry Robinson's creation. I am of course referring to the 1988 graphic novel, The Killing Joke, which has now been adapted into a DC original animated movie. While I consider myself a pretty big Batman fan that fandom is more in regards to the cinematic incarnations of the character rather than his origins in comic books which I, unfortunately, don't tend to read much. To say that is to say that despite being aware of the Moore story I didn't really know the specifics of it and for some reason had not corrected that lack of knowledge even when in 2008 there were rumors Heath Ledger's version of the Joker in The Dark Knight would draw heavily on the Moore/Bolland interpretations. Having finally caught up with The Killing Joke I was anxious to see what an animated feature of the story might be able to offer or bring to the table what the comic couldn't. In other words, it would be tough-comics and books alike allow readers their own time with the material and their own time to consider the full ramifications of the actions that take place whereas movies are more prone to tell you how you should feel. Given the typically well-respected and regarded Warner Bros. Animation was at the helm of this long-awaited adaptation though, there was great hope in seeing justice done to this iconic story being brought to the screen. Unfortunately, there simply isn't enough in Moore and Bolland's comic to justify a feature length film and by adding a forty-minute prologue that concerns Barbara Gordon/Batgirl (Tara Strong) doesn't help in this case. It doesn't help that the animation feels cheap and rushed either with the only redeeming quality being that fans of that animated nineties series will once again be able to hear Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy reprise their iconic roles as The Joker and the Caped Crusader.

Batgirl (Tara Strong) has a seeming unrequited interest in Batman (Kevin Conroy) in The Killing Joke.
I wouldn't typically pen a review for an animated film that was more or less headed straight to home video, but as I was able to make one of the two-night theatrical screenings of The Killing Joke and given the film doesn't arrive on DVD and Blu-Ray until next week I thought it might be fruitful in working through why exactly this film didn't click with me when the animated series, which this very much emulates while adapting a more mature tone, resonated with me in such a strong way in my childhood. To understand why I feel the way I do about this material one has to understand where I'm coming from and while I've made it clear the nineties animated series was very near and dear to me in my early formative years I didn't come to know the narrative of the graphic novel from which this film takes its name until the same week I saw the movie. I read the source material because I knew I was going to see the movie whether it be in a theater or eventually at home. And so, taking into consideration all the talk that always seems to erupt when Batman fans mention the sacred text from Moore and the divisive conversation it seems to inspire I felt it necessary to prepare myself for what I was getting into. So, spoilers ahead if you haven't read the comic book and plan on seeing the movie.

The Killing Joke (the graphic novel) opens with Batman visiting The Joker at Arkham Asylum with no other agenda than to talk to him and to hopefully come to a conclusion over how their rival might be resolved. Batman knows it's inevitable at this point that if they continue on the path they've made for themselves their contention can only end in death. All hopes of reaching past the persona and finding the man within The Joker are dashed when Batman realizes who he's talking to isn't the real Joker, but an imposter meaning the crazed supervillain has escaped and is once again on the run. Things are starting over-just as they always do. In the comic we get a definitive origin story for The Joker rather than the multiple choice backstories the character typically delivers. This adds layers of sympathy to the character, but by intercutting the history of this character with his present plan to paralyze Barbara Gordon we are meant to see that there might actually be an objective to The Joker's perceived madness. In The Joker's origins we learn that one bad day turns a harmless working man into the psychotic bad guy we know today. In shooting Barbara and kidnapping her father, Commissioner Gordon (Ray Wise), he hopes to show that one bad day could do as much to any man. Of course, all of these actions are to lure Batman into coming and rescuing his allies, placing himself in The Joker's arena, and ultimately tempting him to break his one rule. Gordon isn't the prize-Batman is and if The Joker knows he can break someone like Batman, even if he himself has to die in the process, he has succeeded in bringing the world down as low as he was. It's a powerful piece of action and reaction to illustrate the psyche's at play while simultaneously forcing the audience to ask the same questions the characters are. We always come to see Batman fight The Joker, but The Killing Joke cares more about the characters in that it has them ask just how long they can do this with and to one another.

As far as the material already provided goes, director Sam Liu and his team do a fine enough job copying and pasting the story from page to screen. Meaning, they hit the same story points in a fashion that is familiar enough it doesn't feel like it's doing a disservice to its source, but it also brings nothing new to the table. Although the story is pretty much replicated panel for panel, the visual style of the animation is pretty terrible. With as big a property as The Killing Joke I would have expected WB to pour the necessary amount of money into this thing so that it may even compare to that of the animated films we see get theatrical releases. Instead, The Killing Joke remains in league with its TV counterpart, but to less successful results. One can see that the animators were attempting to hue as close as they could to that of the art direction used in the graphic novel, but when put into motion and when these aspirations fall through (most notably in the flashback origin story of The Joker) the style in which the story is being conveyed simply doesn't match up with the darker tone of the material. In truth, the look of the film may be the most disappointing thing about the whole affair as we've seen before that WB Animation can do much better work than they've put together here-just look at the 2012 adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns that the studio put out. Delivering on the story front while also giving the pages of the graphic novel a sweeping scope as they were brought to life the animated The Dark Knight Returns even added dimensions to the story that readers might not have grasped prior. The Killing Joke very much remains a flat piece of art throughout.

The Joker (Mark Hamill) is up to his old games, but is intent on truly breaking his arch nemesis this time around.
Where DC and WB will see most of the complaints come from though is in the additional story that writer Brian Azzarello has added in an attempt to make that shocking act The Joker commits in the comic have more of an impact. I get it-it makes sense and to an extent I don't mind much of the content that Azzarello provides here, but it doesn't gel with the second half of the film that more strictly adapts the source material and instead of making Barbara/Batgirl come off as less of an object it ends up relegating the character to little more than a whiny and desperate woman who literally sits by her phone waiting on Batman to call. There has already been much made of the fact Batman and Batgirl have a love scene together in the film, but while the tone of their relationship here is terribly awkward and miscalculated, the going through with of this act is the least of the films problems. Rather than giving Barbara her traditional job as a detective in which she eventually takes over the mantle from her father The Killing Joke makes Barbara a reclusive librarian with only a token gay friend and an obsession with carrying out her Batgirl duties, but not for reasons of bringing justice to Gotham, but instead out of a desire to get as close to Batman as possible. In short, the film completely undermines Barbara Gordon's character making her not a heroic person who wants to fight crime because she puts others lived before her own, but more makes her acts of heroism solely about a man she has a crush on. In that this section takes place prior to the portion of the film most will have come to watch it for only deflates the momentum of what the film gets right in adapting the titular story. With that being said, if you're a fan of the graphic novel and can't help but to want to see the story on film you may as well go to the scene selection option and watch the film from the forty minute mark on as that is the only way this adaptation won't be a total disappointment.