Movie Review: Batman: The Killing Joke
Disclaimer: as with all reviews on Theaterverse, there may be spoilers. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to come back after you have. You have been warned!
Even the trailer ignores the prologue.
I might be a little behind on this one, but I still feel the need to discuss it. Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke might just be my favorite Batman story. The 1988 one-shot tells what is widely considered to be the definitive origin of the Joker, although there is much speculation as to the authenticity of this tale. As stated by the man himself “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another … If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”
The overarching story of The Killing Joke is the mirror image between Batman and the Joker. They are in essence two sides of the same coin and the Joker attempts to prove it by showing Commissioner Gordon that everyone is just “one bad day” away from being just like him. It truly is a fantastic story, and adding to the allure of this movie is the “definitive” combo of Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker.
So as you can probably tell, to say I am biased is an understatement. My original intent was to try and write this as though I was not familiar with the book that inspired this movie, but the fact is, I am just too close to the source material to review it objectively. With that being said, if you are a new-comer to the story you might find yourself having an entirely different experience. On to the review!
When adapting a one-shot graphic novel to a feature length film there is going to have to be some material created to pad the story to the appropriate run time. This is understandable and necessary. Warner Bros decided to fill this time by fleshing out Batgirl’s side of the story. That would have been a great idea had they not decided to transform Barbara Gordon, one of the most intelligent, rational, and strong female characters in the DC universe, into a pining little girl who can be rendered into a puddle of mush by boys who might like her.
The story begins with Barbara (as Batgirl) stopping a robbery lead by a major crime boss’ woefully named nephew, Paris Franz. Paris gets a bit obsessed with Batgirl and begins playing mind games, ala Hannibal Lecter, with her. Barbara, in the meantime, returns to work as a Librarian. She explains to her friend that she is involved with someone (Batman) even if he doesn’t know it yet. Franz begins manipulating Batgirl and leads her into discovering the murdered body of his uncle.
Batman becomes concerned for her safety and warns her that there is an “Abyss” that she may face where she may be tempted to kill the criminals she tries to stop. He removes her from the case, and that somehow turns to rooftop sex under a gargoyle. This is where it goes off the rails. I hate to totally devolve into a militant comic nerd here but that does not fit her character in the slightest. Batgirl is much younger than Batman, and is often romantically linked to Robin for God-sakes. That is like Dad having sex with his son’s girlfriend, who also happens to be his friend’s daughter. It ends up feeling really weird and creepy, and bookends the darkest story in Batgirl’s cannon with overly emotional weakness and boy-craziness. After Batman refuses to return her calls (seriously?) She goes on a a patrol ultimately ending up with nearly beating Franz to death and staring into that “Abyss” Batman spoke of. The next night she meets Batman on a rooftop and renounces her Batgirl persona, warning him that she doesn’t believe anyone can avoid the “Abyss” forever.
After all that mess the actual Killing Joke story begins. If they had simply made short feature and started here it would have been an improvement. The story remains mostly faithful to the book, minus a couple of cuts to some of the most extreme content. The voice acting is mostly done well, if a little dry at times. Hamill, as always, delivers a truly chilling performance as the Joker. His monologues move seamlessly from silly to terrifying to truly disturbing all within the space of just a moment.
The Killing Joke’s animation is reminiscent of the renowned 90’s cartoon series, Batman: The Animated Series but updated to reflect the budget and technology of the day. Sepia tones shots of the Joker’s origin as an engineer turned failing stand up comic are interspersed with the colorful yet dark main arc. The crippling gunshot scene is treated with appropriate emotional depth, and the animation takes on a very artistic and almost beautiful (as much as a vile moment like this can be beautiful) visual style. Lighting and shadow are used to great effect to add menace especially during Joker’s song and dance number. Visually, Batman: The Killing Joke is a real treat, and if you are a fan of animation I would recommend watching for that reason alone.
I won’t spoil any more of the story here, but I do recommend watching the movie even if you are a little on the militant nerdy side. Conroy and Hamill’s performances alone make it worth the experience, just try to take the first 30 minutes with a rather large grain of salt. Be sure to watch past the credits for the taste of Barbera’s new life as Oracle.
Have you seen the movie? What did you think?