The joke’s on us
Based on the 1988 graphic novel of the same name, Batman: The Killing Joke has long been a notorious milestone in the long running legacy of the Batman series. This particular take on the series introduced readers to a much darker version of an already dark universe by turning Joker into a legitimately sinister and despicable villain, due to the now infamous scene involving his brutal attack on Barbara Gordon and his subsequent kidnapping and torture of her father. Controversy aside, the book did have its fair share of things to praise, such as the fantastic art found on many pages, a memorable stylistic Joker design, and some great dialogue between our caped crusader and his nemesis. Now, nearly 30 years later it’s finally received the animated feature film many thought would never happen. Was it worth the wait or does it fall apart faster than a fractured spinal column?
One of the biggest setbacks that’s always kept this particular Batman outing from a movie adaptation was the clear fact that it’s far more mature and often times down right disturbing, making for what would be an unavoidable R rating. Adaptation issues aside, DC’s never seemed all that proud of The Killing Joke in retrospect and seemed content with avoiding the issue all together, but with the recent success of Deadpool, an adult oriented super hero movie seemed like far less of a risk now. With the rating issue solved, the only other hurdle was how to turn this short novel into a feature length movie, and that is where the first real problem shows up in the finished product.
The book starts right off with Batman headed to Arkham Asylum to get some face time with our favorite Clown Prince of Crime, but the movie goes in an entirely different direction. It’s no secret that The Killing Joke is just as much about the Joker and Batman as it is about the tragic encounter Barbara Gordon (Batgirl/Oracle) is doomed to experience, so the creators thought it wise to make her more of a focal character for the film. They weren’t necessarily wrong with that mindset, and had it been done better it could have added a nice layer to the biggest moment in the movie. But unfortunately, it’s a very wasted opportunity that not only bogs the quality down, but also hurts the character it set out to improve upon.
The movie’s main focus for the first 20 minutes or so are on Batgirl, her apparent secret crush on Batman, and their search for a small time villain with a dumb name and unhealthy obsession with her. The whole thing plays out like some poorly done, uninteresting mess of a romantic crime drama that ultimately culminates with Barb and her Bat-Garb calling it quits. Part of that is due to her almost going off the deep end and killing her suspect, and the other is due to a super hero hookup of fan-fiction proportions. Yes, her and Batman grapple then hook up and it’s as unexpected as it is completely pointless, since it’s never addressed later in the movie, doesn’t add to her pivotal life changing event and basically reduces her to acting like a whiny teenager who sleeps with her boss and gets mad it doesn’t work out for her.
And honestly, given the vast history between the two in many other formats and storylines, the “Bat Family” dynamic has almost always shown them having a father-daughter/Student-Teacher relationship. Either way you look at things, it makes Batman seem like a creep, and that’s without factoring in the idea that it’s also him sleeping with his best friend Gordon’s daughter plus his own adopted sons girlfriend; due to the romantic ties her and Robin share. Simply put, its awkward, adds nothing to either character, and perhaps it’s biggest injustice is that it truly doesn’t help the overall plot in any way.And the only reason I put so much focus on this particular scene is because it’s honestly the only memorable part of the whole prologue, for what that’s worth. That’s because the villain is bland, and the whole subplot of Batgirl tracking him down is filled with boring dialogue, bad pickup lines from him and a handful of action sequences that fail to impress. And maybe it was just me, but the animation seemed choppy and unfinished in spots, especially compared to how great previous Batman animated features look and even some of the later parts of it look noticeably better.Moving on to the actual Killing Joke sections of the film, and honestly, there isn’t too much to say, good or bad. It’s pretty much what I expected, panels from the book come to life, and in that regard I wasn’t disappointed, just not all that impressed either. This part of the movie is a mix of faithful, 100% recreations of scenes from the book with some extended or alternate sequences thrown in. The problem is, other than a few standout scenes, nothing is particularly engaging. For instance, in the book, the showdown at the amusement park is solely between Batman and the Joker, and is one the best parts. In the movie though, the freaks attack Batman instead of fleeing at the sight of him.
While some action was certainly warranted, it wasn’t very compelling and there’s at least one scene that caught my Batman rule radar, and that’s where it seems almost certain he kills one of the freaks. I’d say maybe he doesn’t view it as murder since it was self-defense, but that’s a slippery slope down Zack Snyder hill, and if it were truly the case, Gotham would be a wasteland of wasted wack-jobs by now.
Easily the biggest thing the movie has going for it is the voice talent it brought to the table, with Mark Hamill’s raspy rendition of the Joker being the obvious highlight. I wouldn’t say it’s his best performance, but hearing some of my favorite lines of the book finally spoken in the one voice I’ll always consider the definitive Joker voice, made watching it worthwhile. I wish I could say the same for Kevin Conroy, another actor I’ll always view as a staple to the series, but other than the final showdown and the meeting at Arkham, he just didn’t seem that into the role this time. Tara Strong did fine as Batgirl/Barbara, which is a wonder since some of her dialogue was fairly cringe-worthy. Ray Wise as Gordon worked well in the role, and given his history of playing a distraught father on Twin Peaks, he seemed a smart pick considering the literal emotional ride the poor man goes on. The rest of the cast was serviceable, but since most barely get any screentime, there isn’t much to judge anyway.
Overall, The Killing Joke isn’t exactly awful, and it’s far from the worst thing to happen to the Batman brand this year, but sadly, it just isn’t good either and is at best, highly forgettable. From inconsistent animation quality, to wasted backstories, bad dialogue and forgettable villains, the movie is more hit and miss than Joker’s comedy career. And perhaps, much like his ill-fated stint as The Red Hood, the movie fails simply for going out of its element and trying to be something it never had to be. Whatever the case, the only ones getting the last laugh were those who said it would never work and saw its fate clearer than the Bat Symbol in the night sky.