I’ve seen Batman: The Killing Joke (obviously, that’s why you’re here!), the WB Animation adaptation of the classic graphic novel by masterminds Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons! It’s… a mixed bag. The original story you know and love (or should read so that you know and love it) is there, but it’s surrounded by Batgirl filler… including a really, really, weird choice. This adaption of Killing Joke also lacks the unique visuals from the book or more distinct animation that made adaptations of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One so successful.
NO SPOILERS except where noted!
The Killing Joke, originally printed in 1988, has become the defining Joker story. It tells a possible origin of the Joker, that many have taken as gospel. Killing Joke is also incredibly dark and disturbing in subject manner, leading to the first animated DC film that is Rated R! Maybe that expectation is why this adaptation just can’t do the original justice. I wasn’t expecting an animated adaptation as great as the source material: Year One, though accurate, is only good (the comic is great!) while The Dark Knight Returns film feels neutered compared to Frank Miller’s startling original work.
Expectations were heightened still, as Killing Joke has something Year One and Dark Knight Returns lack; the original voice actors that defined Batman: The Animated Series, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill (who also played Luke Skywalker… du’h!). Hamill is by far my favorite Joker in any medium, while Conroy does bring a fun, unique, almost goofy interpretation of Bruce Wayne, balanced with a great “Bat Voice” (though this movie, like the comic, has no Bruce Wayne). And both actors are still great! It is though, a little silly hearing Conroy’s version of “Swear to me!” after it appeared in Batman Begins. It’s almost a shame when their characters aren’t on screen, and Joke and Batman are missing in action… a lot, due to the Batgirl story-line that was added so it was long enough to become a feature film (though it’s still on the short side).This added story is half the problem with The Killing Joke, as it is mundane, yet surprisingly odd and perhaps questionable. I have nothing against Batgirl (Tara Strong), but watching what is basically a twenty-minute episode of her generic adventure taking down a mobster (it doesn’t always need to be a Super Villain, but it helps) is like an unwelcome opening act for the band you really came to see. Though peppered with Batman, the Joker is no where to be found until after over 20 minutes in to a 76 minute film that is supposed to be about him! Knowing who Batgirl is does add emotional context to the story and that’s why a whole act of Batgirl was added. I don’t believe the original book ever addresses the fact that Barbara Gordon is Batgirl in addition to Commissioner Gordon’s (Ray Wise) daughter. I’m not saying Warner Animation shouldn’t make a Batgirl movie, I’m just saying it takes away from a story that is fundamentally just about Batman and The Joker at each other’s throats.
The prologue doesn’t necessarily take away from the film too much, except for one scene that completely baffles and slightly disturbs me as a Batman fan. Here’s the BATGIRL SPOILER AHEAD moment. Batman and Batgirl have sex, on a rooftop, and it creates sexual tension between them as Barabara (sort of) explains to her token Gay co-worker. What was that first part?!?! Batman and Batgirl have sex? Yes! I don’t know if it has ever happened in the comic (there are 76 years of Batman stories) but Batgirl and Batman having sex feels… creepy and wrong. Though he is not a father figure to her like Robin – Jim Gordon, her biological father is still alive and plays prominently into the story – and she is not as young as Robin, it seems really rape-y of Batman to have sex with one of his proteges. Plus, what would Gordon think if he found out?! Uh-Oh! And isn’t she with Nightwing/Dick Grayson at some point in comics… and/or Red Robin/Tim Drake? What will the Robins think?! SPOILERS OVER!Besides the Batgirl story with that controversial choice, the rest of the film is a pretty straight adaptation of the comic with great leads, yet unappealing animation that does not give Dave Gibbon’s artwork justice. While Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One imitate the style of the original artwork, Killing Joke is simplified into an update of Bruce Tim’s vision from The Animated Series, with a slightly more modern and higher quality look with just a hint of what the comic’s original art. It’s especially noticeable during the flashbacks to Joker’s origin which were originally in black and white with vivid red items in every panel. The red in the film version is far too muted and it makes a big difference. Also lost are the mirror images that were used to transition between panels set in the past and present. In short, Killing Joke should have looked a lot better!
In Killing Joke‘s defense, the story and themes are timeless, so it’s worth a viewing for someone who appreciates a good Batman story but hasn’t read the comic. Hell, Nolan lifted Joker’s mission to drive a Batman alley mad/drag him down to his level for his 2nd Batman film, The Dark Knight.
If you need a new Batman story to see, give Batman: The Killing Joke a chance. If you love the graphic novel and want to see it done justice… skip it. Either way, that one choice they make is really, really creepy.