Film Review | Batman: The Killing Joke

Directed by: Sam Liu

Written by: Brian Azzarello

Adapted from the works of: Alan Moore

Starring: Kevin Conroy. Mark Hamill. Tara Strong. Ray Wise.

Running time: 76 minutes

*Some spoilers within*

Alan Moore has not been the biggest fan of adaptations of his novels. He once claimed that if he was ever included on the credits for V For Vendetta he would quite writing, and he referred to the film’s made from his writing as “bastardisations” of his work. The 1988 Killing Joke is one of his most well known and revered novels, often cited as the grittiest and most polarising Batman story. More than that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are reunited in their harmonious vocal genius. The stakes couldn’t be higher as fanboy and fangirl hearts burst at the seams with anticipation.

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The basic premise of the story is The Joker trying to actually prove a point, instead of just jabbing his needles of crime into the soft flesh of society in the name of mindless pain and chaos. The Joker wishes to show everyone that all it takes is “one bad day” for someone to be pushed into the inner abyss of insanity as he was, he tortures Comissioner Gordon in the hopes that embraces the warmth of blissful, insane, mental surrender. As Batman and Joker reach a cacophony in their escalating swirling ballet of violence and conflict, Joker looks to prove that maybe his view of the world is the clearest of all. Couple this with an actual origin story for the living riddle of the Joker clothed in timeless mystery. and it makes for a fascinating read. This angered many despite the fact Joker himself references this origin and claims “sometimes I remember it one way and sometimes another” allowing you to choose whether to believe it or not. The origin story is touching though and far better than say, just a bored clown that performed one children’s party too many, until his patience popped like a faulty balloon animal. The animated DC world is one of its most successful industries, including the frankly sublime 1992 series which remains one of the greatest adaptations of comics ever made. The 90s cartoon had the style and depth of a swirling ocean while Snyder’s Batman Vs Superman was more like a sardine flapping in a muddy puddle of imagination filth. However many of us were wondering how Moore’s controversial and quite short story would translate to the animated cinematic format.

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The biggest issue with this adaptation is that the actual Killing Joke story doesn’t start until 30 odd minutes into the film. This is like finally seeing Star Wars and the first hour and a half is following a plumber fixing the Millennium Falcon’s hyper toilet. yes it may be important and tricky work but i don’t feel it improves my life seeing it. The story isn’t that bad it’s just a strange use of time. It follows Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl as she hunts down a criminal named Franz Paris, yes they are fully aware the biggest crime is his own name. The story is a sterling effort in itself, Franz and Batgirl form an odd chemistry that is a diluted reflection of Batman with joker and causes friction between our two bestest bat-buddies. This is all fine and following Batgirl lends weight to an already famously grim scene of Joker destroying her life in one blunt stroke. It takes far too long though with a strange conclusion and The Killing Joke arc feels like an afterthought, plus the script to the first half will never match up to Moore’s genius philosophical rantings so the contrast is sadly clear.

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The main effect and conclusion to the initial 33 minute act is the main spoilers here, but you probably could already hear the social uproar from the bat cave about an added sex scene. Batgirl and Batman ditch their tension and spandex for some recreational rooftop cardio. This has caused a huge backlash with many citing Batman to be a paternal figure and causing many fans never to be able to look at their special edition batman figurines in the eyes again. Predictably this also flung a giant heap of petrol doused timber onto the rarely struggling flames of sexism in film. This is complex to say the least. It’s been long believed and discussed that super heroes would harbour repressed fetishised tensions for each other and the adrenaline would lead to moments like this. Just glimpse at Moore’s The Watchmen or Ennis’s The Boys and prepare to do some blushing so fierce you could fry an egg on your face. Plus Batman and Batgirl have  been known to blur relational lines in some series or as some alter egos such as in Batman Beyond. Bruce Timm claimed recently that the relationship was changed to make Barbara’s struggles seem more human and their mistakes more emotion driven. However some feel this minimizes her character to merely a sexual object and deprives her of narrative growth, citing her enjoying Paris’s deranged affection and rarely conversing with her work friend about anything but her feelings toward Bruce. Others also claim she is reduced to a fetish heavy plot device and feel it is implied that Joker rapes her after photographing her naked. Moore is known to have produced erotic material in comic form and critics reference a scene where prostitutes talk about Joker not vising them is strange and that “maybe he found a new girl”. I never gave any credence to the allegedly implied rape myself and think Moore is the kind of writer who finds making you have to even dismiss it is enough. The approach to Barbara from a feminism point of view is difficult to unravel, so i tried to view this instead from a purely film making angle.

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Narrative wise this complex bat-relationship isn’t the problem for me in itself and any other time it would be bold and I would be intrigued by the plot. The issue for myself is that it’s so random and more forced than a batarang pressed by Bats into the forehead of a serial arsonist. The Killing Joke story as a whole is eerily dark and impacting enough without an extra helping of suffering sprinkles and controversy shoved on top. It’s blatant, pointless and bears little direction upon the narrative other than an extra guilt pin into the voodoo doll of Batman. Plus by now guilt must be like oxygen to Batman, he’d probably shrivel up without it.

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The actual scenes from the Killing Joke are great, the art style varies in presentation with some scenes being more sketchy in appearance, others reflect the 90’s series while one scene of Joker surveying the fairground is incredibly detailed and almost anime in appearance as the lights of glimmering and sinister possibilities hit the dark depths of his eyes. This is interesting  and appeals to most of the audience at some points but it also runs the risk of sometimes appearing disjointed and some styles will appeal less than others. The music is amazing and a short documentary ‘Madness In The Music’ shows all the thought weaved into every understated line like the often tested Kevlar of the Batsuit itself. The ‘Looney’ musical number posed a huge problem and is deftly turned into one of its biggest strengths, as it adds to the tone of the building crescendo of madness. Most second half lines are taken directly from the novel with Hamill and Conroy expertly maneuvering through them, remaining firmly as the pinnacle of their beloved, portrayed characters. Hamill particularly flourishes and verbally cartwheels through the frantic evil of the Joker’s mind. The famously brilliant ending is kept in and finely executed, in fact most shots are tweaked but remain. For example when past Joker throws himself at his wife in regret the scene is identical but shown from another angle, this gives a great impression of revisiting the famous story but literally from a new perspective.

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The film is pretty enjoyable but feels anti climactic and poorly paced. Like trying to answer one of Edward Nigma’s complex riddles with incorrect, flamboyant poetry, the two halves are fine separately but ill fitting as a whole. A polished disappointment, mainly disappointing because it gets so close to its goal. I almost wish these had been two separate stories in another Batman animated anthology like Gotham Knight. Some parts are lingered upon too long and then the final showdown feels rushed and sadly like a tacked on extra to lend credibility to the first act ‘prologue’ story. It’s perfectly ok, but myself, fellow geeks and I’m sure Alan himself, all expected Moore.

3/5

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