Review: Batman: The Killing Joke – They Killed the Joke

Featured image credit to IMDb

For those unfamiliar with Batman’s comic book history, to say The Killing Joke graphic novel is one of the most important stories in Batman and the Joker’s history would be a massive understatement. The Killing Joke, written by Watchmen and V for Vendetta author Alan Moore, is a treasured tale of the Batman mythos and is widely seen as the definitive Joker story. The ambiguity towards the Joker’s actions throughout, captivating visuals, moral philosophies, and dense storytelling are all points of praise. Over the course of the last decade, this graphic novel has inspired two of the most acclaimed live-action Batman film adaptations in Batman (1989) and The Dark Knight. When it was announced that Warner Bros. Animation would be adapting this story into an R-rated feature (simply titled Batman: The Killing Joke) with iconic voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill (best known for playing Luke Skywalker in Star Wars) reprising their roles as Batman and Joker respectively, the internet celebrated the decision almost immediately. Furthermore, the Fandango event that hosted Batman: The Killing Joke made a surprisingly good $3 million domestic on opening night. All seemed right with the world except for one thing:

They screwed it up.

There is no easy way to put this, but Warner Bros. Animation screwed up one of the most iconic stories for two of their most iconic characters.

While there’s a lot of outrage on the internet on the Batgirl/Batman relationship and the gender politics of the story, I think that those complaints are stemming from an important part of what’s wrong with Batman: The Killing Joke: The Killing Joke isn’t Barbara Gordon/Batgirl’s story. I think in trying to “update” the gender politics of Alan Moore’s original 1988 graphic novel and molding Batgirl into her own character was an admirable yet misguided decision by both producer Bruce Timm and writer Brian Azzarello. The Killing Joke is not about Barbara Gordon. Yes, a specific event does happen to her that changes her character in the long run, but The Killing Joke story itself is primarily about how the Joker’s actions affect Jim Gordon and Batman. When Batman: The Killing Joke makes an entire 28-minute prologue from the perspective of Barbara Gordon, it shifts focus away from The Killing Joke and makes it incredibly jarring when the actual adaptation begins half an hour in. While I could see how getting the audience emotionally invested in Barbara’s character would lead to that particular event having much more weight behind it, I thought that the execution was clumsy and actually caused more controversy for Barbara Gordon’s role. Barbara Gordon’s prologue seems to want to make her an actual character in a very tragic event in her life, but the way Batman: The Killing Joke decides to do this is to have her get sexually involved with Batman, a character depicted as her mentor. It’s uninspired at best and gross/inappropriate at worst. Worse off, her story is transparently tacked onto Batman: The Killing Joke and characterizes her as somewhat incompetent in her crimefighting career. So much for making Batgirl more than tragedy fodder.

As for the actual adaptation of The Killing Joke, despite most of the comic’s events being followed, I still have some problems with the film. The direction by Sam Liu is painfully unremarkable and each shot looks bland and uninteresting. Captivating sequences from The Killing Joke such as Joker’s conversation with his wife, Gordon’s nightmare coaster ride, and the baby bottle heater reveal are rendered flat, rushed, and deflated respectively. There is very little weight felt from the story’s most important moments due to mishandled direction. On the 20th year anniversary of The Killing Joke, artist Brian Bolland made the controversial decision to recolor over John Higgins’ psychedelic choices in favor of realism and sepia flashbacks. It seems as though Batman: The Killing Joke elected to go with Bolland’s recolored edition which, in my opinion, further took away from the interesting visuals of the original graphic novel.

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John Higgins’ (Watchmen colorist) colorization on the left; Brian Bolland’s 20th anniversary recolorization on the right (albeit in lower resolution). Source.

Beyond the lack of visual excitement, the parts of Alan Moore’s graphic novel that are rewritten in Brian Azzarello’s own voice sound out of place and far less poetic than Moore’s dialogue. In regards to the dialogue, it manages to make Kevin Conroy and Tara Strong (two experienced and acclaimed voice actors for WB Animation) sound unenthused and unnatural through various portions of the film. For relative newcomers to WB Animation such as Ray Wise and Maury Sterling, their respective performances as Jim Gordon and Paris Franz come off woeful. The saving grace throughout the entire film is Mark Hamill as energetic and playful as ever with what is likely to be his final performance as the Clown Prince of Crime.

Overall, Batman: The Killing Joke will join the ranks of adaptations like Zack Snyder’s Watchmen and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby as an adaptation that manages to translate events from page to screen and somehow still miss the entire point of the source material. Unlike the previous two adaptations however, I’m afraid that Batman: The Killing Joke won’t work as a decent enough standalone feature. Its failure to capture dramatic tension is a detriment to itself and even worse, its source. Those who watch Batman: The Killing Joke without having first read the graphic novel will likely wonder why The Killing Joke is as highly praised as its been and probably conclude that it’s overrated. In many film discussions I’ve had, I often hear the argument along the lines of “Who cares if an film adaptation/sequel/remake is bad? At least you still have the original even if the new film is bad. There’s no drawback to a new film adaptation of beloved source material.” How many times have you heard The Matrix mentioned without somebody bringing up how awful its sequels were? Or the Indiana Jones series without somebody denying the very existence of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? What about George Lucas’ legacy as a director after the Star Wars prequel trilogy? Batman: The Killing Joke will join these examples of a bad adaptation/follow-up that will damage the legacy of its source as time goes on. Mark my words.

My Rating (out of 5 stars): ★★ (Disappointing)

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