Ever since his comic book debut in 1939, Batman has emerged as one of the most culturally relevant and beloved superhero characters of all time. His adventures have spanned films, animated series, video games and assorted other multimedia platforms that have expanded his popularity to virtually every demographic, and accordingly, Gotham City has been reimagined as everything from the “BAM! POW!” campiness of the 1960s TV series to the brooding Dark Knight trilogy. Yet, despite the Caped Crusader’s ubiquity across popular culture, few of his stories have become as controversial as Batman: The Killing Joke.
The 1988 one-shot graphic novel — written by Watchmen genius Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland — attempts to shed some light on the Joker’s mysterious past, exploring the very concept of what could lead a person to madness. For years, the possibility of an animated adaptation seemed like nothing short of a pipe dream, especially due to the especially dark nature of the source material. However, fans (and longtime Joker voice actor Mark Hamill/The Killing Joke enthusiast) finally have the chance to see Moore’s tale come to life, as the 76-minute film is the latest entry in DC Universe Original Movie series of animated titles.
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For such a definitive Joker story, there’s no better person for the role than Hamill, who stands as one of the greatest actors to ever take on the role (animated or otherwise). For The Killing Joke, the Star Wars icon is joined by frequent co-star Kevin Conroy as Batman, thereby reuniting the duo whose chemistry has periodically lit up various projects since Batman: The Animated Series in the early 1990s. Also along for the ride are veteran voice actor Tara Strong (in the pivotal role of Barbara Gordon a.k.a. Batgirl) and Twin Peaks alum Ray Wise as Commissioner Gordon.
While much of the film faithfully recreates the Moore/Bolland story (including visual callbacks and an entire musical number straight out of the comics), director Sam Liu (Batman: Year One) and writer Brian Azzarello preface the Joker storyline with a full half-hour centering only on the dynamic between Batman and Batgirl. Almost immediately following The Killing Joke‘s San Diego Comic-Con premiere, fans began to decry this prologue as unnecessary and even sexist, and their outrage is not entirely unwarranted.
It’s fair to criticize the Batgirl prologue as a calculated decision designed to pad out The Killing Joke to feature length. After all, this opening has nothing to do with the Joker story, which forms a disconnect with the rest of the film. Even worse, the implications of where this section takes the Batman/Batgirl relationship — though alluded to in previous works — complicate the story in ways that do a reductive disservice to Barbara Gordon as a character. In some ways, the prologue allows The Killing Joke to be a story as much about Batgirl as it is Batman and Joker, but the absence of the Clown Prince of Crime for nearly half the film makes its ties to the main narrative thrust tenuous at best.
Had the filmmakers simply opted not to develop Batgirl’s role in the story, they likely would have been facing an even more vehement backlash from the fan community. The character’s brief appearance in Moore’s text is among the most divisive events in comic book history and to have this bit of violence – the nature of which is actually clarified a bit in this version – be the only real female presence in the film would have provided an entirely different set of problems. As it stands, Batgirl’s role in the story does somewhat empower her to a limited extent and proves that she is far more multi-faceted than the source material alone would indicate. Strong is, as always, terrific in the role, elevating the material as much as she can.
Although the prologue is the source of nearly all the film’s problems, it still doesn’t weigh The Killing Joke down too heavily. Once the action finally moves into familiar territory, the film is near-perfect on many levels. The writing hews remarkably close to Moore’s work – vacillating from the Joker’s origin to his current scheme at a moment’s notice – and the visual style frequently apes panels right out of Bolland’s work, including some of the most chilling and iconic imagery of the Joker himself. Hearing Hamill finally get the chance to bring his distinctive and beloved take on the Joker to this story is just as rapturous as it sounds, and his work here may be among his very best as the character.
Viewers may debate whether this second section of the film lives up to the promise held in the pages of that classic story, but the end result demonstrates a true effort to transpose its narrative complexity and thematic heft to the screen. For the most part, The Killing Joke succeeds on that level and makes a chilling comment on the never-ending struggle between Batman and the Joker. Fans of the graphic novel will be glad to know that its ambiguous ending remains intact, while viewers unfamiliar with the source material will probably be frustrated by the film’s final moments. In any case, one can’t fault the film for its determination to keep that heavily debated finale just the way Moore wrote it, seeing as it’s one of the more challenging endings in comic book history. As with other slavishly faithful adaptations, The Killing Joke is unlikely to convert anyone who didn’t particularly care for the story to begin with.
Much has been said about how Batman: The Killing Joke marks the first R-rated animated film based on DC Comics as well as the first R-rated Batman film. No doubt Warner Bros. was heartened in taking this route by the record-breaking success of Deadpool and is likely considering a similarly hard-edged approach for Ben Affleck’s announced Batman solo movie. The Killing Joke may not be the masterpiece fans were hoping for — thanks almost entirely to the troubling new material — but it nails enough about its source material to hope that Warner Bros. and DC don’t shy away from adapting such dark stories to film in the future.
Despite an opening act that adds some dead weight to the otherwise stellar tale, the voice talents of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill make The Killing Joke a must-see for Batman fans. Just keep it away from the kids.