WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!
Joker said it best: “Memories can be vile, repulsive, little brutes.” And while not every minute of DC and Warner Brother’s animated adaptation of the controversial Batman: The Killing Joke is anywhere near vile nor repulsive, some scenes do come off a little too brutal or even awkwardly salacious, potentially marring an otherwise more than memorable roughly hour and a half. However, most of these moments are, again in Joker’s rhetoric, there to prove a point and in my eyes anything but unnecessary.
Let me save you some time. I enjoyed Batman: The Killing Joke. Go watch it. Read it better yet, after or before the film like I did. If you’re not familiar, Alan Moore’s eponymous one shot shocked readers in 1988 with its gruesome origin story of Batman’s most laughably lethal clown. Joker has escaped incarceration but this time targets not only the Dark Knight himself but a more grizzled Gotham Police Commissioner Jim Gordon and his daughter Barbara, really Batgirl’s alter ego. Unsurprisingly and more often spectacularly, the new adaptation largely maintains in motion the same twisted tale as the comic did panel by panel. Forcing an ear to ear grin for a new generation whether viewers like it or not.
Cloaked in prowling shadows or caked with muted colors, visually the animation is in keeping with modern WB movie tradition and an homage to the comic’s imagery. There is a visible increase in attention to details here like Venetian blinds cast on a tense tiled hospital room or the pattering of rain as it pelts a rusty and disfigured carnival ride. WB successfully mixes their traditional animation talents with some subtle digital effects such as motion blur in the few but decently choreographed combat scenes in the film. These effects never distract but in fact augments many shots. Joker’s throne of dolls, a steeped mound of maimed porcelain babies, looks as nightmarish as it did in the comic as do many of the carnies and carnival attractions fitting the mind bending, cruel, aesthetic.
Unfortunately, not as rare as it should be, some backgrounds are inconsistently plain and more jarring than these other detail drenched shots. Feeling empty and a little too sleek or hyper hygienic for the Gothic grime of Gotham, these betray Brian Bolland’s original comic art where you’d expect pyres of garbage, obscene graffiti plastered on fractured fun-house mirrors or even a few puddles of anything but water stinking on the clogged, rat infested, streets. If you’re a fan of Bruce Timm and company’s animation output than this movie will look exactly as you’d expect, and this is why it’s somewhat disappointing for such an anticipated adaptation with some shots a treat while others puzzlingly barren. The film’s faithfulness in frequently replicating panel by panel the images of the comic is laudable and for the most part relieves some of these inconsistencies, extending well into the script, especially with career topping performances.
We all know Kevin Conroy is the voice of Batman. Definitively, no debate. While he has emerged off and on with Conroy by his side, Mark Hamill is just as much the de facto Joker returning this time with storied voice actor Tara Strong who voices a moody but grounded Batgirl. Hamill delivers his greatest performance yet as the Joker since the Arkham games, breathing to life his songs of spite and spitting dark humor. That’s why it’s disheartening the score is unable to keep up with the quality of the performances, serviceable and fading immediately. Only during the sepia stained flash back sequences playing slow noir blues does the score become more than forgettable, perfect mood music for a downtrodden deadbeat and Hamill shines here too.
It’s called Killing Joke for a reason, and every cackle here is chilling with a Joker on edge to say the least. Conroy as Batman is as stoic as required but there is an odd gentleness to the otherwise overwhelming gruff when speaking to Batgirl or even Joker. This is a Batman at ends, desperate to reach some sort of conclusion with the Joker and Conroy gives sensitivity to the dark knight where it matters. The final scene in particular is one of the most powerfully poignant moments in all of Bat lore thanks to duo’s performance.
Certainly some of the lines are ham-fisted, hammered a little too deep into the bloodier R rating. A menstruation joke here or there or other frankly throwaway one-liners seem disparate from the largely confident writing. They compete with themselves for grit factor chasing the infamous letters of Alan Moore’s yarn rather than paying homage to them. They do their job before dutifully diverting to next speech directly adopted from the comic which is arguably the least disagreeable aspect when discussing the all new additions to The Killing Joke.
It needs noting that the first half hour of Batman: The Killing Joke is not The Killing Joke at all, rather its best described as a Batgirl prologue. Complete with a cursorily unrelated, original subplot and a new villain Paris France (Yes, that’s his actual name), a lovably loath-able narcissist crime prince whose infatuated with Batgirl, or at least the idea of her. This is important. This arc may initially seem like pointless filler updates but I posit actually parallels the latest and what will undeniably become the most contentious addition to the Killing Joke canon.
Batgirl and Batman having sex is like using ketchup as a broth for tomato soup. Does it taste off? Yes. Does it work? I’ve tried it. It’s edible. For fans raised with the historically more familial father-daughter relationship however it’s understandably unpalatable. It’s abrupt, emotional, and certainly jarring in my screening where it was met with jeering laughter from the absurdity of it all and outright expletives shooting at the scene on screen at the same time. And at the same time this shock value was exhilarating to experience in person. I was swept by the moment. I couldn’t help but quietly grip my knees then release a single, what must have been almost inaudible, clap. Not because it’s good or bad, but because it all too human. It’s rash, irrational. Its dumb and dumbfounding it didn’t happen sooner.
It’s bold on part of the writers and crew to challenge the visage of Batgirl and even the typically played playboy Batman as awkward sexual entities. Here they are cast as human beings, not just cowl and caped silhouettes of ideals or comic characters, but attempts to capture the people behind the masks. It lends Barbara more characterization more agency to her plot than the original source material has without it, and is better for it with its inclusion. It parallels the plot with Paris and his infatuation with the idea of her in that she is making decisions rashly, emotionally based on the idea of Batman and herself as Batgirl, depicting an immature but passionate crime fighter, fighting her own internal inhibitions. She wrestles with her relationship with Batman and regrets the decisions she made, coming to terms and admitting that she made a mistake, but the creators made none. In many ways it’s a matter of their artistic integrity to craft a character consistent with the characterization of Barbara as this incarnation of Batgirl and completely predictable given her character arc. The sex, the violence, it’s all iconoclastic and this is why The Killing Joke remains resonant today. It’s all about challenging relationships, Batgirl with Batman, and Batman attempting once and for all to stop the bloodshed between him and the Joker, find peace and rehabilitation as they slowly sink further into the muck and mire of everything till one of them is inexorably swallowed whole.
Even if the movie is marred by the act for some viewers, its deliberate, it’s meant to be shocking and uncomfortable and deserves merit for its success in this alone. Although I appreciated Barbara’s expanded role and everything that this update entails it really doesn’t do much to pass the Bechdel test that the graphic novel material never even attempted to register a bar on. Then again, this is not the point of storytelling nor this review.
No. The entire story is meant to prove a point. It’s trying to take your sanity, your grip of this established world and the safety of its seemingly sterling but often static characters. It’s trying to prove that point and push you beyond it. It revels in the shock value, in illustrating the madness and dark tragedy of the Joker as a blight to Batman, the Gordon’s and Gothamites while being an all too intimate character study barely about the bat himself. Does the movie do it with the same power and artistry as the original comic? No but the story and its execution does the same. It shreds the veneer of the fandom’s most beloved characters and their preconceived notions of their heroes’ identities, parading them nude to portray the plights of fate, of innocuous injustice, of having just one bad day. And for this Batman: The Killing Joke is as timeless and humanly flawed, as lethal as ever.
When he’s not polishing his Neo Geo collection, Hayden Robel writes video game reviews, watches old anime and records the most SUGOI anime podcast, while making entirely too long short stories far too infrequently. If you can follow the rambling raconteur, try it @HaydenRobel on twitter (especially if you want to criticize him and his life choices, he likes that). Thanks for reading!