There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum…
It’s funny really, when you think about it. The animated adaptation of the Killing Joke has probably been one of the most highly anticipated DC animated films of all time and within days of it being released the internet quickly turned it into one of the most despised. I really didn’t know what to expect, I mean it’s Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, and the Killing Joke is a great Batman story (and probably one of the greatest Joker stories), how bad could it possibly be? So here we are, time to throw my voice in with the choir, will I join the chorus or go for a solo? Can I stretch this metaphor out anymore? Probably not, let’s get on with it!
What’s the Story? Well for those of you who haven’t read the Killing Joke (What are you doing? Go read it. Go read it!) this is the Joker’s origin story, or at least a possible origin story, the Joker himself is so far down the rabbit hole he’s not too sure of its authenticity himself, but more than that this is a tale of madness and what one bad day can do to you.
First things first, that prologue that isn’t a prologue (it lasts for 30 minutes; it’s an episode, end of story). This is probably the part of the film that upset fans the most, and when it comes down it it’s… ok. I mean, really? This is what everyone was getting so bent out of shape about? I was expecting far worse, though I suppose that’s why it’s not so bad for me. I was expecting something horrible and instead I got something average with a few questionable moments. If I went into this film blind, hyped up on my expectations to see the Killing Joke and then this ‘prologue’ played, yeah, I’d burn the cinema down. I come to the Killing Joke for an examination of the Joker, his relationship with Batman and a possible origin story, I did not come to see Batgirl and Batman banging on a rooftop (we’ll get to that in a minute).
The idea of the prologue isn’t a bad one. The Killing Joke does need more Barbara Gordon in it because if you just go off of the comic she shows up, gets shots and that’s it, her point in the story is to use her maiming as a way to drive Jim Gordon crazy (which is really bad). Luckily the comic has history and continuity on its side so you can treat the Killing Joke as moment in Barbara’s life, a pivotal one, which allows her to show how truly great a hero she is, rising out of this tragedy to becoming an even better hero, Oracle. A film doesn’t have that. It’s standalone and that causes problems with the Barbara part, so I get adding a bit to the beginning of the film to introduce the audience to Barbara, to show her as Batgirl in her prime, to prove she’s more than just a victim and make us care for her plight.
The problem is that it doesn’t show Batgirl at her best. She comes across as whiny and overemotional half the time, there are moments were she gets to show her skills in combat and a brief glimpse of her computer skills, but all it feels like an average animated episode of one of the series. The talk about the abyss feels a little force and trying to make that Paris guy Batgirl’s own personal Joker doesn’t have the emotional punch it needs. Then we come to the sex scene. Look, Mr. Timm, Bruce, I know you ship the whole Batgirl/Batman romance, but you’re kind of in the minority there. Personally I don’t think Batgirl would see Batman in that way, maybe at the very start of her career she could have a little bit of hero worship that could be mistaken for something else, but that’s about as far as it goes, being Batgirl should be about more that pining after the Dark Knight, and Batman himself would certainly never reciprocate. Also the scene itself is kind of pointless, it comes out of nowhere and has no effect afterwards, it’s kind of like the prologue itself in that regard. You could skip the whole thing and be none the worse for wear. It fails on all counts really, it doesn’t introduce Batgirl very well, it doesn’t connect or build on the themes of the Killing Joke and it doesn’t make us care.
On to the main feature itself. It’s the Killing Joke in animated form, go watch it. It has its problems, but for the most part it’s worth the price of admission. I almost died from joy listening to Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy reciting some of those killer lines from the comic, it’s what I’ve always dreamed of. I grew up on the animated series, those two are the Joker and Batman and I tend to hear their voices whenever I read the characters in comics, so this just felt so right to me. It also highlights another flaw with the prologue (I’ll shut up about it after this, I swear), here the animation and writing hit another level. There are moments in this were the animation blows anything else out of the water, I felt it when Barbara hit that table, I love that shot of the Joker just after he’s transformed and the fights are gorgeous. The writing is, well mostly it’s word for word from the comic just with a few additions, which brings me to a problem.
I think this adaptation is a little too faithful, as sacrilegious as that might sound. It does most things as the comic did it, and that makes the film feel a bit restrained. It lacks a certain sense of style to some transitions and scenes because I feel the creators where too nervous about making changes. They couldn’t put their own stamp on this and really go for it, I wouldn’t want any major changes, just more a sense of showmanship (this is the Joker’s story after all). There was no real transition into the flashback, they just came and went, and I never felt that Jim Gordon was on the very edge of breaking down. There were some scenes that just happened too quickly, the Joker’s first laugh is way too quick to come, the comic is helped by the fact that it’s just artwork and dialogue you can read it as fast or slow as you like, but I felt some drama was missing from that scene. I was never really on the edge of my seat until that final scene where Batman and the Joker face off, Conroy and Hamill getting to stretch their muscles a bit, it was fantastic.
In the end, I think Batman The Killing Joke is a bit of a disappointment, but it’s not awful. It has its flaws and you could skip the first 30 minutes without losing anything, but it’s still a great Joker story and it’s fantastic to hear Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill in the roles. It’s worth a watch is what I’ll say, whether you watch it again is up to you. Have a good day.
Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday.