Batman: The Killing Joke (2016, dir. Sam Liu, Bruce Timm)

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Batman: The Killing Joke is an adaptation of the 1988 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The original text tells the story of a possible final showdown between Batman and his arch-nemesis, The Joker. The battle hinges on the sanity of police commissioner Jim Gordon after The Joker shoots his daughter Barbara and tries to drive Gordon mad by taunting him over the randomness of the act. As this battle of ideologies rages on, we get distorted memories from the Joker about what his origin as a horrific villain could have been. The emphasis is on the idea that one bad day can destroy a normal person. Due to the short length of the comic, the writer of the film added an additional thirty minutes of content to flesh out Barbara Gordon’s career as Batgirl.

I first read The Killing Joke as a freshman in college in 1999. I had never encountered writer Alan Moore up until that point and I did find it a captivating read. This is mainly due to the way it turns the Joker into a tragically pathetic figure. The book also leaves the final moments up in the air as to what Batman does to the Joker. I’ve probably read it a half dozen times in total over the years. A valid point has been made in recent years about its treatment of Barbara Gordon. She is shot early on in the comic and pops up one more time for a doctor to declare her paralyzed. Essentially, Barbara is treated as a plot device to motivate Batman and torture her father. There’s no humanity in what happened to her and it took a few years before other writers redeemed the character. In retrospect, Alan Moore even views the comic as too violent and cynical. I can’t help but retain some love for the text due in part to what I find an interesting exploration of the Joker’s psyche, but I still recognize the mistreatment of Barbara Gordon.

The film has some huge problems in its attempts to “fix” this slight of Ms. Gordon. The thirty additional minutes of story focus on Batgirl pursuing the nephew of a Gotham City crime boss. Francesco is attracted to Batgirl despite her attempts to take him down and attempts to drug and force himself on her, which she dodges by locking herself in a vault. There’s also a subplot where she talks about her relationship with Batman, describing him as a yoga instructor, to a coworker while commiserating on her love life. This eventually escalates to Batman and Batgirl having sex on a rooftop. This is not something I was expecting to see happen as in the comics there has never been a relationship between the two. She’s closer to Robin’s age and has been more involved with him when they were adults. But here, Barbara is in her early 20s so it’s not illegal, but still cringey. Later in the film, she reaches out to Batman and he brushes her off and she realizes it’s connected to their sexual encounter. I understood Batman’s motivation of not wanting to become too close to anyone lest them become compromised, but the only sequence read very awkward and completely unnecessary.

The added Barbara material works even less in the final two-thirds of the film after she is shot. Just like the original graphic novel she fades into the background and it becomes a Batman/Joker story. The Joker doesn’t appear until about 40 minutes into the film which is another odd structure piece. The Joker’s dialogue is lifted straight from the original text and while, for the most part, it doesn’t play awkward there is one moment where he puts Gordon on a hellish ghost house ride and it is way too wordy and overbearing with philosophical content. It doesn’t feel like the Joker would say this out loud, particularly the voice of Mark Hamill as the Joker. On the page, it’s not bad, but page to film translations of comics are never a great idea.

The animation is a very mixed bag. There is a concerted effort to make the iconic moments from the original text pop on screen and it looks alright. The rest of the animation comes across as very cheap and continues the trend with so many of DC’s animated feature films looking subpar. There was a featurette released a few months ago where the creators explained that original artist Brian Bolland’s style was too hard to emulate in animation so they looked at other artists, including Kevin Nowlan. I didn’t see much of Bolland or Nowlan in any of this animation. It just looked very poorly done.

I can’t really recommend Batman: The Killing Joke animated film. There are just so many technical and narrative missteps that add up to make a mess of a film. I had high hopes for this one. DC Animated had surprised me with its Dark Knight Returns and Year One adaptations but really missed the mark here. I would still say the graphic novel is worth reading if you haven’t, but the philosophical study of the Joker has been covered elsewhere, particularly The Dark Knight Returns in a much more interesting way than this animated film.

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