When it comes to Batman and all the various graphic novels inspired by the dark knight and his rogues gallery, none have managed to achieve the cult status that The Killing Joke has earned over the years. It’s one of the few books, along with Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, that helped cement a new age for the caped crusader as a grim and gritty beast of vengeance, a detective who was driven by the pain of the murder of his parents to become something terrifying and dark.
The Killing Joke isn’t another Batman story however. It’s a Joker story, a possible explanation for the origin of the ace of knaves as he seeks to prove a point: That even the sanest person can dip into insanity if they happen to have just one catastrophically bad day like he did. That’s the greatest strength of The Killing Joke and also its greatest weakness. Something that could have easily been overlooked if it wasn’t for a terrible prologue that eats up a chunk of the running time of this adaptation.
Because for anyone who is familiar with the source material, will know how Barbara Gordon gets the short end of the stick here. Back in the 1980s Batgirl wasn’t exactly as popular then as she was today, resulting in an editorial decision to “cripple the bitch” and use her as a narrative plotpoint for the Joker’s twisted ideology.
These days? She’s back in the spotlight, more popular than ever before and having left her role as Oracle to gather dust as she fights crime as Batgirl once again. And her fans have expressed some vocal hatred for how she was treated back in the original The Killing Joke graphic novel. That’s why the film starts with Barbara on the narrative, attempting to establish her as a crime-fighting equal of the Batman so that her eventual fate actually hammers in on some quickly developed emotional investment.
Instead, that prologue is a train wreck.
You know who the Barbara Gordon is that her fans are familiar with? A highly competent detective prodigy and athlete who isn’t just a partner to Batman but also a possible successor and someone who can channel her more positive outlook on life into a need to help people and be a better vigilante along the way. For starters. In The Killing Joke, we’re treated to a barely competent sidekick who spends the majority of her prologue chasing down the ridiculously-named Paris France.
It doesn’t help either that Batman comes off as an emotionally-dead jackass either, effectively lessening his impact in The Killing Joke even more. And hell, I’m not even touching on the shitstorm that’s going to erupt when more and more people hear about that scene that takes place in the film. Now on a technical level, I can understand why this prologue exists. Afterall, The Killing Joke isn’t the lengthiest of graphic novels and it needed some extra padding.
But it just feels so tacky overall, that you end up waiting for the Joker to turn up with a loaded revolver so that the rest of the story can continue. It’s a horrible sentiment and I hate myself for even writing that, but that’s just how much I dislike this prologue considering that I’ve seen better and superior versions of Batgirl in the older animated series and Young Justice, a show where she was capable of taking on Lobo for Grodd’s sake.
And then there’s the actual Killing Joke adaptation. It is easily one of the most faithful examples of page to screen translations that has ever had a decent budget thrown at it. And a prime example of why not everything that Alan Moore has written (alongside Brian Bolland’s magnificent art in this instance) is meant for the big screen.
Despite the themes of sanity, excellent voice work from series staples Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as the Batman and the Joker respectively, and a fun art direction it just feels somewhat stale. It just doesn’t suit the medium, and the talent of Conroy and Hamill actually feels wasted as the obsession with adaptation results in the punch of animated voice-over being reduced to a mere tickle.
There are moments where Hamill’s Joker is magnificently deranged, but they’re a mere handful of instances where the voice direction comes off as their actors go through the motions. And that’s a pity, because Conroy and Hamill sound like they’re having an absolute blast otherwise in the upcoming Justice League Action in case you’ve seen a few sneak peeks at that.
I wanted to like The Killing Joke, I really did. Because on paper, it had everything going for it. DC’s best director for animated movies, Sam Liu. A story that fans have been begging to see adapted, voice-acting from the cream of the bat-crop and fluid animation to make it a visual treat as well. Instead, The Killing Joke feels like an example of why being beholden to the source material isn’t always a good idea, no matter the pedigree behind it. “It doesn’t have to be good to be a classic,” the Joker remarks in one scene. A pity then that this film is neither.
At the very least, it’s made me want to watch the far superior director’s cut of Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker again, which may still be the definitive animated Joker story.
Last Updated: July 25, 2016