In 1988, a year after Tim Burton, Micheal Keaton and Jack Nicholson tried their hand at interpreting the Batman mythos, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland released a 48-page graphic novel that explored the Jokers origin, the extent of his lunacy and Batman and Jokers relationship far better than anyone had done at that point. That book was called The Killing Joke and in its wake it went on to become one the most iconic and controversial Batman tales ever written.
Now as we see DC animated films released like clockwork, The Killing Joke’s entry was inevitable. The reason it hasn’t already been done was the taboo subject matter and diminutive length. But the film seems to create more problems for itself.
Our story picks up as Batman and and Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) attempt to bring down a mob affiliated gang of robbers. When Barbara gets too close, Batman puts her off the case and the tempers and passions begin to flair.
Yes, I’m aware that doesn’t sound like The Killing Joke at all. Jokers Arkham escape and kidnapping of Commissioner Gordon doesn’t happen until about half way through the film. As mentioned earlier, The Killing Joke is a mere 48 pages and just does not contain enough material to satiate an hour and a half run time. To combat this, executive producer Bruce Timm (yes the very same one who created the stellar Batman Animated Series), director Sam Liu (who has helmed a slew of DC projects) and DC comics writer Brian Azzarello have tacked on a hollow and ultimately forgettable story preceding The Killing Joke. It is utterly pointless and has no bearing on the story following it, including a tenuous transition between the two narratives. It feels as though it’s split up into two films.
Come Killing Joke time, things do a 180 and there is a chasm of creative dissonance between the two. Alan Moore’s writing is complex, uncomfortable and emotional whereas the first half of the film is generic and flat out lazy. At one point when Batgirl loses her cool and begins wailing on someone, he smirks and says “must be that time of the month”. It’s boring and it’s cheap and none of it belongs in the same league as the Moores seminal work.
The Killing Joke portion however is about as honorable as an adaptation can be. It’s as though it has been lifted from the pages of Bolland’s sensational pages and put into motion. The Joker’s visit to Barbara and her father may not be as chilling as it was in the book but it certainly delivers its sickening message in a way that isn’t available by simply reading it.
There are some fight scenes thrown in for an added element of action and for the most part, they don’t detract from anything are actually quite well done. The only thing I had an issue with was having Joker’s goons present during a key fight scene. It’s a moment that I feel should have been shared exclusively between Joker and Batman and it kind of waters it down and makes it feel like every other DC animated film.
There is some painstaking detail involved though. A scene in a bar during a flashback sequence has a drunk man in the background stumbling around and eventually throwing up and it’s a direct copy of what’s going on in the panels. Certain shots are perfectly emulated and it places a wonderful sense of love and craftsmanship ingrained within the crew.
Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamil return to give their incomparable takes on the The Dark Knight and The Clown Prince, respectively. The shtick hasn’t lost its energy yet and the two have gotten to a point now where they flat out embody these characters.
The only other downfall is the animation. Things have certainly taken a turn for the worse because The Killing Joke might be the poorest DC animated film yet in terms of quality. It isn’t terrible by any means but it does lack the polish that we’ve become accustomed to. The real kicker might be that because of how beautiful Brian Bolland’s artwork is in the book, it’s almost a spit in the face to have the team turn in something so sub-par for the film. It hurts what could have been something truly remarkable
The Killing Joke is such a difficult film to pin down. Is it good? Is it bad? Does reading the book help or hinder your enjoyment? Put it this way: The translation of The Killing Joke specifically is good and I certainly believe that if you have read the book (which you absolutely should because it’s one of the finest comic books in existence) then walking away unhappy could only be attributed to other things. But nonetheless, Conroy and Hamill give it everything they have and Moore’s brilliant writing is kept in tact. For those reasons alone, The Killing Joke deserves its place in the Batman pantheon.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Batman: The Killing Joke is out now on DVD & Blu-Ray