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I would love to see [The Killing Joke] depicted in animation style with Mark Hamill coming back, cuz I’m hearing Mark Hamill’s voice the whole time I’m reading the Joker’s lines anyway.
The animated movie adaptation of Batman: The Killing Joke is every bit as disturbing and entertaining as Alan Moore’s original graphic novel.
DC Comics and Warner Bros. Animation have been pushing the envelope with direct-to-video superhero movies. Violent deaths, sex scenes, and a peppering of profanity can be seen in several cartoon films, including Batman: Assault on Arkham, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and Batman vs Robin.
Given this teen-audience aim, I hoped for The Killing Joke to get adapted since first reading it in 2012. I was excited when the project was announced, and nearly ecstatic that it would be shown in theaters for two nights by Fathom Events*. This seemed to raise the bar — would this be a Batman animated film on par with Nolan and Burton’s live-action movies?
The answer is “no”. But it’s close.
The final 40 minutes of The Killing Joke ranks among the best I’ve seen on screen–big screen or small. But it takes a while to get there. Writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland’s 48-page graphic novel is too short for feature-length. To pump this movie to 76 minutes (still 4 minutes shy of the Screen Actors Guild definition of a film) producer Bruce Timm and writer Brian Azzarello padded the script with a 30-minute first act. This is a separate story entirely from The Killing Joke. The Joker is nowhere to be seen, and Commissioner Gordon only appears briefly.
The film’s first dialogue is Batgirl breaking the fourth wall, saying, “I realize this is probably not how you thought the story would start, not with a big shiny moon or a city that could look stunning in spite of itself. Or me.”
Batgirl, also known as Barbara Gordon, is the star of this first act. Tara Strong returned to voice this character who she’s portrayed since 1997. The story is of Batgirl’s pursuit of sociopathic gangster Paris Franz, who is obsessed with the spandex-wearing crimefighter. He wants to date, or rape, her–and he doesn’t seem to care which it is.
But Batgirl is infatuated with someone else–Batman. Interludes show Barbara working in the library and discussing the emotionally distant man she desires. Batman, on the other hand, shows only a professional interest in his younger trainee, which lends their relationship almost a 50 Shades of Gray quality. She desperately wants him to love her–he only wants the violence.
The result is truly a romantic drama painting Barbara Gordon as a lonely, pining librarian. Are we supposed to cheer when Batgirl finally pins Batman and plants a kiss on his lips, bedding The Bat? I truly don’t know.
I do find this story reductive. Batgirl can kick ass but here she’s defined only by her desire for love. Batman refusing to return her calls after their one night stand is trite soap-opera melodrama.
Yet I understand why Timm and Azzarello put this in the movie. Yes, they needed to extend the running time, but this also gives Barbara Gordon context. It can be presumed readers of The Killing Joke know her heroic history as Batgirl, but a movie audience needs to be shown. Also, Moore has been accused of misogyny for what happens to Barbara in his story — she is barely featured other than to be tortured. This fleshes out her character.
Her monologue continues: “I wanted you to know that before the horror began, before it all came crashing down, there was a time when capes and cowls and fighting crime was really exciting.” The filmmakers needed to make her a hero to deepen her character, and to make what happens later all the more tragic.
The end result feels like Watchmen-lite. Batgirl and Batman shagging reminded me of Silk Spectre and Nite Owl. They are turned on by the fight, and the costumes. Yet this lacks Moore’s subtlety or postmodern commentary. It is simply a cartoon relationship.
30 minutes into this film, Batgirl’s role is diminished. Batman enters Arkham Asylum to talk to The Joker, and Moore and Bolland’s Killing Joke begins.
This second half of The Killing Joke movie is a direct, almost line-for-line recreation of the graphic novel. Moore is uncredited as he dislikes movies based on his comics, but the spirit and words from his graphic novel are displayed large on the screen. Many fans are ardent enthusiasts of Moore’s works and here, like in the 2009 film adaptation of Watchmen, it seems the source material is treated to reverential to alter. It seems there is a paralysis of creativity, a fear of changing Moore’s words.
This extends also to Bolland’s art style. The on-screen Batman and Joker look radically different than in previous cartoons…and identical to Bolland’s graphic novel designs. This sticks out as many of the minor characters, including Barbara Gordon and the Joker’s circus freak gang, are drawn in a style much more in line with Timm’s previous works like Batman: The Animated Series. The Joker flachbacks are also colored like the original comic.
In animation, using a computer to create smooth motion between two still images is called “tweening”. This movie almost feels like they scanned in Bolland’s pages and Moore’s script and “tweened” them to create a film.
The voice actors range in quality. While Kevin Conroy has portrayed Batman since the beginning of Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, his portrayal is rather flat. Never do I hear a Batman on the verge of homicide.
However, Mark Hamill shines as The Joker. Hamill famously retired from this role after the acclaimed video game Batman: Arkham Knight. In a pre-movie featurette Hamill mocks himself for saying that, and explains the promise of doing Moore’s classic story enticed him back.
He is absolutely amazing. His vocal intonations drip with evil menace. He even performs an atonal, amoral musical number “I Go Looney” — finally giving music to Moore’s words. And he does it with aplomb. He shines as much as Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger in this role. So close to the release of Suicide Squad, this sets a high bar for Jared Leto, as many Bat-fans will have Hamill fresh in their minds.
While Joker’s song may not have you humming along, its chaotic sound is perfect for the scene. Yet I was more impressed by the film’s score (revealed in a post-film featurette to be fully orchestrated). The music is bombastic and deep and may be my favorite Bat-score since Danny Elfman’s originals. The score, including “I Go Looney” is available on a limited edition CD from La La Land Records.
Twin Peaks star Ray Wise voices Commissioner Gordon. His first time performing this role, his participation seems a bit of typecasting. He is best known for playing the grieving father of Laura Palmer in that ‘90s ABC series. Here he is again a father in despair over the violence Joker does to his daughter Barbara. His performance is mostly relegated to wails and moans while his character is dragged around naked on a leash. For this, Wise is suitably adequate.
Yet for the implied nudity and violence, and for its R rating, The Killing Joke is remarkably mild. A sex scene ends with a glimpse of a bra. Someone is shot and covered in blood, but their clothes aren’t even torn. There is some cursing, but they never even use the single F-word allowed in PG-13 films, let alone a tirade of profanity R ratings have.
I believe the rating is more a publicity stunt than a reflection of the film’s content. I’ve seen far worse violence and language in live-action PG-13 films. Yet this R rating tells adult fans “this is for you” and, perhaps intentionally, prevents younger fans from getting in. An R rating is a rule enforced by theaters, whereas PG-13 is a guideline for parents. The Killing Joke doesn’t earn an R rating, but it is best if it keeps out kids aged 8 or under.
All told, if fans of Moore’s graphic novel can make it through the Batgirl Romance story they should be pleased with the final 40 minutes of The Killing Joke. It is a violent and trippy Batman tale, just like the source material.
*Note: There are no plans for Now Playing Podcast to cover the direct-to-video DC Animated films.