“All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.”
― The Joker, Batman: The Killing Joke
The Killing Joke graphic novel penned by Alan Moore and illustrated in detail by Brian Bolland is considered by many comic fans to be the definitive Joker story, if not the greatest Batman books ever written. Its author succeeded in psychoanalyzing the Joker, getting deeper into what motivates the super-criminal, and crafted a philosophically rich narrative driven by the psychopath’s urge to prove his point: that the divide between sanity and madness is tissue-paper thin and can be broken with “just one bad day”. This is the seminal encounter between the Joker and the Dark Knight, and depending upon your interpretation of it, it could represent their final encounter.
Given the iconic status of The Killing Joke, there was a ridiculous amount of excitement among the fan-base when an animated adaptation was announced. The addition of the two prime voice talents for the franchise in Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill only fed that flame, along with the attachment of Bruce Timm (spearheader of the DCAU or “Timmverse”) to the project. Anticipation couldn’t have been higher… and then the film saw its release.
I just had the opportunity to watch it and, though this crimson mage is more accustomed to reviews of the gaming sort, I thought I’d share some thoughts.
If you plan on watching The Killing Joke, you can skip ahead to about the 30 minute mark. They decided to tack on some kind of DC animated short prior to the actual movie. Actually, jesting aside, this is an all-new, all-awful opening sequence put in place because the original source material not being long enough for a film. So rather than make a short film, they decided to make a short film with another completely different short film attached to the front of it.
Everything after the 30 minute mark is The Killing Joke, often line for line and shot for shot. The rising intensity of the music will even cue you as to when one of the more memorable bits of dialogue from the novel is going to be recited. Handy!
While these moments are great to see in animated form, they’re simplistic and at times even awkward animation ruins some of the power of what’s happening. Only a handful of scenes, like when the Commissioner is riding the roller coaster or when the Joker fills Barbara’s doorway, carry the weight the source material possessed, like being stabbed in the gut. These moments can be genuinely terrifying and captivating.
But other scenes fall flat. The Joker’s song and even, unfortunately, his magnificently written monologue and the ending. This is mostly due, in my opinion, to the clumsy animation. Animated DC storytelling clearly peaked with the DCAU. In this film, the animation fails to match the ink and coloring work that was put on paper almost thirty years ago. Consider these comparisons.
Batman goes from furious to mildly annoyed and the Joker goes from crap-your-pants insane to merely “having a good time”. I get that the animators needed a simpler style to work with. I do. But they couldn’t even nail that simpler style sometimes. The novelty of seeing the iconic graphic novel animated this way seems like an unworthy trade-off for sapping away nearly all the intensity of what happens in this story.
Still, the actual Killing Joke half of the movie is light-years ahead of the first act of this movie, and I mean that with all of the mean-spirited hyperbole wielded by the modern movie critic…
So in case you haven’t guessed from reading the novel, of course the first act is all about Batgirl. I mean, clearly she was the narrator and protagonist of The Killing Joke novel, right? Not right. I mean this happens to her:
But she’s not the protagonist nor the main character. At the heart of the story is the encounter between Batman and the Joker, and that’s the problem with all of this additional Batgirl stuff is it takes us away from that to some strange place where Batgirl has a bizarre schoolgirl attraction to her own teacher and does it with the Dark Knight. In the words of a schoolgirl: “Like, why?”
I can understand that they needed to add additional material to make this a feature length animated movie but was this the material that needed to be added? Why not add something that would increase the tension between the Joker and the Batman? Why not lift more material from other influential stories like The Laughing Fish, A Death in the Family, or the two’s first encounter in The Man Who Laughs? That seemed to be somewhere on the filmmakers’ radar given the scene where Batman and Detective Bullock investigate a room where cadavers bore the marks of joker-toxin (“smilex” for you Batman ’89 fans).
Instead we’re left with all this Batgirl stuff which I guess was supposed to make her ultimate fate more meaningful to the audience. It reeks of 2016 sensibilities, somehow. We can’t just have a woman being shot. She’s got to be a strong, independent woman who don’t need no Batman. In this film, Batgirl falls in and out of love with her Dark Knight mentor and eventually quits the cape and cowl, resigning from her post.
But rather than humanizing her or empathizing us with Barbara, the additional footage creates this image of Batgirl who is childish, subordinate, rebellious, obsessed with romantic feelings for Batman. She comes off as annoying, bitter, whiny, like a spoiled brat upset because she was told she couldn’t play with her toys any more. There’s a moment where she grabs a nearby dude arguing with his chick about “needing space” and she chucks him into a nearby planter in a sudden and unwarranted feminist association of guilt with a male she had no business with but who earned her wrath simply because she had man problems herself.
Bruce and Barbara romance has never really worked in anything I’ve read or watched, and it certainly doesn’t here. It’s a kind of unhealthy infatuation that you know won’t work.
So since this tacked on portrayal of Batgirl does nothing for the character, her victimization isn’t impacted, and thus neither is the actual narrative of The Killing Joke once we get to it. It’s still just between Batman and the Joker.
Worse than that, the transition from the Batgirl stuff to the original story is jarring for another reason. Brian Azzarello is a comic book writer that I’ve seen have some hits and misses. His work on the New 52 Wonder Woman series was phenomenal but his Superman: For Tomorrow is one of the worst Man of Steel books I’ve read. And you can see Azzarello’s writing from miles away, complete with his love for characters interrupting each other. Azzarello is credited with writing this film.
Once The Killing Joke narrative begins and we’re treated to Alan Moore’s original dialogue, then we see the chasm. Azzarello, talented as he is, has writing that just can’t keep pace with Moore’s. That fact further confirms the notion that this is really two short films glued together, written by two very different writers.
This movie just can’t meet the standards of the source material and therefore can’t translate it for us with the same impact. The final scene of the movie and the final scene of the book in contrast are sufficient to make my case. The final scene in the book is vague. We don’t know what Batman does the Joker after he seizes him. But in the film, it’s clear they went with a single interpretation: that Bats finds the Joker’s joke about two men escaping an asylum funny, an analogy for the relationship between the hero and villain. They share a laugh. It pans away. The end. Roll credits.Ironically, this movie was “made for the fans” yet it disappointed many of us.
The Killing Joke will always be the iconic, influential origin story of the Joker but its animated adaptation will probably suffer the same fate of obscurity as the majority of the DC animated films. The animated Killing Joke is the first R-rated animated Batman movie, but does anyone really care? I mean this is the story where the Joker paralyzes an innocent woman to try to make a philosophical point. That is warped. But it’s treated here with “hoo-hum” commonality.
At least there will always be the book and if it could ever be said, it can be said here: The book was better. Why is that always so?
I’m going to give DC’s animated adaption The Killing Joke a 4 out of 10. Do yourself a favor and buy the graphic novel. Maybe somebody will re-gift you the movie.
-The Well-Red Mage