The Killing Joke. There’s a good chance you’ve heard of this book. I mean, it’s only one of the most famous graphic novels of all time, and some would even argue it is THE most famous graphic novel of all time. Often considered the greatest Joker story ever told, The Killing Joke has served as a staple of the Batman mythos for decades. With declarations such as this, one might naturally assume that this story is also one of my personal favorites… and you would be correct! So the moment DC Comics announced they were turning The Killing Joke into an animated feature, I completely lost my shit (in a good way)! As if the announcement of the adaption weren’t exciting enough, DC also stated that the film would contain an R-rating, and that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill would return to reclaim their legendary roles of Batman and the Joker. Trying to explain the euphoric excitement I had following this news would be impossible. I just knew that it was going to be good, and that I desperately wanted to see it!
Fast forward a few months to San Diego Comic Con, where DC hosted a special screening of Batman: The Killing Joke prior to the film’s release. I was determined to be one of those lucky souls that managed to see it, even if it meant sacrificing dinner as I waited for hours to ensure I had a good seat, much less a seat at all, when it came time for the screening. After numerous panels (and a Kind bar to help curb my hunger), I finally got to watch the film, and I have A LOT to say about it!
THE SOURCE MATERIAL
Note: This section can be skipped by those who have never read or have no interest in the source material. HOWEVER, comics WILL play a heavy hand in my review.
The Killing Joke
This is the unforgettable event that forever changed Batman’s world, adding a new element of darkness with its unflinching portrayal of The Joker’s twisted psyche.
Writer Alan Moore, acclaimed author of WATCHMEN and V FOR VENDETTA, offers his take on the disturbing relationship between The Dark Knight and his greatest foe. The Clown Prince of Crime has never been more ruthless than in this brutal tale.
Synopsis: Delve into the demented history of the Dark Knight’s arch nemesis – The Joker – as he sets out to prove insanity is only a horrifying moment away for anyone in the latest DC Universe Original Movie, Batman: The Killing Joke. Based on one of the best-selling graphic novels of all time, this R-rated, feature-length animated film brings together some of the key creative team behind Batman: The Animated Series with executive producer Bruce Timm at the helm and Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill returning to their seminal roles as Batman and The Joker, respectively.
Before I get into my review, it’s important to note that if The Killing Joke were adapted without any changes or additions, it would only have a runtime of roughly thirty to forty minutes. Considering the graphic novel is written so tightly, there isn’t much room for additional scenes to be added throughout the source material, so the decision was made to include an “introduction” of sorts (roughly the first 35-40% of the film) that would help give Barbara Gordon/ Batgirl an actual character arc. Because of this addition, I’m going to discuss the film as a whole, while focusing on each portion individually.
So to kick this review off, I’m going to start… with the end. Why? Because the back half of the film is what comic fans will know as The Killing Joke. This portion of the movie is the story that fans have been waiting for… and this portion of the film is near perfection! Everything that you want to see and feel is here! The Killing Joke is a story that shows how sadistic the Joker can be, and how he can have little to no regard for the means he takes to get to someone. That “someone” in this case is Jim Gordon. The Joker sets out to give our favorite commissioner the worst day of his life, and as most of you know, he’s pretty successful in doing so.
Part of the reason I enjoyed this adaptation so much, is because Brian Azzarello and Bruce Timm didn’t shy away from the controversial subject matter that already exists in the graphic novel. They didn’t go out of their way to embellish these moments either, but instead, just let them be. It was a brilliant move, and allowed the movie to sit in a pocket that will satisfy most viewers.
Considering the story already has a nicely balanced range of emotions, it didn’t require much work from Azzarello to adapt. One of the aspects that made the graphic novel such a success, is that a lot of the ideas and scenes are never fully realized. Instead, the scenes typically set up a situation or conflict with absolute clarity, but jump to another scene, leaving you to imagine how far the characters will actually go. The most famous example of this would clearly be in the final scene of the narrative, which sparked a debate that would ask “Did he, or didn’t he?” for more than a decade. Some might consider the lack of a “finish” to these scenes a cop-out, but I prefer it. In my opinion, there’s nothing more unsettling than the limits of your own mind, and the way I imagine these moments going down, terrifies me.
But even when Azzarello and Timm did add new material into The Killing Joke portion of the film, they did so with the utmost respect. There are small scenes peppered throughout the movie that weren’t in the graphic novel, but it’s almost impossible to tell which ones they are. I would even go as far as to say that some of these additions/ alterations helped make the story better! One addition in particular is extremely brief, and takes place at the beginning of the film as Batman walks through Arkham Asylum. In the graphic novel, Batman walks by Two Face’s cell, and Two Face can be seen peering through the grates of the door. In the film, they created a darker tone by having a prison guard place Two Face’s coin just outside his cell door, so that when Batman walks by, you see Two Face desperately trying to get to the coin as he leaves scratch marks in a metal door. It’s an incredibly small change, but it makes a big impact in the tone.
Another example of a change that worked, is the final fight between Batman and the Joker. The fight initiates in a room that’s recreated to look like a kitchen, and for a lack of better words, this creative team turned the altercation on its head! These are just two examples, but each change or addition that was made from The Killing Joke graphic novel was a good one, and appeared to be a carefully thought out, smart decision.
If we’re going to praise anyone for doing anything in this movie though, it needs to be Mark Hamill. The performance he delivers is master class! I’ve never found his Joker to be as twisted or unnerving as he is here, and somehow he manages to do it without abandoning what made his performances great in Batman the Animated Series. He’s twisted, cruel, and just pure evil. Then to add insult to injury, he throws in a little song and dance, creating one of my favorite scenes in the entire movie! It’s another direct lift from the comic, and I don’t want to give away too much, but imagine one of the American Horror Story: Freak Show’s musical numbers, except featuring Batman characters, and way better than anything AHS actually produced. The scene is pure gold, and the song is actually catchy, leaving you feeling like a psychopath when you find yourself humming it hours after watching the movie. It probably says a lot about how twisted I am that I loved this scene so much, but let’s be honest… We’re all a little “looney.”
In addition to the horror of the Joker, we also get to see a softer side of him through – what appears to be – his origin story. I say “appears” because there are some details that imply that everything he shares is a fabrication, but like many elements in this story, it’s left up to you to decide. There are a lot of clues that support my theory though. Regardless, Hamill delivers such a calm, reserved demeanor during these scenes that it creates the ultimate range of a character when compared to his acts as the Joker. The difference between his two extremes are epic and unnerving! I could literally watch Hamill perform at this level for days, and you will want to do the same thing. Add in the performance from Kevin Conroy as Batman, some amazing action, an incredible narrative, and an almost perfect ending… and there’s no reason you should be unhappy with this adaptation. I would easily give this portion of the film a 9/10!
Unfortunately, while the internet should be showering Mark Hamill and this film with praise… A majority of us are left feeling angry, irritated, and cheated because of some poor decisions that were made at the beginning of the film. I’ll get into more of this in a second (check out the section titled “The Controversy” for more details), but for now let me speak to the opening story as a whole.
Timm and Azzarello decided they wanted to give Barbara Gordon more of a story at the beginning of the film, and I completely agree. It’s needed, and honestly, it’s what Barbara deserves. Without adding a focus on her, she would literally just serve as a means to an end for the Joker. So in a wise move, we get a story showcasing Barbara operating in Gotham as Batgirl, and working alongside Batman to take on an heir to a mob family. This entire portion of the film is fun, and exactly what this story needs… but the more the film progresses, the more the story implodes on itself.
I’m sure many reviews will discuss a “moment” that completely ruins this movie, but it’s really a series of moments, with one moment serving as a catalyst. What’s worse, is that this moment (again, what I’m referring to will be explained in detail in “The Controversy” section) actually undermines EVERYTHING Azzarello and Timm were claiming they were trying to do. As each scene unfolded, I kept finding myself thinking, “Is this for real? Are they really doing this? It would’ve been better off if you just left the narrative the way it was and delivered a short, because this is WAY more degrading to Barbara Gordon.” I literally sat in the theater, dumbfounded by what was taking place, and I didn’t want to finish the movie. I just wanted to walk out…
What’s worse, is that the “introduction story” didn’t do anything to really create a cohesive story overall. It actually made the film clunky and disconnected, because it is two separate stories, written at two separate levels of execution. What I mean by this, is that the opening scenes are completely focused on Barbara, but Barbara isn’t the focal point of this film… Jim Gordon is, with Batman and the Joker driving the plot. There is absolutely no attention given to Jim Gordon, or the Joker for that matter, for the first part of the film. The narrative only tells a story about Batgirl, Batman, and an antagonist that is the heir to a local mob family. Where was Gordon early on? Why wasn’t he set-up when we all know he’s the Joker’s target? The entire idea is just frustrating because it doesn’t fit. The writers started their story off moving one direction, then completely abandoned that set-up, and went a different direction so they could tell the story of The Killing Joke. It’s lazy.
Also, as I stated previously, both portions of the film are written on complete different levels concerning the quality of the script. The lift from the graphic novel earned the movie an R rating by staying true to the original content. It’s a twisted set events that result in physical and mental torture that shouldn’t be carried out on any person. Rather than let that stand on its own though, the creative team behind the film felt the need to try and add even more adult contexts by continuously throwing in unneeded sexual references. To be clear, I have no issue with the idea of sex, it’s just the way it was handled here. All of it felt disgraceful to the characters, the brand, and the audience. The ONLY time I thought the movie nailed an adult themed, sexual reference, was a scene involving the mob boss – who, by the way, is quaintly named Paris Frans.
Shifting out of the narrative and transitioning into the technical aspects, I was surprised at how uneven the performances are. While Mark Hamill killed his performance, the same can’t be said for the rest of the cast. Kevin Conroy is great as Batman at the end, but early on, it just feels like he’s phoning it in. The same can be said for Tara Strong (Batgirl/ Barbara Gordon) as well, considering I found her performance to be completely unmotivated and lifeless. Maybe, just maybe, it has something to do with the crappy story these two actors share in the first act! Meanwhile, Ray Wise gives an outstanding performance as Commissioner Gordon when it isn’t required, then completely undersells his performance when he should be giving everything he has.
The inconsistencies don’t just lie within the performances though. The animation suffers from this as well. The fight sequences deserve praise for being highly entertaining and well-choreographed, however, I do wish some of them were a little longer. Sadly, other moments within the film aren’t executed at this same level. It’s not to say all of the animation is bad, but there are times where it looked off or rough. I understand the desire to keep the animation similar to that of Batman the Animated Series, but with technology as advanced as it is these days, these flubs just make me think this was laziness more than anything else… And quite frankly, fans deserve better.
At this point, I’m sure you’re wracking your brain trying to figure out if I enjoyed this movie or not. Ultimately, I’m conflicted. I really do love a majority of the film! It met, and at times exceeded, my expectations… But the lack of a connection from beginning to end, as well as “the controversy,” pretty much ruin this movie for me. In fact, I not only thought this repeatedly during the movie, but I verbally kept repeating it after the movie. I can’t recall a point in my life that I’ve ever been so completely satisfied with something, yet so let down at once… Batman: The Killing Joke accomplished that.
In the spoiler tag below, I’ve placed specific moments from the film that I did and didn’t like. Most of these are spoilers, so make sure you’ve seen the movie before you check these out!
Batgirl kicking some butt. I loved seeing Batgirl represented, and I loved watching her kick some butt in the opening scene! I would have loved to have seen more of this in the film.
Paris Frans. As much as I disliked the opening story due to the lack of connection it had to the final act (and main story), I actually liked this character. I thought he was enjoyable and fun. I also appreciated that they gave him an edge by having him hire hookers, and made one of them wear a bat mask due to his infatuation with Batgirl.
Flying hands. There’s a moment when a boat with various mob members on board is blown up, and a severed hand flies into the shot and plops into the ocean… I laughed. I don’t know why I laughed, but I laughed.
Freak Show. I loved seeing the circus personalities at the end. I wish Azzarello and Timm would have lengthened the fight sequence including them because they deserved it. It was just highly entertaining to watch them in a fight against Batman.
Gordon’s torture. I was afraid Gordon’s torture was going to be undersold, and while I thought Wise could have given a stronger performance, I did love everything else about the scene – especially the little people. They were oddly terrifying. And seeing the pictures of Barbara, naked and bleeding out was heart wrenching.
By the book. I got serious chills when Batman rescued Jim and offered to stay with him until the police arrived. But it wasn’t this moment that moved me. It was the fact that Jim refused Batman’s help, and demanded that he catch Joker by the book to prove Joker didn’t win… So. Freaking. Powerful!
The final fight. I mentioned this earlier, but the final fight was really well done. Whoever decided to recreate the kitchen from “Joker’s past,” but upside down, was brilliant! This moment deserves a high five because it’s awesome!
Joker’s toy gun. This is another moment that is a direct lift from the graphic novel, but when Joker pulls his gun on Batman, and then realizes it’s a toy when a flag pops out rather than firing… Hamill’s delivery of “God damn it” was perfect! This probably got the best laugh from me.
Flash light. Yet another direct lift from the graphic novel, for whatever reason, I never enjoyed this joke when I read the book. Mark Hamill is SO GOOD though, that he made me LOVE this line.
Oracle. Following the MCU’s formula, DC has added another post credit teaser, and it’s Barbara Gordon’s best moment in the entire film… She’s talking to her dad on the phone, and tells him she can’t meet up because she has work to do, then rolls into a hidden office. She turns on her computer, and the Oracle symbol appears! Hell yes!
Frozen yogurt. This isn’t in the film, but Andrew, Brandon, and I had frozen yogurt at 2:00 AM to discuss the film… Because, you know, that’s what we do… And it was AMAZING!
A big chunk of this falls into the section set aside to discuss “the controversy.” Just an fyi.
Barbara’s body shots. The creators took every chance they could to get some body shots of Babs. In particular, there’s a scene where she’s jogging, and I remember thinking, “Jesus, could they make that any more blatant? Are they going to cut to a close-up of her boobs jumping up and down next?”
Video calls. Why in the hell is Batgirl tracking down Paris Frans by following his directions during a video call? The REAL Batgirl would take advantage of the opportunity to track him using the phone’s GPS capabilities, then surprise him.
The pining. Oh God, the pining. Seriously, how many times to we have to see Barbara pining over guys. I couldn’t stand Fletcher and Stewart’s run on the Batgirl book because of this!
Good in the sack. I know this is in the graphic novel, but during the Joker’s “flashback,” his “wife” makes a comment that she’s fine if he isn’t successfully because he makes her laugh and he’s “good in the sack.” I always felt this was awkward because it feels very high school/ college cool.
Dead. The “flashback” scene where Joker finds out his “wife” and “child” died by a freak accident played really weird for some reason. It never jumped out at me as being odd or out of place, but it did in the film.
Be warned, this is a major spoiler. Click the spoiler tag at your own risk!
On the morning of Friday, July 22nd (the day of the SDCC screening), news circulated that Batman: The Killing Joke had leaked online. Naturally, one would think that this alone would be the controversy, however, it’s not. Instead, the controversy has to do with certain moments involving Batman and Batgirl. So what happens? In short, Batman and Batgirl have sex. But really, it’s more than that. There’s more than just sex in the narrative, and in a surprising turn of events, I was more disappointed with how the creative team handled the situation.
Andrew Asberry had a round table interview with the cast and crew of Batman: The Killing Joke prior to the screening, and he was made aware of the scene thanks to the leak. Once the interview got underway, this moment was brought up with Brian Azzarello, at which point he denied that it even existed, and commented that if it did exist, it would be left on the cutting room floor. Was it a blatant lie? Yeah… But, I won’t fault him too much for that since he may have been under contract and unable to discuss the situation.
Andrew was respectful enough to keep me in the dark, so when it came time to view the film, I was clueless to the sex scene. Early on in the movie, Barbara refers to “a man in her life” while speaking with a co-worker at the library. At first, I didn’t think much of it, and just assumed she got carried away while venting about her “night life” due to Batman’s overbearing nature, and used the notion of a man to recover and create less questions. But then it became clear that she actually was crushing on Bruce. After a few scenes of Bruce telling her that he doesn’t want her on the mob case, the two finally come to physical blows, before Batgirl has an epiphany of sorts, stops, then lays a big one on Batman before doing the dirty.
Had things left off there and been handled as a heated, confused moment between two adults, I still would have been irritated because it’s completely out of character for both Barbara and Bruce, but I would have let it slide. But it didn’t end there. After the characters avoid each other for a few days, Barbara actually starts pining over Bruce, and comes off as having no self-worth. To make matters even worse, Batgirl has a similar story with the ANTAGONIST at the beginning of the film. I literally watched one of the smartest and strongest female characters in the DC Universe become the equivalent of a twenty-something bimbo that doesn’t want to leave an abusive relationship.
Everything that I respected about the character was taken away, and led a fan to ask the production team why they claimed to create a story about Barbara to build her up, when they really just wrote a story about the men in Barbara’s life. The question was clearly on the mind of a number of the remaining audience members, and resulted in a small back and forth between the creative team and the crowd. In fact, there was enough tension that some audience members started yelling, and Azzarello reacted by calling a guy a “pussy,” which resulted in the panel wrapping suddenly and quickly. Needless to say, the altercation only pissed me off more.
WHAT I WOULD HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY
This section is a direct response to the opening story of the film. Since I feel that the approach the creative team went with is the complete opposite of what they were trying to do, I wanted to provide an example of what I would have done differently to create a stronger, more well-rounded story. To do this, I’m going to reference stories that can be found in comics, and that could have – and quite frankly should have – served as the set-up for this film. So if you’re interested in the direction I would’ve taken as a writer, click on the spoiler tag!
As I stated above, I agreed with Azzarello and Timm that additional footage needed to be added. I thought they would’ve made an actual effort to add scenes so that a single story could be told, but I guess they thought that was too much work and just decided to tell two unrelated stories within the same movie. Or maybe they just feel that if you have the same characters pop throughout a movie, you are telling one story… Regardless, they wouldn’t have had to try very hard considering there are already a number of stories in comics that could set up Barbara Gordon, and give her a full story arc that fits The Killing Joke. Some examples that I have in mind are:
Legends of the DC Universe #10 & 11
When Batgirl appeared in Gotham City, The Dark Knight was not amused, and even solved her secret identity to pay Barbara Gordon a visit and order her to cease and desist. When that didn’t work, he had no choice…but to train her!
When Jim Gordon gets shot and taken hostage by bank robbers, it’s up to his daughter Batgirl to save his life–even if it means revealing her secret identity!
These two issues alone could have done a great job in setting up The Killing Joke narrative. The story is told from the perspective of both Jim Gordon AND Barbara Gordon, so it would label both of them as leads from the start. This story also focuses on the fact that Jim Gordon can’t help but see Barbara as his little girl. She wanted to become a cop as well, but he wouldn’t let her. Now, she’s operating as Batgirl, and although he’s aware, he doesn’t know how to confront her.
Batgirl is shown in her early days as an effective, yet careless force on the streets of Gotham, and leads to Batman telling her she needs to quit (much like the film). Batgirl makes an agreement with Batman that she won’t operate until he thinks she’s ready, but only if he trains her. If this story were in the film, it would create a number of relationships and themes that would carry through and work perfectly with The Killing Joke narrative.
Batman: Batgirl #1.
In a story set early in her career, Batgirl faces the Joker for the first time and begins to learn just how serious this deadly game she plays really is.
This comic also focuses on Barbara Gordon during her reign as Batgirl, and also ties into some of the themes the production team behind The Killing Joke tried to play into. Barbara views her responsibilities as Batgirl as a fun hobby, more so than a call to duty. This changes, however, when she encounters the Joker – an altercation that not only risks her life, but Batman’s as well. A combination of this issue with the two listed above would allow for a much smoother story from beginning to end. The themes would have been similar, and the concerns expressed in these issues would play into the consequences found within The Killing Joke.
OVERALL: Batman: The Killing Joke is the exact movie we’ve been waiting years for… and at the same time, it’s a complete let down. It pains me to have such mixed feelings about a product that actually does deliver in so many ways, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t bring myself to move past a series of moments that take place early on in the film. Will I purchase Batman: The Killing Joke? Yeah, probably. But, I fully plan on editing it down into a short just so I can enjoy a direct lift of the story I wanted to see!
Batman: The Killing Joke is currently available in Digital HD, and will be available on Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday, August 2, 2016.