The 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke is widely considered to be one of the best Batman comics of all time, and the definitive origin story of The Joker thanks to its look into the history of Batman’s most notable enemy, as well as the shocking turn where Joker shoots Barbara Gordon in the spine, crippling her, ending her career as Batgirl, and setting up the events that would lead her to reinvent herself as Oracle. When news broke that DC animation was adapting the novel for its own animated feature, as well as getting back the cast of the Animated Series – Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamill as Joker, Tara Strong as Batgirl – people were excited to see this defining novel come to life. Even more so when it was announced that for a single night on July 25th, the film would be shown in Fathom Events and Vue Cinemas across the US and UK (with a further 2 screenings on the 26th when demand became too much to handle). Not wanting to miss the chance offered to them, many fans – myself included – opted for the theatrical experience.
What we got was an adaptation that in its attempts to justify its feature length runtime, ended up feeling like it should’ve remained DTV.
Because the source novel is so short, the film makes up for it by adding in a half-hour prologue featuring Batgirl’s relationship with Batman as they face off against spoiled mobster Paris Franz, who develops a dangerous attraction to Batgirl. It’s this prologue that’s the problem. It’s understandable why they did it- they wanted to add more to Barbara before Joker shoots her in the gut, which is a fair way to go about it. Barbara’s role in the novel is limited to her victimization, but since that’s part of a decades-running series, people already know who Barbara is and her crippling hits just as hard.
What they end up doing instead is make Barbara out to be a foolish, loved-spurned teenager who acts up because Batman isn’t letting her be a foolish, love-spurned teenager, even introducing a sexual relationship between the two .The act of them having sex isn’t a killer; to the film’s credit it does make sense since Barbara still finds the thrill and excitement of crime-fighting that Bruce lost a long time ago. However, it is unnecessary since it takes away from their characters and their motivations. Bruce suddenly becomes a creepy older man taking advantage of a young woman’s crush, and Barbara becomes a plot device since now Bruce’s reasons to go after Joker become a lot more personal than they should be, especially since her storyline ends at the hospital, making her development through the first half-hour pointless.
Barbara is a great character. She’s fun, energetic and well-rounded, even after her disability, and she’s proven to be a valued part of the Bat Family, both as Batgirl and as Oracle, and her relationship with Bruce has always been one of protectiveness, a second father to her. But the film doesn’t work for her. She’s too much of an angst-ridden teenager, mad for not getting her own way, and sadly sexualized, which considering what Joker does to her (both what is shown and what is implied) is a VERY poor choice. In their attempts to make Barbara more of a character before she becomes a victim, they just end up making her more of a victim.
Thankfully the second half, once The Killing Joke actually starts, is where the film makes up for itself. Almost. There’s a great deal of psychology in the novel that doesn’t translate perfectly, but the gist is still there. After Joker escapes from prison, he finds Commissioner Gordon, shoots his daughter in the spine, and takes him to an abandoned amusement park where he subjects him to emotional torture by way of a kangaroo court, nude pictures of his crippled and bleeding daughter, and a song & dance number. And it’s all because Joker wants to prove a point, that one bad day can make even the most noble of men go mad.
All the while we get flashbacks to Joker’s origin, where as a failed comedian trying to support his pregnant wife he turned to crime, agreeing to help some mobsters break into the chemical plant where he worked in exchanged for a cut of the profits. But just like Gordon, Joker suffers through the worst day imaginable and shatters, fully transforming himself into the Clown Prince Of Crime.
While there are some elements that aren’t as well handled – the dichotomy between Batman and Joker feels better established in the books which is a big part of the ending and how both the film and the book handle it differently – the general uneasiness and disturbing nature of the story is still there and quite graphic at points, maybe not to the potential of its R-Rating but more than a PG-13 would’ve allowed. Barbara getting shot is just as shocking in motion as it is on page, as is Joker’s treatment of her, and Gordon’s carnival ride through his living Hell is one of the more distressing sequences that DC have made, animated or otherwise. Once the actual story kicks in, the film is a very faithful adaptation, with plenty of the novel’s most iconic images and speeches played out on screen with the legendary voice cast delivering them.
The voice cast is definitely one of the highlights. Kevin Conroy delivers the same gravitas to Batman as he always has, though he’s a little too overbearing in the prologue. His best work comes when he’s facing off against Joker and the tiredness of fighting the same mad-man over and over has finally gotten him to the point of exhaustion, and of knowing that one of them will eventually kill the other. The real star of the show is Hamill; having already established himself as the best Joker through the Animated series and the Arkham games, Hamill retired from voicing the character but did say he would return if The Killing Joke was ever adapted. He slips right back into the character and gives some of his best work. Hearing the legendary monologues out of his mouth is worth the viewing for Batman fans, and the subtle changes he gives to Joker in both the past and the present are up there with Conroy’s own inflections between Batman and Bruce Wayne.
Outside of them Tara Strong does her best with Barbara, but as mentioned above, they don’t give her anything to work with and she feels like wasted talent. And while Ray Wise makes for a fine Commissioner Gordon, having the cast of the animated series back does make the lack of Bob Hastings (who tragically died in 2014) all the more noticeable.
The animation itself is a mixed bag. The imagery is fine, with the classic scenes and disturbing pictures making their mark for fans of the novel, but it’s not up to par with what DC have put out before. There have been rumors that the film was rushed so as to market itself between Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad, and considering both Bats and Joker will be facing off again in a couple of weeks, that does lend credit to those rumors. The art direction comes up lacking with too many muted colours; it really needed to recapture the noir styling of the animated series, plus the jarring quality between the animated characters and the CGI backdrops became a distraction almost immediately into the first chase scene.
When the film allows itself to be, it can look good. There’s a suitable amount of violence to live up to the novel’s reputation, and the psychological moments stand out for the same reason. But it does feel rushed at moments, particularly during the action sequences when the frame-rate gets noticeably choppy. Maybe it’ll look better on a smaller screen, but for the theatrical experience it’s hard not to feel disappointed by the results onscreen.
The Killing Joke was always going to be a hard adaptation. It’s too dark, too psychological and too short to be done properly, and sadly the attempts made to adapt it fall short of the talent on offer. The irony is that the parts that deal with The Killing Joke itself are really good; the animation might not be up to snuff but it’s a disturbing tale and allows Conroy and Hamill a chance to go toe-to-toe once more. It’s that Batgirl prologue that destroys the film, not because it’s a change to the source material- the idea of adding more to Barbara is a welcome addition – but because they did arguably the worst job possible of adding to her character, transforming one of comic books’ most iconic and influential female characters into a sex-crazed emo teen. She deserved better and so did the audience.
3 hairpieces out of 5