1988 was the year The Joker became dangerous. First he paralyzed Barbara Gordon by shooting her in the spine. Later that year he beat Robin (Jason Todd) to death with a crowbar. The Joker was never the same after that and, for better or worse, it all started with Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke”.
The film opens with Batgirl’s (Tara Strong) voice over “First of all, I realize this is probably not how you thought the story would start.” Which is basically the writer, Brian Azzarello, admitting that he’s added something new to the story. And anyone who knows “The Killing Joke” will see this instantly. In the comic Barbara Gordon shows up and is quickly shot by The Joker (Mark Hamill). The creative team behind the animated film wanted to show us how awesome Batgirl was. They wanted to show us what a loss and tragedy it really was for her to have the use of her legs taken away from her. They wanted to show us how strong a character Batgirl was. They did this by having Batgirl pine over Batman (Kevin Conroy) the whole time, find a mobster’s flirtations flattering, and having sex with Batman. Even Batman points out to her “He’s objectified you.” Though she doesn’t seem to get it. These are not the archetypes of a strong female character. It’s like the guys who came up with this story wanted a strong female character, but they didn’t quite know what exactly that meant. Other that this pretty big misstep, the first 30 minutes are a fun Batman story. It very much feels like an old episode of the Animated Series (minus the sex part of course).
For those of you who don’t want weird Bat on Bat sex, you can skip to chapter 4, 30 minutes into the film, where The Killing Joke really begins. Memory is a funny thing. Watching the film the first time around there were moments I instantly recognized and remembered. Then there was stuff I was sure they’d added. And was there stuff they omitted? I remembered a lot more flashbacks of The Joker’s origin story. Surely they didn’t leave any parts of that out did they? Wanting to be sure before writing this review I dug out my copy of “The Killing Joke” and read along with the book upon a second viewing of the film. (They got all the flashbacks in there.)
The film really is the comic book come to life. Yes, some dialogue as been changed, certain things are told in a slightly different order, and yes, some things have been added and removed. However, I would say a good 90% of this film is spot on the comic book. There are many times when the image on the screen is exactly the same as the panels on the page. Which makes me wonder then, why my friend would say this was a “weak and flawed adaptation.” Because something similar crossed my mind. I felt like the torture of Jim Gordon was rushed. When in fact, they actually added a scene. Before The Joker begins his big song and dance, (and yes, the song is in the comic, word-for-word) he brings Gordon into a mock courtroom and shows him how his friend Batman is actually on the wrong side of the law. It’s a very strong, poignant moment and fully had me convinced that it was not an added scene. It’s a perfect start to the psychological torture that is to come. It puts the first crack in Jim Gordon’s reality.
The song and dance number came as a shock. I wasn’t expecting it. I didn’t remember it, but it’s there, again, word for word, and it disturbing to be sure. Photos of a naked and bleeding Barbara flashing before her father’s eyes as he listens to The Joker’s twisted lyrics about dead babies. “When your kid turns blue, it wont worry you, you can smile and nod instead.” In both comic and film it is a disturbing scene to be sure.
I think the reason the comic book is so much more effective than the film counterpart in disturbing it’s audience is first and for most the artistic style. Artist Brian Bolland has a very realistic style. When you see the look of horror on Jim’s face you believe it. This man is being pushed to the brink of insanity just as The Joker intends. The film is more true to the usual animated film style, much more cartoony. I think the softened animation style really changes how effective the story is in affecting the viewer. Also, as a reader, one has the time to sit and linger on a panel as long as they’d like. There are disturbing images in that book and the reader as the time to let the horror of what is happening really sink in. As for the film viewer, it all goes by so quick that by the time Jim’s ride through hell is over it doesn’t seem like The Joker as really done his job. Even in adding a scene to the film, his torture in the book feels much longer and arduous.
All this comparing and contrasting aside, we must look at how the movie stands on its own. On that note, I will say I enjoyed the film. While it certainly does feel more like two short films that are barely tied together, it still an entertaining 77 minutes. First you get a fun, albeit, flawed, Batman: The Animated Series type episode that focuses on Batgirl, then you get the main evert, The Killing Joke. Many people are upset at the way Barbara Gordon has been portrayed in the new opening sequence citing the reasons stated above. And while I will agree that they should have done a better job of making here a strong female character, and certainly shouldn’t have had her had sex with Batman (what were they thinking!) It’s still a good story showing us way more of Batgirl than the original comic did.
If you’re a “The Killing Joke” purist, by all means skip ahead to chapter 4 and just watch The Killing Joke. Otherwise, watch the whole thing and enjoy it for what it is; an animated Batman story.
The film is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio. Once again Warner Bros. has produced a beautifully looking and sounding animated film.
Extras include: Madness Set To Music (12 min.), Many Shades of The Joker (16 min.), Preview for Justice League Dark (8 min.), From The Vaults including Batman The Animated Series, “Christmas With The Joker” and The New Batman Adventures “Old Wounds”.
The Killing Joke is as faithful an adaptation as any fan of the graphic novel could hope for, yet for some reason it still feels slightly off. The intro falls short of showing Batgirl off as the strong female hero we know here to be, but together they still managed to give us an entertaining Batman film. I get why people were mad at this film, but I’m not mad. I enjoyed it and will definitely be watching it again. If you do own the graphic novel, sit down and do a side-by-side like I did. It’s very fascinating.
Warner Bros. presents Batman: The Killing Joke. Written by: Brian Azzarello. Directed by: Sam Liu. Based on the Graphic Novel written by: Alan Moore. Starring: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill and Tara Strong. Running time: 77 min. Rating: R. Released on DVD: August 2, 2016.