BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE ½
R, 76 mins.
2016, R, 76 mins.
(Featuring the voices of):
Kevin Conroy as Batman/Bruce Wayne / Mark Hamill as The Joker / Tara Strong as Batgirl/Barbara Gordon / Ray Wise as Commissioner James Gordon
Directed by Sam Liu / Written by Brian Azzarello / Based on the 1988 DC Comics graphic novel by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
I normally don’t partake in reviewing direct-to-video animated films, but I made a special case for BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE, the 26th DC Comics cinematic feature based on pre-existing comic book work.
Of course, this
film was inspired by arguably one of the seminal Batman stories of the
1980’s – if not of all time – in Alan Moore’s and Brian
Bolland’s iconic “mature readers only” 1988 graphic novel, which –
alongside Frank Miller’s landmark BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS from
1986 – radically re-introduced the Caped Crusader to the widespread public
that was still associating the character with the high campy
eccentricities of Adam West’s portrayal in the 1960’s TV series.
THE KILLING JOKE was such an immensely influential literary work
that even directors like Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan have cited it as
a source of creative inspiration for their respective Batman feature
films. That’s high praise.
Adapting such an important
comic book story like THE KILLING JOKE into a film – small or
large screen – is an audacious and ambitious challenge, to be sure.
Not only was the narrative a landmark achievement in embellishing
the decades-old conflict between Batman and his greatest nemesis in the
Joker, but it also was groundbreaking for establishing an origin tale for
the Clown Prince of Crime, which helped to humanize the character in
revealing why he made a psychological break from sanity.
Even though it could easily be argued that the origin tale
contained within was unreliably accurate, seeing as the Joker himself
claims that he’s an unreliable source of the truth (“Sometimes I
remember it one way…sometimes another…”), Moore’s graphic novel
nevertheless managed to embellish the classic Batman protagonist in a more
richly compelling fashion than anything before it.
For roughly half
of its already scant 76 minute running time, THE KILLING JOKE is an
ostensibly faithful appropriation of its graphic novel antecedent.
That’s the overwhelmingly good news.
The bad news is that
director Sam Liu and writer Brian Azzarello spend a perplexingly
frustrating amount of time in the opening 30-plus minutes providing an
extended prologue that's not evident in Moore’s graphic novel…at all.
It serves their purposes, I guess, of introducing the team dynamic
between Batman (voiced with reliable authority by Kevin Conroy) and Batgirl (an
equally headstrong Tara Strong) before tragedy strikes the latter at the
hands of the Joker later on in the film (one of the more infamously
shocking moments from Moore’s book).
To be fair, THE KILLING JOKE is an awfully short graphic novel that
could barely be stretched out to a 60-70 minute film, so I can understand
the noble-minded inclinations from the makers here to pad the material.
Unfortunately, this opening prologue feels like it’s from a
completely different animated film altogether and stick outs like a sore
thumb (more on this in a bit).
for the post-prologue movie itself? Again,
it’s a triumphantly and painstakingly rendered adaptation of the graphic
novel, right down to recreating key comic book panel compositions, the
underlining plot, character dynamics and dialogue exchanges…it’s all
lovingly here. For those
unfamiliar, THE KILLING JOKE involves Batman coming to the realization
that the Joker (Mark Hamill) has escaped from Arkham Asylum, forcing him
to go to extreme measures to locate and apprehend him.
The Joker kidnaps Commission Gordon (Ray Wise) – after committing a
rather heinous act on his daughter Barbara – this propels the Dark
Knight into vengeful action. The
film culminates with an epic showdown between Batman and the Joker at an
abandoned amusement park, which the Joker has retrofitted into his own macabre
and nightmarish playground. Gordon
insists that Batman bring the Joker in “by the book,” but considering
the sick nature of his crime against Gordon and Barbara, Batman has to
work overtime to curtail his violent urges against his sickening
like the graphic novel before it, THE KILLING JOKE is very light on
plot…but that isn't the point of it.
Moore was using a fairly obligatory showdown between Batman and
Joker (one that’s been done an infinite number of times before in comic
books) and hone in on what makes their deeply dysfunctional relationship
tick. Batman is a character
forged from childhood trauma, and being a vigilante represents some
semblance of him trying to bring justice and sense to an immoral and
senseless world. The Joker,
but direct comparison, is not about embracing logic in society, but
rather accepting and channeling the chaotic anarchy that resides within
it. For the most part, THE KILLING JOKE
does a bravura job of evoking this
endlessly complex and fascinating push-pull tension between these
personas. They both want to kill each other, but don’t and somehow hold back such temptations.
They both hate each other, but sometimes don’t understand why,
especially considering that they really know nothing tangible about the
other. The fact that THE KILLING JOKE – both the comic book and the film
– contains scenes featuring hero and villain having frank discussions
about trying try to sort through their mutual hostilities is something that most
other super hero fiction can’t really be bothered with.
voice talent is predictably superlative, especially considering that the
makers nabbed long-time performers of the Batman: Animated TV series.
Kevin Conroy almost never gets mentioned in the discussion as to
the greatest Batman actors of all time…perhaps because, rather
incredulously, voice actors are not regarded on the same level as
performers in front of a camera. Fortunately,
Conroy’s work in THE KILLING JOKE unequivocally proves – yet again –
why he is the definitive
Batman actor. He brings an incomparable level of weight, stature, and
menace to Batman that, at this stage in his twenty-plus-year career playing
the role, is almost second nature for him.
Hamill himself is no stranger to iconic film roles, but his
miraculously unique portrayal of the Joker might be the most memorable
character on his acting resume. Hamill,
like Conroy, has played the Joker so many times before that it’s easy to
lose count, but he delivers his most well-rounded and multi-faceted
evocation of the Joker yet, imbuing in the character a man of unbridled
and unchecked madness that, deep down, has his own share of past emotional
pains. THE KILLING JOKE is
incredibly fortunate to have Hamill and Conroy on board here, seeing as
they elevate the film above its numerous faults.
film’s ultimate and deeply unsatisfying undoing, though, is with that
hastily engineered and haphazardly shoehorned in prologue, which really
adds nothing of consequence to the central through line of THE KILLING
JOKE…at least not as much as Liu and Azzarello think.
Now, it has been commented on before that the handling of Batgirl
in the graphic novel was unsavory, essentially reducing her to a pathetic
victim in the story that’s rendered as a plot point to propel the
narrative forward. I
understand why this film believes that expanding Batgirl’s participation as a hero in this story would help address said
controversies and make her a more substantial character.
Mournfully, though, the manner she’s handled in the prologue does
her no favors, which also has the unintentionally negative side effect of
rendering Batman as a rather unheroic creep.
There’s an extremely misguided and inappropriate sexual angle to
Batman and Batgirl’s relationship here, essentially making them one-time
lovers. Not only is this
disturbing (Batman, as a mentor figure, taking advantage of his protégée
is something that no other version of him – whether it be in the comics
or on the silver screen – would have stooped to), but it reflects rather poorly
the makers perceive female super heroes in general.
Instead of proudly and intrepidly being an independent minded force
for good, Batgirl here seems offensively distracted by her attraction to
Batman…and Batman giving into his erotic urges with his much younger
protégée seems uncharacteristically icky…even for a character as dark
and damaged as him.
is all too bad. BATMAN: THE
KILLING JOKE is a superb recreation of its source material, but an abysmal
failure at attempting to add depth and complexity to characters that never
really needed any. Barbara Gordon/Batgril
is a regrettable and ironic casualty in all of this, and the creative
missteps here in the film only make her dreadful fate feel that much more
manufactured. That, and for
as meticulous as the makers were with translating Bolland’s
dazzling art work on screen, the relatively low grade animation aesthetic
utilized is often distracting (the film did have a limited theatrical run
in late July, but seeing the middling artistic results on a vastly larger
screen would have overstated them even further).
Considering the limited resources Liu and company worked with,
though, that’s to be expected here.
BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE, much like it’s lead characters, wages a
war...within itself. The first
act of the film struggles for acceptance along with the last two
acts…and it never achieves such. And
that’s no laughing matter for those who’ve been frantically waiting for
this film since it was announced.