A film review by Craig J. Koban August---, 2016

BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE jj
½

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

MILD SPOILER WARNING

This review consists of a discussion of key story particulars from BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE (the graphic novel and film adaptation).  As a result, it contains minor spoilers

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). 

As 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 archenemy. 

Much 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. 

The 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. 

The 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 on how 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.   

This 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. 

 

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