Review: “Batman: The Killing Joke” – Keep Smiling

Written by Jesse Gelinas August 11, 2016

The Joker toasts to your sanity in The Killing JokeNow this is an adaptation Batman fans have been waiting for for some time. Alan Moore’s iconic graphic novel, The Killing Joke is one of the most beloved, and twisted incarnations of Batman’s arch-nemesis in his storied history. This is a story that could be handled either very well or very poorly, and oddly enough, this DC Universe Animated Original manages to hit both extremes in a runtime of only 77 minutes. But when it’s good, it’s something special.

The Killing Joke, as with most adaptations, takes a few liberties with its characters. So, we begin with fresh material, with Batgirl (Tara Strong) out on the hunt. After a maniacal mobster escapes her grasp, and shows a strong fixation on her, Batman (the legendary Kevin Conroy) warns against letting the job pull her down into the abyss of obsession and rage. Batgirl seems to have conflicted feelings toward her dark mentor, and this soon culminates unexpectedly for both vigilantes.

Shortly thereafter, the faithful portion of the adaptation begins. There is a knock on Barbara Gordon’s door. Joker (Mark Hamill) is on the other side with a gun and a camera. After causing some permanent damage and leaving his mark, he absconds with Commissioner Gordon (Ray Wise), and sets out to prove how easily madness can take hold of a fragile mind.

“Why. Aren’t. You. LAUGHING?!”

The most iconic voice of the Joker starring in an R-rated adaptation of his single-most iconic story sounds too good to be true. Well, like most adaptations, The Killing Joke isn’t without its flaws. Namely the first half of the movie. The shooting of Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon is obviously the catalyst for the action in the story, but she was never the main focus. The spotlight was always on Batman and Joker. So, it’s an odd choice when the filmmakers decided to tack on a story about Batgirl getting too close to an deranged villain, and contemplating retirement. When she’s in the mask, she obsesses over this thug who got away. When she’s out of the mask, she’s waxing romantic about Batman with some nerd at the library. And it all comes to a head with Batman telling her she’s not made out for crime-fighting, and then the two of them banging on a dark rooftop. All of this is then quickly disregarded when the real story begins. It’s a disservice to the Batgirl character, cheapening her role in Batman’s team, and serving no purpose for the rest of the film, except to make Batman want to visit Arkham, which is where things pick up. Fast.

Batgirl as she appears in The Killing Joke

Joker soon pays Barbara a visit, crippling her, stripping her, and going to work with his camera. It’s a brutally twisted scene, and lets you know immediately what kind of Joker you’re getting (as opposed to say, Suicide Squad’s clown prince). Mark Hamill is perfect as always, truly the most consistently great Joker in film or TV. The film is peppered with flashbacks (or what seem to be flashbacks) of a possible origin of the Joker, as a young failing comedian, turning to crime to solve his and his wife’s financial woes. One bad day, and we have our favourite green-haired wildcard. Of course, the entire yarn is brought into question by Joker’s own words later on. Proving that we may never truly know where the grinning madman came from.

“Memories can be vile, repulsive little brutes. Like children, no? “

The second half of the film is faithful to the tiniest details. Scenes and shots are lifted directly from Moore and Bolland’s pages. The animation is simple, almost to a fault, but it works for the story they’re telling, and is actually quite visually impressive at times. The violence is harsh and bloody. Watching Commissioner Gordon ride the twisted funhouse car through a collage of his daughter’s vicious attack is surreal and disturbing, as it should be.

The Joker going mad in The Killing Joke

The crux of The Killing Joke is Batman’s connection with the Joker. A visit to Arkham Asylum to try and reconcile their “lethal relationship” kicks off the action, and a tense, but heartfelt conversation between the two nemeses closes it. And it’s all punctuated by a killer joke (Ha!). The implication seems to be that these two opposites will never truly be able to stop; they’re destined to clash forever. But common ground can be found, even if just a for a moment, sharing a laugh in the rain. It’s a powerful image, and an iconic (and for comic readers, oddly controversial) finish to a great story about the yin and yang in Gotham City. The Batman, the Joker, two halves that only know how to destroy one another. If the entire film could’ve been like this, it could’ve been perfect.

“If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.”

The Killing Joke was pitched and released with an R-rating, which obviously appealed to fans of the comic’s dark content. The film feels like they did the absolute bare minimum to get the rating, and then played it safe thereafter. An odd choice. There are a few shits (no ‘F-bombs’), Batgirl takes her shirt off (she keeps her bra on, you vultures), etc. I have to assume the rating drew mainly from the implied violation of Barbara Gordon, coupled with the tribulations of her father afterward. Even so, the film walks a thin line that it doesn’t necessarily have to, but then, there’s no need to be gratuitous I suppose.

The Joker gets to work with his camera in The Killing Joke

In the end, The Killing Joke is the perfect, faithful adaptation of the classic book that I’d hoped for. It’s just also something else. The film’s first half seems oddly detached, and makes for some disappointing character turns. It feels like the filmmakers didn’t trust the source material to carry a feature-length film, and so added on an unneeded prologue to eat up half the runtime. Regardless, once the real action begins it’s a wonderfully twisted trip into the Joker’s psyche, and the exploration of the madness that can erupt from just “one bad day.” And that is the killing joke. The reality of the harsh, cruel world we’re trapped in, ready to snatch your sanity away in one sudden, wicked punchline.

My Rating: 7.5/10

The Killing Joke - "Smile!"

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About Jesse Gelinas

After years attempting to escape the Matrix, Jesse has accepted his fate as a writer and Senior Editor. Now that's he finished with his film degree, it gives him something to do while waiting for the machines to get careless.

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