In 1989, legendary comic book writer Allan Moore (Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and artist Brain Bolland created The Killing Joke, a one shot graphic novel which would go on to be widely regarded as the definitive Batman/Joker story. Now, nearly 30 years later we have an animated movie, reuniting the voice cast from the ground breaking Batman: The Animated Series. Can this film that so many Batman readers have waited so long for live up to expectation? *some spoilers ahead*
The Killing Joke is one of my all time favourite graphic novels and one I have always wanted to be adapted. When it was finally announced that production had started and more than that, they had cast Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill to reprise their roles as Batman and The Joker and that the great Brian Azzarelo (100 Bullets) was to adapt it, I went into meltdown. With the crushing disappointment of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice I was convinced this film would do things right.
We start with an extended prologue which details Barbra Gordon’s final case before retiring as Batgirl. We then switch forward a year and Batman is called to a grizzly murder scene. The Joker’s work. Hit with the realisation that either he will kill The Joker or die by his hand, he goes to visit him in Arkham Asylum to try and talk to him but his old nemesis has escaped. The narrative then splits in two, in the present The Joker kidnaps and attempts to drive Commissioner Gordon insane, starting with shooting his daughter Barbara. As Batman frantically searches for him, we find out in flashback how a meek, aspiring stand up comedian becomes involved in crime and eventually is driven to become The Joker.
I think, for me, this was more of a disappointment than Batman v Superman. The film starts with a prologue which is utterly baffling. 20 minutes in and it felt like I had put the wrong film on. This story isn’t about Batgirl. She, if anything plays a minimal part. Her shooting at the hands of The Joker is collateral damage in the ongoing battle between him and Batman. If you needed to flesh out the run time, then why not focus on how the Joker ended up in Arkham, or expand on the story of how he broke out, even focus on the relationship between Batman and The Commissioner as he is the one who The Joker tortures, it makes no sense to focus on Batgirl. The only reason I can think of to make the prologue about her was to have us invest in her as a character and to pull an emotional response from the viewer when The Joker shoots her, so it is even more baffling to find that they make her so unlikable. Don’t get me started on the changes they make to her relationship with Batman.
So, enough about that. The actual adaptation of The Killing Joke itself is just brilliant. Using Moore and Bolland’s Graphic Novel like a storyboard they meticulously bring the story to life, with some of Bolland’s iconic images being faithfully replicated on the screen and while the animation doesn’t quite measure up to the artist, it is still a worthy effort. With the 15 cert. they have been able to include some of the more risque elements, especially the extreme psychological torture of Gordon, although I did not like the implication that The Joker’s attack on Barbara was sexual, this was left ambiguous in the book but is heavily hinted here.
Mark Hamill has long campaigned to reprise his role as The Joker is this story and, if it is possible upped the level of maniacal genius. His Joker just oozes crazy and when juxtaposed with his restrained performance in the flashbacks really shows a master voice artist at work. Kevin Conroy just is Batman, simple as that.
The Joker’s story is told in flashback and he is portrayed as a tragic, almost sympathetic character, one bad day turned him insane and his driving force in the story is to prove that one bad day can drive anyone insane, hence his torture of Gordon. However, is his real target Batman and is he torturing to Gordon to push him over the edge? Can we really even trust the flashback, as The Joker, when referring to his past says:
“something like that happened to me, you know. I… I’m not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I am going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice..HA HA HA!”
The film replicates this scene, like most of the book word for word and it is a joy to hear Hamill speak Moore’s wonderful dialogue. Following the utter disaster that was the prologue, the other piece of original content fairs much better. While at the peak of his torture of Gordon, The Joker breaks off into a rousing musical number, a show tune almost, which is in stark contrast to the horrific images that Gordon is bombarded with. There is also a nice little scene in The Batcave where Batman is looking at his Joker files and there are little animated homage to the different versions of the character.
Now, the finale. In the book, Moore and Bolland leave it up to the reader to decide what happens and the film retains this ambiguity. Does Batman snap and kill The Joker? Does this latest confrontation fizzle out to an inevitable conclusion with Batman taking Joker back to Arkham to wait for him to escape again? There are a million more theories out there. For me, it is in the title. The Killing Joke. I will leave you to make up your own mind.
All in all, this was a very frustrating piece, when it gets down to telling The Killing Joke story, then it is excellent but I just can not get away with just how out of place the prologue was or figure out in my head just what they were going for, I really expect, even demand more from a writer of Brian Azzarello caliber. That has prevented this film from being what it should be, a DC Animated Classic. I would recommended it to those who have read and love the book and the characters, for no other reason that to relish listening to Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy perform Moore’s dialogue. I strongly suggest you skip the first 20 minutes though. Mark Hamill has said that this would be his swan song voicing The Joker and if that is true, it is a shame, criminal even.
So, in honor of Hamill’s performance over the film itself, the only thing left to say is….”Here’s To Crime”
Thanks for reading. Hope you folks enjoyed yourselves, catch ya later on down the trail.