Studio: Warner Brothers
Director: Sam Liu
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Producer: Sam Register, Bruce Timm, Benjamin Melniker, Michael Uslan, Alan Burnett
Stars: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Ray Wise, John DiMaggio, Robin Atkin Downes, Brian George, Nolan North, Maury Sterling, Fred Tatasciore, Anna Vocino
Batman’s pursuit of the Joker takes a personal turn after his arch-nemesis attacks Batgirl and kidnaps Commissioner Gordon.
Mark Salisbury’s indispensible book “Artists on Comic Art” includes an insightful interview with illustrator Brian Bolland. In reflecting on his and writer Alan Moore’s celebrated 1988 graphic novel “Batman: The Killing Joke,” Bolland recalls, “when I met (Alan) after it was over and we were doing these book signings, I remember him saying that, to him, it was just another Bat comic, which kind of hurt my feelings. For me it was this grand thing I had been building up to and I wanted it to be really special.”
This sentiment sums up the animated adaptation of Moore and Bolland’s seminal story. For many fans, “Batman: The Killing Joke” represents the definitive portrayal of Joker’s complicated characterization and is popularly regarded as one of the greatest Batman tales ever told. For the film, it’s “just another” animated Bat movie.
That’s a discouraging notion for DC devotees thirsting for a faithful take on practically deified source material. But unmet expectations are not necessarily what leaves animated “Batman: The Killing Joke” feeling average instead of extraordinary.
No one should envy writer Brian Azzarello for taking up the task of developing Moore and Bolland’s brief one-shot into a feature-length film. Following in or off of Alan Moore’s footsteps is a thankless chore on principle of Moore being seemingly sanctified as an untouchable comic god. Just ask Zack Snyder about “Watchmen.” Yet even in dismissing artistic liberties some might see as sacrilege and considering the film as a separate entity, “Batman: The Killing Joke” introduces unrelated issues that trouble it as a standalone story.
The essential conceit of “Batman: The Killing Joke” in both comic and cartoon form involves a savage assault by the Joker that leaves Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara (Batgirl) permanently paralyzed. Joker’s villainous plan is to prove good men can be driven mad by kidnapping Gordon, stripping him naked, and psychologically torturing him with photographs of his beaten, bloody, and brutalized daughter. Over the course of the case, Batman ponders his personal perspective on Joker’s arch-nemesis status while Joker’s possible origin is glimpsed in flashback as he recalls his own transformation from failed family man to sinister psychopath.
Looking past visceral violence and digging into subtext, a key theme explores how defining events might pivot one’s personality. Joker sees everyone else as being one emotionally-defeating experience removed from a parallel evolution while Gordon and Batman believe idealism steels virtue against external adversity. Antagonist to protagonist, “The Killing Joke” challenges conceptions of what constitutes a person’s character.
So how does this relate to Batgirl’s flirtatious association with Batman as well as a crime lord’s nephew?
Where the animated movie’s expanded storyline trips itself isn’t in what it alters from the original text. Issues arise from added elements that distract from a cohesive core.
The plot summarized above doesn’t begin until almost the half-hour mark, when only 40 or so minutes remain in the movie. “The Killing Joke” instead fills in its first act blank with a firm focus on Batgirl.
Batman and Batgirl are on the trail of Paris Franz (Batgirl groans at the name too), nephew of Gotham City kingpin Carlos Francesco. Paris is a colorless criminal as far as Bat villains go, characterized chiefly by the mocking manner in which he blows kisses at Batgirl before escaping the scene of his latest heist. Batman is far from a fan of how Batgirl impulsively plays along when Paris baits a hook in her direction, and their inability to synch up on strategy is complicating Batman and Batgirl’s partnership. Complicating things further is spontaneous sex in a moment of questionable narrative value.
Batman and Batgirl engaging in controversial coitus isn’t blasphemous because it goes against comic book continuity. The problem is that the movie specifically reinforces Batman and Batgirl’s dynamic as distinctly parent-child, making their sex scene uncomfortably incestuous.
Batman and Batgirl’s rooftop rendezvous immediately follows a moment where Batman plays domineering father figure wagging a finger at Batgirl for perceived petulance. Batman reminds Batgirl that they may be partners, but they are not equals. The tone of disapproving dad and disobedient daughter could not be clearer. “The Killing Joke” has long swum against a current of misogyny accusations. Having a stern scolding initiate physicality while retroactively revealing pent-up attraction in a mentor-pupil relationship continues chumming those waters of criticism.
The filmmakers’ intent is to contextualize Batgirl so her subsequent paralyzation carries emotional weight rather than functioning as purely a plot device. Except since she remains a seldom seen pawn piece in the second half of the film, her first act development is ultimately inessential to the overall arc.
Increasing Batgirl’s screen time should come with an empowerment in her portrayal that makes a downfall from hero to helpless even more tragic. Instead, Batgirl’s defining traits are indecisiveness, overconfidence, and a repeated need for Batman to bail her out when she is in over her head. This is a misread of how best to bolster Batgirl’s importance in a story that, for better or for worse, doesn’t require her to play a predominant role in terms of how often she is featured.
Like the comic, the movie leaves the “did he or didn’t he?” ambiguity of Joker’s implied rape of Batgirl intact, although leans toward “he did” during a scene where Batman visits prostitutes apparently patronized by Joker whenever he escapes from Arkham Asylum. Factor insertions of “assh*le,” “b*tch,” “piss,” “godd*mmit,” one “oh, sh*t” and a “holy Christ!” into dialogue and “Batman: The Killing Joke” earns an R rating it doesn’t need to have.
“The Killing Joke” is a chapter of Batman lore held in such esteem, voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill were swayed to return to the respective roles of Batman and Joker they popularized on “Batman: The Animated Series.” Conroy and Hamill’s homecomings highlight how the filmmakers recognize the importance of getting the adaptation “right,” which makes less-inspired creative choices all the more confusing.
Forcing an anxious audience to patiently put up with weak Rogues Gallery replacement Paris Franz over Joker for 40% of the film sets the stage for disappointment. Batman and Batgirl having sex turns on the spotlight. By the time Joker goes into Busby Berkeley mode for a lively musical number, it’s difficult to delight in any hint of fun “Batman: The Animated Series” nostalgia while still processing the heavy darkness of sexual assault, kidnapping, and torture that comes before.
When the movie sticks to and hits the notes that made the comic’s content memorable, it is entertaining. When the movie becomes mired in senseless shock for edgy R-rated value, its forced maturity feels alien for an animated Bat film.
As artist Brian Bolland implied of the comic, “Batman: The Killing Joke” should be a grand thing that is really special. The animated adaptation instead plays like mismatched episodes of “The Animated Series” cut into one movie that is tonally unbalanced at worst, and merely mediocre at best.
NOTE: There is a mid-credits scene.
Review Score: 55