Spoiler-Filled Review of DC Animated’s “Batman: The Killing Joke”
Before I begin, there is something you should know: I have gone on record as saying that “Batman: The Killing Joke” is one of the greatest comics of the 20th Century (check Wikipedia; I’m quoted). Writer Alan Moore, artist Brian Bolland and colorist John Higgins had put together the definitive Joker story on the heels not only of Moore’s work on “Watchmen” and his forthcoming “V For Vendetta”, but also not long after the character-defining work of Frank Miller on “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Batman: Year One”. In a comic that took years for Bolland to illustrate, it gave Batman’s most colorful and deadliest adversary a “possible” origin story as well as The Joker’s desire to drive Commissioner Gordon insane by shooting and crippling his daughter Barbara (who had retired from being Batgirl) and torturing him in a garish and warped funhouse. It not only served as a possible origin for the most enigmatic of the Batman’s villains, but it also punctuated the fatalistic nature of the relationship between Batman and The Joker. And now Bruce Timm, one of the men that helped to define the animated style that would shape the direction of the DC Animated projects, has returned to spearhead the reunion of the voices of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and The Joker respectively to adapt this seminal (and often controversial) story to the screen.
For those unfamiliar with the story, The Joker escapes from Arkham Asylum, takes Jim Gordon (voiced by Ray Wise aka Leland Palmer of “Twin Peaks”) hostage after shooting his daughter Barbara (voiced by veteran animated Batgirl Tara Strong) through the spine. His whole plan is to drive Gordon mad in order to prove that all it takes is one bad day to drive a perfectly normal person to utter madness. Through this process, we see memories of who The Joker was before his fateful fall into a vat of chemicals that dyed his hair green, made his skin chalk-white, and drove him absolutely insane. According to the flashbacks we see, he was a failed comedian who had a pregnant wife he was trying to get out of poverty. He takes a one-off job with the Red Hood gang (Moore’s homage to the events in Detective Comics #168 Silver Age-era tale “The Man Behind the Red Hood!”) only to find out the day of the robbery they have planned that his wife died in a freak accident. He is still subtly forced to carry out the robbery despite no longer having a reason to, and during this, the fellow thieves are gunned down and then Batman, early in his career, faces the Red Hood who falls into the aforementioned chemicals, and the rest is history. This was The Joker’s bad day, and despite his attempts, Gordon is not driven mad from the experience, and rather than just beat The Joker into a pulp, Batman extends a hand to try to work with his worst foe and help to rehabilitate him in some way.
For the most part, this plays out exactly the way it does in the comic. However the film does add an entirely new prologue, which is where, for the most part, the film goes all wrong. Because of the controversy surrounding Moore’s admitted use of Barbara Gordon as a prop and not so much as a character, Timm and the film’s writer Brian Azzarello (famous for his work on “100 Bullets” and the New 52 retcon of Wonder Woman) decided to add a prologue where Barbara is still Batgirl, taking place not long before the events of “The Killing Joke” opens. According to the prologue, she’s been working with Batman for three years and at present, they’re going after a sociopathic mobster who imagines he has a relationship with Batgirl. Throughout the prologue, Batgirl and Batman are in a partnership of sorts, but he expresses his concern over Barbara strictly being in the crime-fighting business for thrills and that this specific case has become too personal for both her and the perpetrator. She is continually frustrated with his stern and inflexible position on this, and decides to continually take things into her own hands, only to keep falling into traps Batman has to save her from, which continually undermines Barbara’s skills as a crime-fighter and doesn’t do her much justice in the characterization department either.
This is only made even worse by a scene of conflict between Batman and Batgirl that culminates in them having sex. With this, they have done away with Batman being a paternal figure for the members of the “Bat-Family” and have gone instead for a potential romantic relationship between these two. That might go against the grain for most fans, but it is part of the DC Animated canon that Barbara and Bruce were in a relationship of sorts during their time working together (thanks to “Batman Beyond”), and it also goes against the grain of Bruce always being the father figure to his protégés, but unlike the Robins, Barbara isn’t an orphan and her father is the father figure she needs. Despite this defense of the potential of this type of relationship between these two characters, this is even more problematic than the filmmakers are aware of. By trying to give Barbara a character that is independent, rebellious and has her own sexual agency, they turn a corner almost immediately in the following scenes and throughout the prologue by making her into a lovesick, incompetent, and codependent failure. In the approximately 20 minutes they use to show this prelude in which they claim to attempt to empower Barbara rather than using her as the all-too-familiar trope of the woman who is harmed in order to give motivation to the male heroes to chase down the villain, they give her a story that is rushed, poorly executed and leaves us with a character that doesn’t amount to much more than what Moore’s story had already given us.
As far as the execution in the adaptation of the actual “Killing Joke” text, the animation style is just reminiscent enough of Bolland’s artistic style for it to stand out. Sam Liu’s direction is pretty standard aside from moments where he’s directly working from moments of the comic, and only really comes up short when trying to execute the transitions that Moore and Bolland executed so flawlessly in the comic. It’s notable that due to its content, this is the first R-rated DC Animated production, which was always defined as being for mature readers due to its violence and brief moments of nudity, and this also comes down to the debate of the sexual assault of Barbara in the original comic as well as in this film. The implication is actually more specific here, which actually does more harm to the text. In the comic and the film, as part of Joker’s plan, he shows Gordon nude photos of his daughter after he shot her as the final breaking point. In and of itself, it’s a sexual violation and is already grotesque enough. But in the film, during Batman’s hunt for The Joker’s location, he comes across a trio of prostitutes that Joker frequents after his many escapes from Arkham (which is absurd enough that The Joker has broken out of Arkham so many times that he actually has a regular group of prostitutes he visits almost immediately afterwards) and they tell Batman that Joker hasn’t been by. They speculate that the reason he hasn’t been there as, “maybe he found a different girl”. As to whether that means that The Joker did in fact sexually abuse her beyond stripping her for the purposes of the pictures, it’s unknown and Timm has vehemently denied it in interviews, but it does leave an even fouler taste than the comic despite the protestations.
The brightest part of this whole production is the vocal work by Hamill. His Joker has defined and redefined the character over the course of the animated series, animated films such as “Mask of the Phantasm” and “Batman Beyond: Return of The Joker”, and the first two games of the highly-acclaimed “Arkham Asylum” series. He goes above and beyond, having to do the flashback voice as well, and he works maybe harder than he has before with this character, perhaps because this is likely his final time doing the character. And as terrifying as it is to see in animated form, the “scare house” sequence is extremely well done. Conroy doesn’t quite hit the usual highs and lows that his Batman can get to, particularly in a project like this, which is slightly disappointing. Strong gives a lot of life to a character that isn’t given a lot of additional dimension, and Ray Wise does fine work as Gordon. It’s worth speculating that perhaps the rest of the cast doesn’t work quite as well without the brilliant Andrea Romano as the voice director.
“The Killing Joke” is a book with a notoriously complicated history that the film doesn’t buy into. Moore, who has since disavowed the book stating time and again how much he hates it (which is pretty much in line with his general disavowing of everything DC), initially intended the book to be more of a non-canon one-off, and there has been a lot of interpretation to the end of the book where (and this was my initial impression of the book as well when I read it at the age of 12 in 1988) Batman appears to kill The Joker. This was a theory that gained a lot more traction when Grant Morrison furthered the theory on a Kevin Smith podcast, and it’s a theory that works so long as the book was not in canon. But for whatever reason, more than likely due to its popularity, DC decided to keep Barbara’s crippling as canon and more or less ignore the rest of the story. Thankfully, DC would eventually bring Barbara back as Oracle, and have her take an even more active role in the DC Universe at large and also was a triumphant story about not being limited by disability. The violation of Barbara is also something that has caused many comic readers to despise the book, and the reasons for that are understandable even if, as a purely personal opinion, I believe it works within the context of the book. Unfortunately, this film adds an additional element to that violation that is not only unnecessary, but seems to have been added solely to reflect the “grimdark” approach that the majority of DC Animated films have been doing since Timm departed his position as Supervising Producer of DC Animation, which is ironic since Timm has been the sole voice of defense of this film from the studio.
I was hoping that with Timm’s announcement that Batgirl would have an extended story arc in this film to help to offset some of the controversy surrounding her character’s treatment in the book and with Timm’s track record of stellar work within DC Animation, but if “Batman: The Killing Joke” demonstrates anything, it’s that the joke is, once again, on us.