Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke is, without question, one of the most influential comic book tales of the 1980s (ranking alongside the likes of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Moore's own Watchmen). Within a mere 64 pages, the tale permanently cripples a beloved DC character, gives DC's most iconic villain a melancholy backstory and intelligently pinpoints the nature of the complex relationship between Batman and the Joker. The story has an undeniable element of misogyny and there's an argument to made that the Joker doesn't benefit from getting a humanizing backstory, but it's a darkly compelling read with a unforgettably enigmatic ending (and Bolland's artwork is sensational throughout).
If this new animated adaptation of The Killing Joke had merely stuck to the source material, it would have been a flawed-but-effective 45-minute affair. However, feeling a need to stretch the story out to feature length, the filmmakers (which include writer Brian Azzarello, director Sam Liu and producer Bruce Timm) opted to add a lengthy prologue to the iconic story. Unfortunately, this section of the film is a half-hour display of terrible creative decisions.
The opening stretch of the movie tells the story of Barbara Gordon (Tara Strong, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic) – who moonlights as Batgirl – attempting to help Batman take down Paris Franz (Maury Sterling, Beverly Hills Chihuahua), the nephew of a powerful local mobster. Eventually, Batman decides that the mission is too dangerous for Barbara, and throws her off the case. Barbara's relationship with Batman has long been a contentious one (he's not the most lovable mentor), but this brings the tension to a boiling point.
Here's where it goes off the rails: Batman and Batgirl have a heated confrontation that suddenly transforms into a night of passionate sex.
I get what Azzarello and co. are trying to do here. They're trying to serve up a story element that's nearly as provocative and shocking as the stuff Moore offered in his story. However, this particular decision feels wrong-headed on a number of levels. First, it suggests a profound misunderstanding of the relationship between Batman and Batgirl: it would be bad enough if it were merely a teacher sleeping with his student, but Bruce has always been something of a father figure to Barbara. Yes, there are many different ways to interpret this character, but this feels outside the parameters of acceptability (particularly given that Batman is being voiced by Kevin Conroy, who will always associated with the beautifully-depicted version of the character from Batman: The Animated Series).
But okay, let's just pretend that we've never heard of these characters and that this is a stand-alone story. The decision would still be a dumb one, because it ultimately manages to objectify Barbara Gordon even more than the original story does (which is saying something). One of the most horrifying moments in the original story (faithfully replicated in this adaptation) involves the Joker (Mark Hamill, Star Wars) shooting and crippling Barbara. Having Barbara sleep with Batman to fuel his righteous outrage is an incredibly cheap, lazy move that damages the entire story.
That's far from the only problem with the opening stretch. Paris Franz (ho ho ho) is a poorly-sketched villain, the dialogue feels weirdly out-of-sync with the dialogue in the scenes that are pulled from the book, Barbara is given a painfully stereotypical Gay Best Friend and the segue into the “real” story is incredibly clumsy.
All of that stuff leaves a sour aftertaste, which means it may take a while for viewers to adjust to the fact that everything else is... pretty good, despite the flaws of the source material. Once Hamill's Joker enters the picture and becomes the center of the film's focus (both in the sepia-toned flashback sequences and in the present-day plot), the movie finds its nasty rhythm. Though Conroy's Batman often feels out-of-place in this particular story (particularly early on), Hamill has a knack for successfully adapting his Joker to any setting he's placed in. It's a brilliant vocal turn from the actor: he's memorably rancid during the present-day scenes, but brings some affecting vulnerability to the flashback sequences that make those moments play even better than they did on the page. Hearing Hamill's distinctive Joker voice dialed back to something recognizably human is the film's most affecting element.
The animation isn't as rich as Bolland's artwork, but this is largely a better-looking movie than most of DC's recent animated efforts. The film is at its most visually striking during the present-day Joker sequences, as the Clown Prince of Crime creates a violent funhouse with the aid of some Lynchian freakshow acts. The action sequences are generally well-staged, boasting fluid fight choreography and a real sense of kinetic energy.
The closer the film gets to the finish line, the more engaging it gets. Maybe it's because the memories of the early scenes are fading away, or maybe it's because the story itself is back-loaded with good scenes. The final scene – a strikingly frank conversation between Batman and the Joker – gets a tremendous reading from the two actors. For a few brief moments, I was completely spellbound. Ah, but even here, there's disappointment: by making one small-but-crucial alteration, the filmmakers undercut the haunting ambiguity of Moore's ending. An adaptation of this story was always going to have some issues to confront, but this movie could have (and should have) been a lot better.
The Killing Joke
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 77 minutes
Release Year: 2016