There are plenty of Batman/Joker stories, and many of them are great, but few are as polarizing and as controversial as The Killing Joke. The animated adaptation stays as faithful to that text as beautifully as any movie could … to a point. Problems arise in the additions to the book. The Killing Joke is a short but impactful story, so instead of having a 60-minute film, Warner Bros. Animation decided to extend the story and give more depth to a character passed over by Alan Moore: Batgirl.
If you are unfamiliar with the source material, Batgirl is only used as a pawn in Jokers scheme.
Let’s start with the “bad,” if you can call it that. The problem with this movie is its prologue, which is all about Batgirl. Now I’m all for adding plot and motive to this story, especially for Barbara, but it feels hollow and so disjointed that I didn’t realize it until the other three quarters of the movie kicked into gear. I’ve written previously about the Batgirl/Batman relationship, so I won’t dig too deep into that again, but the problem is that the movie portrays Batgirl from the ’80’s–It’s not a representation of Batgirl now. Barbara Gordon is now an independent hero who doesn’t rely on Batman, just like Nightwing or Red Hood. Sure he pops up every now and again, but she’s mostly her on her own. The Killing Joke posits her as a scorned lover. It is uncomfortable to see Batgirl yell at Batman because he wouldn’t call her back after sex. I mean, that would be uncomfortable for me to watch if it were Talia or Catwoman, but coming from a protege probably the same age as your ward is weird.
Batman scolds Batgirl that it’s still a thrill to her, that she hasn’t stared into the abyss yet (referring to his parent’s death). This is then referenced again when Batgirl compares that to almost killing a man because Batman made her love crazy. I would’ve let it go if it only happened once or twice, but it’s a constant annoyance that just portrays Batgirl as someone who can’t do her job because her feelings get in the way. Maybe this was all intended; perhaps I was supposed to feel uncomfortable and angry that Batgirl was a love-sick puppy.
But if that’s the case, why does the movie shift so hard in the other direction when the novel interpretation starts?
It’s easy to say that making the rest of this film should be a piece of cake. It’s all laid out and story-boarded, meaning all that needs to be done is put the moving frames together. But this movie is painstakingly shot. Every frame is cared for, and every character movement is just so. It’s like a moving comic. And while that sounds hyperbolic, the movie takes large chunks of text and images straight from the book, which is not an easy thing to do in animation.
Performances are what make this film shine. Kevin Conroy is and always will be Batman in my mind. Every time I read an internal monologue, I think of his voice, and his voice does wonders with Alan Moore’s writing. It just drips off the page perfectly. As does Mark Hamil, but I don’t need to tell you that he delivers Joker paragraphs like he’s never done before. But those performances also show the glaring difference between what is Alan Moore and what was created for the movie. Batman has many monologues in the core of the film, but in the prologue, he barely speaks at all. Tara Strong reprises her role as Barbara Gordon, and Ray Wise (Agent Carter) plays Jim Gordon. It’s tough to show up Conroy or Hamil, but both Gordons are great.
The Killing Joke is also not a very joyful movie, which isn’t a negative. The source material isn’t joyful. But Mark Hamil’s voice exudes happiness and glee, and Kevin Conroy portrays a real sense of justice. When they read Alan Moore’s words I feel as if they are both insane and truly on the edge. It’s a stark difference from the Animated Series they both previously worked on. There is no happiness in this world; it’s one horrible event after horrible event, much like Alan Moore’s mind, I suspect. But it strings together in a beautifully nihilistic sort of way.
I would recommend Batman: The Killing Joke to anyone who loves the story or Warner Bros. Animation. It’s not The Dark Knight Returns (part 1 and 2), but it’s a great entry into the long history of great entries. The negatives stick out in my mind, but it’s a wonderfully put together piece of animation and a staple in DC comics history.