Disclaimer: this is a review for the 2016 animated version of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s original graphic novel from 1988. If you came here, saw the score on the right and then promptly triggered thinking we were about to dump all over the untouchable print version of this tale, hopefully that last sentence calmed your nerves. Breathe in. Breathe out. We’re good… we’re good.
Now for something that isn’t good: The Killing Joke’s animated adaptation, which graced the world with its rather subdued release in the latter half of last year. It’s one of those curious adaptations that manages to fail despite sticking to its source material - the kind of bankruptcy that usually results from a loss of translation when moving an esteemed work from one format to another. Bafflingly, that’s not even the case here. Rather, it suffers from an attempt to modernize its story - an endeavour not even required given the original’s enduring impact - and then proceeding to tack on an awkward block of original content that fails to pay certain characters the better spotlight they’re due, leaving them more exploited than even the source managed. This is The Killing Joke wrapped in the kind of dreadful package that comes when a writer is desperate to instil a theme into their work, but has no idea how to do it - and the theme for this woeful rendition is a miserable attempt at turning one of its central cast into a ‘strong female character’.
Fans of Batgirl, be warned - this is not the portrayal your character deserved.
At the very least, this animated version does indeed stay true to the events of the original storyline. This feature-length edition of The Killing Joke - or at least its second half - is still very much the same disquieting, provocative insight into the mindset of The Joker; the depth of his insanity, penchant for depravity and the existential relationship he has with his perennial, justice-serving arch-enemy Batman, are all given the worthy focus they require. For those not in the know, the original served in part as an origin story, frequently cutting to his pre-villain life as a failed stand-up comic, while switching back to the ‘current-day’ Joker fulfilling one of his most maniacal, sociopathic criminal achievements - escaping from prison to kidnap fellow Batman stalwart, Commissioner Gordon, for a night of physical and psychological torture at an abandoned amusement park. And this isn’t even the first despicable act of cruelty he performs on escape either. His first, while in the process of kidnapping Gordon, is to cripple his daughter, Barbara (aka Batgirl), and then subject her to a series of humiliating naked photos for the sole purpose of tormenting her captive father with them further down the line. All in all, it’s about as unnerving as tales from Gotham City get, but it does provide some fascinating, contemplative suggestions on both The Joker and Batman’s eternal battle with one another, and what it could mean if one were to finally vanquish the other. As a story whose philosophical resonance continues to be felt within the Batman universe (and comic books in general), its re-telling of the original novel’s events require nothing less than a perfect recount, unfiltered and unadulterated by any notions of present-day script modifications. And by and large this animated version achieves that without much difficulty, at least in adherence to plot flow and dialogue. This is still very much The Killing Joke in terms of structure. It’s in atmosphere, spirit and terribly awkward ideas on what feminism might entail however, that this interpretation is found horrendously lacking.
Cynical readers of the female variety might wonder what a 33 year-old, conclusively male writer like myself means when I say ‘terribly awkward ideas on feminism’, like I even have any idea what that most tingly of present-day buzzwords means at all. It’s a reasonable criticism too - my lack of female perspective was pretty much ordained for me the moment I popped out of my mother’s womb as a well established non-girl. But I still *think* I have an idea of what writing a ‘strong female character’ (quotes again intended) involves - and at the very least it involves the use of a subset of traits that encompass the overarching human condition instead of a solely manly one. And the two are far from mutually exclusive. To my view, writing a ‘strong female character’ shouldn’t be that much different from writing a ‘strong male character’, or any kind of ‘strong character’ for that matter - they all have to be independent, resourceful, smart, kick ass and carry a sense of assurance about themselves. This animated version of the Killing Joke, as previously mentioned, is clearly very keen to have a ‘strong female character’ - even producer Bruce Timm and co. exposited at length at an ill-fated Comic-Con panel about how much they wanted to make the Batgirl of this piece to fit that very mold. It’s just that the endeavour results in an terrible outcome. It’s so laughable in fact, that it completely derails this adaptation to the point that not even the accurate following of the original piece is enough to save it. And it’s an endeavour focused squarely on trying to inject some personality into the one character who, even above Commissioner Gordon, is the biggest victim from the events that play out in the graphic novel.
Of all those that suffer in that print version of The Killing Joke, Barbara Gordon definitely gets it the worst. She appears for a mere handful of pages, only to have The Joker and his henchmen invade her apartment, abduct her police commissioner father and then paralyse her to the point that she can be stripped and degraded as a part of The Joker’s larger plan. The last we see of her in the graphic novel is as her comatose self in a hospital bed, unable to move, while a brooding Batman vows to exact bloody retribution for her. So at least, in earnest, the animated version does the right thing by spending its first 30 minutes attempting to give her part in this whole story some necessary depth and sympathy. It promises to offer us a side of her so desperately lacking in the original comic - maybe actually make a worthy character of human quality, instead of just a plot vessel to expose the full depth of The Joker’s nastiness. The payoff from this is also easy to see - the more we see of Barbara and her Batgirl persona, the more the viewer will care for her, and the more shocking The Joker’s eventual attack on her will be.
And it’s not exactly difficult to imagine the other possibilities in offering such an angle either. Maybe we’ll get a deeper look into the master-protege tensions she shares with her unofficial tutor Batman, or even a more nuanced perspective on her own unique attitude to crime-fighting away from Gotham’s more illustrious Caped Crusader. That would be, all things considered, a good place to start. Instead, we get none of that. What we receive instead is a paper-thin interpretation of a heroine who spends her time outside of costume at her library job musing about her failure to find a man, and her time in costume getting steamed up over the Dark Knight’s refusal to let her reel in local crime boss Paris Franz in the manner that she wants (read: using Franz’s attraction to her as a means to trap him). It’s not half as interesting a vignette as it believes itself to be - frankly Paris is a dull counter to either her or Batman - and themes of this sub-plot doesn’t connect well at all with the main story that follows. But none of that ultimately matters, because once this dragging 30-minute nonsense reaches its climax, the whole pointless charade finally reveals its actual, depressing motive - it’s just an excuse to inject some unnecessary sexual tension into Barbara and Bruce’s working relationship, and the pair ultimately end up banging each other on a city rooftop (nothing explicit, mind you) after busting Franz’s operation.
It all adds up to an insipid opening act that offers nothing positive for any of the other characters involved. The Joker hasn’t even turned up yet, but Batgirl is already reduced to a sum lesser than even the original comic portrayed her to be - a vapid cliche of an independent woman whose supposed strength as a female is defined only via the sexual connections to the men she’s involved with in Gotham’s daily battle for justice. What’s more, all of it is completely, absolutely peripheral to the story that follows. It sets nothing up for the telling of the actual Killing Joke - no additional colour, no intriguing background minutiae. Essentially, it’s just an excuse to justify this animated version’s feature length run - and it’s a poorly written, subtly misogynistic one at that.
What then follows this opening half, despite sticking to its source’s script to the letter, is a noticeably flawed rework of the actual story. Bruce Timm’s production, sticking in line with an art and animation style similar to his work on Batman: The Animated Series, does not pay off here. For its time, that very show was groundbreaking, distinctive and dark - all things that you could still say about to this day. But it was never dark enough to convey the midnight, menacing air that much of the original Killing Joke presides under. Compared to the print version’s angular, striking style, its animated counterpart, while impressively detailed in parts, still looks like the very cartoon it pulls its visual form from. It results in a dark-lite variation of the same story, diluted and lacking in the same sense of pervasive madness of the original - despite all of Mark Hamill’s brilliant voice work in delivering the kind of Joker this adaptation desperately needs. Hamill does indeed return to the role he left back in the day of the Animated Series, and there really was no doubt that he could once again bring a top-notch performance. Voice-wise, there has been no better individual delivering the Clown Prince of Crime in all his anarchic glory, and there probably never will be either. Hamill also seems to be the only one to get the importance of the story as well - his final delivery of the very joke that the title of the movie bases itself upon is nigh-on perfect, as is pretty much every other line he’s given. It’s a stark contrast to Kevin Conroy’s return as Batman, who frequently sounds bored with the proceedings. And while the rest of the voice cast bring standard performances, none of them assist in giving this film the sense of urgency or agitation that the base work revelled so much in - save for the man behind the Joker himself.
Not even Hamill’s excellent reprisal is enough though. The result of the movie’s encompassing failures, punctuated by a meaningless prologue, is a confused mess of an animated movie that will alienate both fan and newcomer to this classic novella alike. They’d be better off leaving this well alone and just sticking to the source - a practice that seems to be prudent, given DC’s continued failure to give its universe the big-screen kudos it’s due. Direction-less and regularly lifeless, this animated version of Batman: The Killing Joke might at least elicit the kind of laughter expected from the literal meaning of its subtitle. Unfortunately, that’s also the very opposite kind of reaction that it’s earnestly trying to evoke for itself.