Alan Moore’s ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’ is a culturally important piece of work. I don’t say this simply as a fan of the graphic novel but it shaped the eternal symbiotic relationship we know between Batman and The Joker. More than a simple story of hero vs. villain, the moral complications of two men forever in a battle to prove their own outlook on the world is the correct one, however, the true beauty of this relationship is that while being polar opposites, they are one in the same, each was formed through the horrific random events of ‘one bad day’, ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’ explores this.
When I heard that they were going to FINALLY adapt ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’ using the ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ voice cast and involving Bruce Timm who was one of the lead designers on the series, I was ecstatic. Any Batman fan will tell you that the best voices, hell, the best portrayals of these characters were brought to life through the vocal talents of Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as The Joker, both having owned these roles for over twenty years and still counting. Tara Strong also reprises her role as Barbara Gordon and she is now ironically the voice for Harley Quinn. Having grown up with the comics, the films and of course, the animated series which is without a doubt the best adaptation of comic source material in existence (sorry, not sorry), I thoroughly urge you to check it out if you haven’t already, my favourite episode being ‘Mad Love’, I can assure you that no one does it like these guys. Whenever I read a graphic novel, I hear the aggressiveness of Kevin Conroy’s Batman and the whimsical madness of Mark Hamill’s Joker, no one else could have played these characters in this tale. I’d also like to note that this adaptation is based on the recoloured version of The Killing Joke as the original colouring of the story was for lack of a better term, trippy as hell, if you’re a big fan of that original colouring style, I’d suggest just dropping a tab of acid or two before watching and you’ll probably get the same effect.
I saw ’Batman: The Killing Joke’ at a one night only showing in the Vue cinema at Glasgow Fort surrounded by peers of fans and enthusiasts, without skipping ahead in the review, the exhausted silent intake of the audience during the final moments of the film while the rain hit against the carnival soil and Batman’s ambiguous laughter echoed into the Gotham sky was something I’ll remember for a long time.
We open with Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) narrating the words “First of all, I realise this is not probably how you thought the story would start…” and she’s right. The graphic novel runs at about 48 pages. If we take the old screenwriting rule of ‘one page equating to one minute of screen time’ then this proves to be too short for a feature film, being classified as a short film. Instead to try and strengthen the blow of the events of the adaptation segment, the creators have introduced a prologue with Barbara Gordon struggling to balance her life as a vigilante and a regular young adult. It’s a short thirty minute segment which explores her relationship with Batman and a rising criminal who has an obsession with her, sort of mirroring Batman’s relationship with The Joker which he even references at one point. The biggest problem that I, and others, have with this segment is that they hyper sexualise Barbara Gordon. One of the biggest controversies with The Killing Joke is the implied sexual assault of Barbara’s character when she’s attacked by The Joker, (although I only think of The Joker as being asexual as well as many others, a discussion to come later on). I think we really could have gone without Bab’s having a sassy gay friend (as funny as it was at first) and moping around on rooftops because the guy she fucked won’t call her back, I’ll just look to my own life if I ever want that.
Without giving too much away, the thirty minute prologue while having good intentions initially to draw out a character which only appears quite briefly in the source material, can really be missed and doesn’t affect the source material at all. It would’ve been a lot more interesting to see Barbara fight against ‘the abyss’ through other catalysts other than boy troubles.
Now, the actual adaptation of The Killing Joke is what we came for and I am very happy with how they handled it. Although the animation style is nowhere near as incredible as Brian Bolland’s artwork on the graphic novel, the creators themselves have admitted it would be an absolute nightmare and near impossible to animate, so instead, we have a sort of more refined version of ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ which I thought was very fitting, considering the voice cast had returned.
Hearing the definitive voice (and actor, personally) of The Joker recite those iconic lines (“…madness is the emergency exit.”) is what all Batfans have been waiting to hear since 1992, Hamill delivers what is arguably his best performance yet, a truly frightening and evil Joker who just shows us why he’s the greatest villain of all time, your faves could never. Kevin Conroy also delivers a great performance as Batman, I wouldn’t say its his best but Batman isn’t given much meat in this story as is strictly is a Joker led tale with most of the charisma gifted to him.
The story of The Killing Joke is a sort of origin story for the ‘Clown Prince of Crime’, a struggling comedian who snaps one day when his wife is killed in a freak accident and his skin is permanently bleached white and his hair dyed green after an encounter with Batman at the Ace Chemicals Factory (thankfully, they stuck to the source material by having Joker state that his origin is ambiguous, even to himself, he’s the ultimate unreliable narrator because each day he reinvents himself and his ‘reality’). Joker sets out to prove that everyone is just “One bad day” away from becoming what he is, assaulting Commissioner Gordon in his own home, crippling his daughter, kidnapping and stripping him down to his birthday suit before being paraded around in a carnival of horrors. Batman attempts to reach out, just once to The Joker; one last attempt to end their struggle because at the end of the day, one of them will end up killing the other. It’s the inevitable end to an eternal struggle.
One major problem I have with the film is how they’ve also sexualised Joker as well as Barbara Gordon; he’s strictly a character who has had little to no sexual motivation or intention when interacting with others (well, except for Batman). Sure we have Harley Quinn and it’s factual that they’ve shared a physical relationship (although we have to take this into consideration at the time the graphic novel was made, 1988, before Quinn’s first appearance, but she does make a very quick cameo on a computer screen in this adaptation). Batman interviews a couple of prostitutes who claim that Joker always comes calling to them after escaping from Arkham Asylum. This brings about serious questionable characterisation choices as the biggest controversy from the graphic novel is that some people believe that Joker rapes Barbara Gordon. Now look, before even getting into what I’m sure would be a glorified Tumblr war, Joker didn’t rape her in the source material, he sexually humiliated her JUST as he sexually humiliated her father by having him led around in a collar by a bunch of BDSM clad circus freaks. The Killing Joke EMPOWERED Barbara Gordon, she defeats Joker through morality by dealing with her ‘One bad day’ by becoming Oracle and giving us one of the most important character arcs in comic history as well as becoming a figure for victims of such attacks and those who are disabled to look up to. Yeah sure, Oracle isn’t in the graphic novel but the addition of her at the mid-credits sequence is one change I absolutely love.
This is the first Rated R Batman film, well, ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: Extended Edition’ is also Rated R but that is yet to be released on physical release, so I dunno, let’s call this the first Rated R theatrical Batman release and it really earns its rating. The graphic novel is notorious for how dark and unrelenting it is, luckily they didn’t pull back the horror, one particular added scene involving four of Joker’s victims has some of the most fucked up corpse animation you’ll see on an animated feature. THAT scene was delivered exactly how I hoped it would be and practically shot for shot like the graphic novel panels. I’m glad this was taken as seriously as they could, even the music score is that of a thriller film and performed by a live orchestra but I can’t help but feel that this film should’ve been given some more time and a better budget, it’s certainly the creative input that are the issues, not the talent.
All in all, with future viewings of this film, I’ll just skip to when The Killing Joke kicks off, it really should’ve been left as a 45 minute short animation experience. The old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” which luckily I can by optimistically skipping ahead to the very closely adapted source material. It’s a great adaptation but in all honesty, the graphic novel remains superior because of poor direction and creative additions. The voice cast absolutely kill it and I love this adaptation for this reason alone but the way they’ve handled the actual story itself is still fantastic, even the ambiguous ending is still present. The best way I can wrap this up is by recommending this adaptation to those who are already fans of the source material (watch out for some easter eggs in the Batcave), I can see how the disjointed flashback sequences can be a bit jarring in terms of structure for those who don’t know they’re coming but that’s also a directive input that could’ve been improved upon.
At the end of the day, we still get one of the best psychological explorations and vocalisation of one of fictions most complex and unknown villains, even after 75 years. That’s madness.
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