The DC Animated Universe has been providing a lot of solid films to their library in recent years. They seem to lean heavily on Batman, which has its pros and cons, but given the mixed reaction to post-Nolan DC theatrical films, it has been nice to have at least one area that continues to deliver. Adapting Batman: The Killing Joke was always going to be a challenge. The controversial graphic novel is hailed as one of the best Batman/Joker stories ever, but the subject matter is certainly darker than the average Dark Knight tale. Sadly, despite good intentions involving changes and additions, the results feel poorly handled thematically and rushed visually.
The animated film had its premiere at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. While I was not able to attend that screening, word spread quickly in regards to certain things that took place in the film, as well as writer Brian Azzarello’s comments in the Q&A that followed. As many are away, The Killing Joke was a comic by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. It’s a creepy tale that examines the relationship between Batman and the Joker by way of making other key characters (Barbara and James Gordon) suffer. Barbara, in particular, suffers heavily, which has been the main source of this story’s controversy.
With that in mind, this animated adaptation features a whole 20-minute prologue focused entirely on Barbara Gordon aka Batgirl (voiced by Tara Strong). Azzarello, a talented comic author in his own right, took the task of adapting the screenplay for this feature as well as writing this section. The idea of providing a separate Batgirl story to help pad the running time as well as give her some perspective makes sense, it’s just the resulting story that feels inherently flawed.
Rather than tell a good story to let viewers know how awesome Batgirl was in an effort to increase the level of sadness that comes later on, the choice was made to tell a different story. For the purposes of this film, we have to watch Batgirl become emotionally manipulated by a criminal toying with her, while she deals with her crush on Batman. There’s also a tipping point concerning the mentor/mentee relationship, which is not the worst decision, but one that certainly has an adverse effect in the proceeding story.
Once this section of the film ends, The Killing Joke begins and things become a lot more familiar for comic fans. The iconic voices for these characters, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, return and we witness a story surrounding Batman’s search for the Joker, who recently escaped from Arkham Asylum (again). This is no ordinary escape though, as we see the Joker go to brutal lengths in an effort to prove a point. The story also contains flashbacks to a previous time that depicts an origin for the Joker of sorts (he even states how ambiguous he believes his own beginnings to be).
There are a number of issues with how this all plays out. The film is certainly faithful enough to the basic parts of the story, with certain passages of dialogue lifted verbatim. However, part of what makes The Killing Joke so effective as a graphic novel is the artwork by Bolland. Previous DC animated films have struggled in how to best capture the look of the original work, while others play well enough. This film really lacks in delivering a great look for a film that requires a very specific atmosphere.
Making matters worse is the quality of animation. The whole design feels stiff and only partially done, as if the producers were in a rush to push this one out. That is quite a shame, given the excitement that comes from adapting this story in particular. Between bad lip-synching and a lack of effort to truly nail the art design, The Killing Joke misses out on being more effective just from a visual standpoint.
The story can go either way for the viewer. Having to brutally harm Batgirl in an effort to tell a story about two men has its share of issues that have been present since the story’s publication in 1988. Not helping is the newly implied dynamic between Batman and Batgirl, established by the prologue. Still, one can’t deny the power felt by a Joker who truly goes too far and hearing what he has to say, as well as how Batman eventually responds.
Hamill certainly relishes the opportunity to be a part of this project, as his dream has been to voice the character once again, were this story ever to be adapted. He has quite a few roles to play too, given his work as voicing the character, singing and altering his voice for the sake of the flashbacks. For all the problems with the character, Strong also does quite well here. Honestly, it is Conroy who seems to come up short. While I tend to read Batman comics with his voice in my head and can appreciate hearing him once again, it seems as if his heart is not really in it this time around. Some could argue it is the nature of the story, but even in the prologue, things feel half-hearted.
Along with the passages featuring Moore’s writing that shine, there is a strong orchestral score that is worth noting. Especially towards the climax of the film, you can really get a sense that a lot of great effort was put in to making the sound really come alive. Given how the theatrical screening of the film was followed by a look at the making of the film’s music, it is not too much of a surprise to find it to be one of the film’s highlights.
Given how this animated outlet has been much more praiseworthy than the recent batch of live-action DC superhero movies, it is a shame that one of the seminal stories was so mishandled. Between the misguided treatment of Batgirl and the decision to seemingly rush the whole process, Batman: The Killing Joke feels far more like a forgettable trade than a classic graphic novel. It’s great to hear Hamill as the Joker once again, but it could have been combined with a better take on this tale.