Batman: The Killing Joke is not an enjoyable read. It’s about as brutal and as unsettling as a comic can get. But it’s also incredibly thought-provoking, which is why it’s remained one of the most iconic Batman stories for nearly 30 years.
Following its lead, DC’s animated adaptation of the classic comic is not an enjoyable viewing. However, the reasons for this aren’t quite the same as the reasons for why the comic isn’t an enjoyable read. When the movie is approaching its midway point, and begins what turns out to be a very faithful adaption of the comic’s story, it’s just as grim, yet just as profound as its source material.
What comes before that isn’t profound in the least, and it’s destined to go down as one of the most divisive subplots in DC’s history. In order to fill the common running time of 70+ minutes for one of DC’s animated films, The Killing Joke adds a prologue that gives us a deeper look into Barbara Gordon during her time as Batgirl.
It attempts to make the audience connect with Barbara, who, in the comic, is pretty much a plot device. Rather than show up to just be DC’s most infamous victim, Barbara is given time to kick some butt and develop her relationship with the esteemed crime-fighter mentoring her. This prologue also seems to exist to add further motivation for Batman to take down the Joker following the villain’s sadistic assault on Barbara.
If all it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy, then The Killing Joke movie proves that all it takes is one bad sex scene to reduce one of the greatest comic narratives ever to cheesy romantic drama.
Don’t take that literally. The implied sexual encounter between Barbara and Batman in this film isn’t the one and only moment bringing down its opening act, but the scene is certainly where it unravels.
For a lot of fans, the mere pairing will be difficult—if not, uncomfortable—to comprehend, seeing as how Barbara is often viewed as being in Robin and Nightwing’s age range. She and Batman have traditionally felt more like a father/daughter or older brother/younger sister pairing than as peers. This translates to the movie, where Batman is very obviously the mentor and her superior. He seems to have a paternal connection to Barbara.
So, while Barbara strongly suggests a romantic interest in him from the start, Batman never implies anything of the sort for her. This makes their spontaneous sexual encounter feel all the more forced; Batman just succumbs to his baser instincts without any context.
The fallout from this sexual encounter is where things become truly sigh-inducing for the audience. Batman’s composure crumbles under the shame for his actions, forcing him to distance himself from Barbara. He’s so preoccupied by it that he easily falls prey to bunch of a low-level thugs, where Barbara bails him out.
Too bad that’s one of the few times where Barbara feels empowering. Before that, she comes across as a jilted, clingy, love-struck highschooler when Batman rebuffs her. In her outrage, she attempts to downplay their sexual encounter with a thoroughly-clichéd discourse, but she only feels juvenile for it. In a moment that the creators of the movie clearly intended to be tense and filled with high emotions, the theater that I watched the movie in laughed as Barbara tried in vain to rationalize her and Batman’s night of passion.
It’s really quite amazing that, about ten or fifteen minutes later, you’ll swear that a whole new movie has started. Once the prologue focusing on Barbara concludes, The Killing Joke begins telling the story as seen in the comic, and it seriously feels like it’s the second in a pair of episodes for a Batman television show.
Whereas the prologue is woefully mishandled, the actual adaption of The Killing Joke narrative is just about perfect, right down to the brilliantly-ambiguous ending where the audience is left wondering whether Batman has chosen to take Joker in “by the book”, as Commissioner Gordon orders, or if he’s finally made the Joker pay for his atrocities.
Batman is immediately thrust into the spotlight by the midway point, and the young-adult drama is hurled out of the way as a shadow falls over the story. The tone quickly becomes just as grim as what’s laid out on the pages of the comic once we learn that the Joker has once again escaped Arkham Asylum and is plotting his most horrible act of crime yet. To describe the feeling of dread that the film conjures as pervasive doesn’t do it justice.
Some may argue if the film truly earns the R-rating, but I think it comes darn close, simply for the Joker’s infamous attack on Barbara. His and his lackeys’ home invasion on the Gordon household is unnerving to behold; the same goes for the sequence of psychological torture that he inflicts on Commissioner Gordon, who is forced to look at a twisted gallery of an injured, incapacitated, and violated Barbara. It was gruesome in the comic, and it’s gruesome on screen.
Thank goodness Mark Hamill is able to provide the entertainment value with his stupendous voice work. The man utters the Clown Prince of Crime’s words of insanity better than anyone else on the planet, and he delivers maybe his best voice work yet with what many would say is the Joker’s landmark story. He dials it up while the Joker carries out his grisly plan of action, but he also feels genuinely insecure, hopeless, and sympathetic in flashbacks showing the failing comedian and husband who would eventually become the Joker after a tragic accident.
Joining Hamill is Kevin Conroy, who puts on a fearsome performance in his return as the caped crusader. His words are sharp and biting, his voice rasping with each threat and rebuttal that he throws at the Joker. Tara Strong also successfully reclaims her role as Barbara Gordon from previous Batman work. It’s a shame that her character’s dialogue isn’t anywhere near the quality of Batman’s or the Joker’s.
The animation is fluid while things are in motion, although the characters and their faces are still a little too blocky, as has been typical in Western animation and more than a few of DC’s animated movies. For a story of this tone, greater realism in the imagery—such as what was found in the film Batman: Assault on Arkham—would have been more appropriate.
FINAL SCORE – 6.5/10
+ Faithfully and effectively adapts the brutal, but profound story found on the pages of the comic (once the film gets there)
+ Fantastic voice work from every actor involved
+ Crisp animation for the moving parts on screen
— The opening 25 minutes or so are a complete misfire to inject more narrative heft
— Even with additional screen time, Barbara Gordon doesn’t get a chance to appear very empowering
Jeff Pawlak is the animation buff on The Geekiverse, so it probably was fated that he’s more of a DC guy than a Marvel guy. He’s adored DC’s run of animated films over the years, particularly enjoying such standouts like Wonder Woman, Batman: Assault on Arkham, and Justice League vs. Teen Titans. You can find him on Twitter @JeffreyPavs where he’ll be talking about DC’s future animated movies as they continue being released.
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