The 1986 story Batman: The Killing Joke is one of the more famous graphic novels in the history of The Caped Crusader. Written by comics legend Alan Moore and featuring iconic artwork by Brian Bolland, the story became a turning point for comics in many ways; it gave Joker a more sympathetic and tragic angle, cemented the ongoing struggle Batman has in terms of potentially murdering The Joker and set Barbara Gordon on the path that would make her The Oracle. Then again, the latter point is more an invention of other writers taking Moore’s controversial creative decision and making lemonade out of it. A choice that treats the maiming and humiliation of an important member of The Bat Family as a plot device. So, how would executive producer Bruce Timm – the man responsible for the 90s Batman: The Animated Series that introduced myself and an entire generation to Batman as a character – and his team address these controversies and adapt a comic as beloved as Batman: The Killing Joke?
Well… they did try. One can at least give them a gold star for trying to give Barbara Gordon a larger story so that her eventual assault at The Joker’s hand would mean something. But what does it do for this adaptation of Batman: The Killing Joke? Well, clearly it’s an excuse to pad out the run time for one. At 76 minutes (credits included), Batman: The Killing Joke barely stretches to feature length and the first third or so feels incredibly tacked on. Batman and Batgirl are trying to take down a budding criminal enterprise that has little to no impact on the overall plot. It’s pretty much forgotten by the time we finally start adapting the story proper. Even the villains who we waste time developing never return. Basically, we have a terrible episode of Batman: The Animated Series stitched at the top of the story everyone was waiting for. No exploration of Commissioner Gordon to strengthen Barbara’s relationship to him. No Joker side story that gives any sort of new context to his actions later on. Just… this horseshit, quite frankly.
Worse, it manages to take Bruce and especially Barbara out of character entirely with sudden dumb decisions that aren’t developed at all. Their actions are dangerous, hurtful and honestly gross considering their relationship up to this point. It’s an incredibly half assed attempt at a feminist storyline that only makes for reductive turns for both characters. They seem like petulant idiots with no real consistency. Instead of making the crippling of Barbara more impactful, it gives us even less emotional resonance for what takes place and gives Bruce a much less interesting motivation to go after The Joker. Batman: The Killing Joke originally didn’t have much of a progressive role for Barbara, an element that dates and slightly taints that comic. But… at least they didn’t completely destroy the relationship between her and Bruce.
Once we do get to its namesake, Batman: The Killing Joke does improve somewhat. Aside from a few minor new scenes that are either unnecessary or confusing, the rest of the proceedings are pretty close to the original story. The fact that veteran voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprise their roles as Batman and The Joker respectively from The Animated Series gives the proceedings much more weight and energy than they necessarily deserve in this context. The way they deliver this incredible dialogue gives a richer context to these character’s ongoing conflict, sounding like two old men who’ve been doing this for too long… but in a good way. Hamill in particular reminds us of why he’s one of the more in demand voice over talents with every nuance found in the varying shades of The Joker we see in flashback and the present. The rest of the cast are decent enough, if wasted like legendary voice actress Tara Strong as this lesser version of Batgirl or tremendous character actor Ray Wise as Commissioner Gordon.
Animation wise though, things feel rather flat. Obviously, they couldn’t animate the Brian Bolland art from Batman: The Killing Joke exactly. It’s a complicated style to replicate and put into motion at that. Yet, they couldn’t even attempt to emulate some of the curious angles or inherently cinematic elements of the comic panels. Worse, there are often clear animation short cuts throughout that feel far lesser than the average DC animated production, especially the washed out color and underwhelming background work. Previous Batman adaptations DC Animation has done like Batman: Under the Red Hood or Batman: Year One had a more consistent sense of style and wonderful flow to their animation, with the latter doing a rather solid job of recreating Frank Miller’s art. Here, the animation is so slapped together that some of the background characters have the repetitive animation rhythms of a late 1970s Hanna Barbara cartoon.
The problems of Batman: The Killing Joke really aren’t with the fact that things are changed. Adaptation by its very nature changes and evolves when translating a piece of work from one format to another. Plus, even with a story this beloved, there are things worth changing. After all, Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and the rest of his crew changed things for the sake of their animated television adaptations of DC works in the 1990s/2000s. Their work served as a gateway to these wonderful characters that can be seen just by the fact that Batman: The Animated Series original character Harley Quinn is one of the principle characters of the upcoming Suicide Squad. But, an adaptation needs to keep at the very least the basic spirit of the source material intact. In the minds of those behind Batman: The Killing Joke, “the spirit of the comic” merely meant “put some super edgy dark stuff in here.” Unfortunately, none of this comes off as edgy as much as it does petty, unremarkable and honestly offensive. Offensive to women, offensive to this story and offensive to much of any sense of taste.
Rating: 1.5 out of 5 Joker Titters
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