Review: Batman: The Killing Joke – An underwhelming yet passable adaptation

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FULL, weeping spoilers ahead. Consider yourself warned.

IT’S FINALLY time, once again, for a graphic novel by Alan Moore to be adapted to film. Not that you’ll ever see the infamous curmudgeon’s name in the credits; Moore is among the few writers in comics who non-comic-reading cinephiles can readily recognise and discuss, even though he has cut his ties from Hollywood entirely and adaptations of his works are made with the blessing of the rights holders and by no means their author.

For the unfamiliar, eccentric bearded genius Alan Moore was the author of Watchmen, V For Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell, all of which have been adapted to film with varying levels of success. 2003’s League, which I saw in cinema at the age of 12 long before learning of Moore’s work or having much of a critical mind for movies, was one of the first films I remember consciously deciding was out-and-out shit from the very moment the credits rolled.

Book changes aside, I enjoy the film version of V For Vendetta on its own merits and Zack Snyder’s hyper-loyal adaptation of Watchmen at least got enough right to recommend a viewing – Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach is perfection! But Alan Moore is on record as essentially boycotting these films, having nothing to do with them and swearing to never watch or discuss them. The dude’s a bit of a detail-obsessed anarchist who rejects the prospect of millionaire-dom, so Hollywood is NOT his friend.

A couple of times in Moore’s storied career, he’s been allowed to put his mark on established characters and he, along with the likes of Frank Miller, kickstarted a dark, mature, artistically ambitious era of superhero comics. His sole contribution to the Batman mythos was 1988’s The Killing Joke, the novel which delved deep and dark into Batman’s opposite number The Joker and kicked the status-quo right in the face by paralysing Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon with a bullet to the spine.

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Moore doesn’t consider The Killing Joke among his best work (and has since somewhat disowned it), especially compared to the labyrinthine complexity and moral ambiguity present in his magnum opus Watchmen. And I’m inclined to agree – while The Killing Joke laid the groundwork for Heath Ledger’s darkest of all Jokers and was a bold and disturbing chapter in Batman’s long legacy, Moore’s words weren’t the stand-out feature. Judge Dredd artist Brian Bolland’s depiction of The Joker and the chaos he unleashes is historically terrifying and the haunting, distorted imagery of the book lingers long in the mind. The Joker has never been scarier.

For several years, since DC started bringing out animated adaptations of specific books using the art style of their nineties programmes, fans have been clamouring for a Killing Joke film. One particular champion was Mark Hamill, second-billed star of The Force Awakens (despite five seconds of screentime and no dialogue), who has vocally portrayed The Joker more than any other actor and is almost unanimously considered the definitive interpreter of the Clown Prince of Crime. Batman’s most esteemed voice actor Kevin Conroy also returned for this film, so the geek hype was real.

In a year when Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad have given us new, but divisive, live action versions of Batman and the Joker with A-List stars Ben Affleck and Jared Leto, the reunion of Conroy and Hamill in roles they’ve played on-and-off for a quarter-century was the bigger deal to Batman fans. Throw in omnipresent voice actress Tara Strong reprising her role as Batgirl and Twin Peaks star Ray Wise as her father Commissioner Gordon, and you’ve got a damn good cast to speak the famous lines of the book.

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The voice acting is indeed strong in the new film, and the art is consistent with producer Bruce Timm’s legendary work on Batman: The Animated Series, a show from the 90s which still holds up incredibly well. Unfortunately, as I stated before the dark, detailed and disarming artwork is what made The Killing Joke so damn impactful, and even with all the love I have for the animated Batman the sleek lines and solid colours don’t achieve the same effect.

Then there’s the biggest problem of the film… in order to stretch the short story to barely feature length, there was an extended prologue added to give Barbara a bigger role in the lead-up to her inevitable paralysis, and The Joker doesn’t even appear until the half-hour mark. Barbara’s storyline has some bonus cussing and bloody headshots to help earn that R-rating and attempts to tie into the Batman/Joker dynamic by creating a similar arch-villain for her to contend with. (And… ahem… for Batman to protect her from… warning: feminist baiting to follow.)

The disposable Act 1 villain they came up with was a handsome aspiring gangster nicknamed Paris Franz, who sees Batgirl as an object of semi-reciprocated lust rather than a threat. Lest we forget that the sexual exploitation of Barbara is already a controversial plot point in The Killing Joke, in which The Joker tries to torment her father into insanity using photographs of her naked, bleeding body.

This is after he’s already shot her, mind you. The film also adds an implication that The Joker forwent visiting the red light district after release because he had already found himself a girl to get his end away with… so… was Barbara raped by The Joker in this version? He has no other love interests present (the book predates Harley Quinn), so why else throw that in?

Oh yeah, and Batgirl fucks Batman.

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Yeah, Batgirl and Batman have sex in this, on a rooftop after she tries to fight him when he takes her off the Paris Franz case because she’s too personally involved. It comes out of nowhere, barely leads to anything, and it makes The Killing Joke a difficult film to defend before they even start The Killing Joke.

There’s a brief scene in the credits in which a wheelchair-bound Barbara begins to transition into Oracle, the information hub of Batman’s team for many years, but it’s too little too late. Making the first 30 minutes and last minute of this Joker story about Barbara was already an unusual risk, as there were infinite ways to integrate Barbara into the story and add weight to her devastating injury while keeping the focus on the central villain.

Once The Killing Joke finally begins, it’s a very loyal adaptation with much of the dialogue translated word-for-word and delivered well, but rather than use the moving image to enhance the still image, they are instead watered down and the most shocking panels fly past rather than sit festering in the mind. The ghost-train torture of Gordon should have been a haunting, whirling, maddening montage of horror, but instead the camera is kept at a safe distance and his face stays on-model and lineless. Sure, he’s having a bad day… but is this really Gordon’s mind-breaking “one bad day” as The Joker promises it will be?

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The Killing Joke shouldn’t be a difficult book to expand, because it’s so tightly written and could easily have been longer. We could have had more flashbacks of the Joker’s (alleged) life before he landed in the fateful vat of chemicals, more scenes of Barbara and her father independent of their crime-fighting careers, perhaps throw Robin or Harley Quinn in there, or give more backstory to the freak show minions following The Joker around. They had options to pad out the middle while keeping the strong beginning and ending where they belong.

The lukewarm reception of The Killing Joke film is sadly revolving around new elements which have nothing to do with Alan Moore’s revolutionary interpretation of The Joker and his “multiple-choice” backstory. Instead, they attempted to give Barbara more agency in a story where her primary role was as a victim, and failed to do that well.

There was clear effort and intent to stay loyal to the panels of Moore and Bolland’s classic work, so much so that the half-hour preceding it was treated with too little care and there’s a bad taste in the mouth by the time Batman marches into Arkham for the real story to begin.

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Lastly, I’m aware that the final scene of the comic has been debated and theorised about for years… but the film doesn’t clarify anything. The Joker tells the joke. Batman and The Joker laugh together, then Batman keeps laughing alone. Cut to black. Batman is still laughing. Make of it what you will. It feels abrupt and weird, as films cutting to black mid-scene often do, and there are no extra clues about what took place after the Joker stopped laughing.

Maybe the whole point of The Killing Joke was to prove The Joker right by giving Batman his “one bad day” and Batman snapping The Joker’s neck. Maybe Batman just really, really liked that joke and The Joker was just staring at him like, “Yeah, not that funny, bro”. We’re no closer to knowing.

If you want to see The Killing Joke onscreen, I recommend checking out the Motion Comics adaptation which uses Bolland’s original artwork before watching this passable but underwhelming animated version.

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