Batman: The Killing Joke is one of my favourite graphic novels. It’s one of the ultimate Batman Vs Joker tales; which is possible the greatest comic book rivalry that there’s ever been. It’s a story that takes these characters to places that they’ve never been before; it pushes them to the very edge. As Batman says ‘I don’t want either of us to end up killing the other… But we’re both running out of alternatives… and we both know it.’
It’s a surprise that nobody has adapted or used this tale as inspiration in the past but then again, as well as being one of the best, it’s also one of the most controversial main stream comic book stories that there’s been. So why turn this into an animation I hear you say? Aren’t animations for children? No, no they’re not, grown ups can and do like them too and The Killing Joke has a 15 age certificate, so no kids here.
If you haven’t seen or read The Killing Joke then I’d avert your eyes very shortly but before you go I’ll give you a short, two line, non-spoiler review of Batman’s latest animated outing. Batman: The Killing Joke is a really great, faithful adaptation of an incredibly tense, vibrant graphic novel that only benefits from the addition of motion, amazing voice acting and a great score. Although some changes from Batman canon may throw fans off, and there’s a few odd, slightly outdated points, it’s 100% worth a watch so you can form your own opinion.
Okay, so who’s still with me? SPOILERS hence forth, yee have been warned.
The Killing Joke reunites the powerhouses of voice acting of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and The Joker respectively. Both of them continue their fine form as these characters; in some ways these interpretations are the strongest that we’ve seen. Tara Strong also offers a solid performance returning as Batgirl. More on her to follow!
The film opens not as we would expect. The Killing Joke graphic novel has an incredible powerful, memorable and famous opening as Batman heads into Arkham Asylum to talk to the Joker. The following scenes offer up some of the best moments from Batman as he says that he believes one of them will end up killing the other. However this is very far away from how we open in the animated film. As the graphic novel is relatively small it’s no surprise that they were going to have to add more material to flesh it out into a feature film and this comes in the form of a Batgirl-centric prologue that explores her relationship with crime fighting, with Batman and with a new crime boss (Paris Franz) in Gotham, who’s got an incredible creepy fascination with her. For me there are moments within this segment that work well and some things that don’t’ work at all.
The overall intention of this prologue is to add depth and characterisation to Batgirl that she doesn’t really get in the graphic novel. The purpose is to really make you care for this character and understand the impact it will have when the Joker shoots her through the spine. It’s a really good idea and it definitely has its uses; however, at times you wonder who’s this for? Anyone who’s a big enough fan of Batman to come and watch an animation of this graphic novel, already has an invested interest in this universe and its characters. But I suppose, as filmmakers, you can’t take that for granted and it’s a smart move to add more to Barbra Gordon before that fateful incident.
The prologue even opens with a bit of a knowing wink to the audience as a voiceover from Batgirl tells us ‘I know this isn’t how you expected this to start.’ It’s interesting, because as we watch we’re waiting to see how this will lead into The Killing Joke as we know it and how it will impact that story. Yet apart from a bit of character development and adding (or changing depending on how you see it) to some character motivations, that I’ll discuss later, it doesn’t have a direct impact on The Killing Joke as such.
Overall it is, however, an enjoyable crime tale as a new crime boss in Gotham rises from his uncle’s shadow to take control. Batgirl, along with Batman, are obviously on the case. He starts to form an unhealthy obsession with Batgirl after she nearly thwarts him early on (FYI he’s a psycho). As their story develops we almost start to see a Batman/Joker dynamic between the two; Batman even hints at what going down that path can lead to and that it’s best for her is to get out while she can. Guess what? She doesn’t listen!
She continues to disobey Batman and go after him and she has a few very close shaves and is saved by Batman on more than one occasion. As a little standalone story goes, it’s one I really enjoyed; it had some interesting characters, a bit of detective work and some really good action. I don’t think many people will have a problem with this side of the prologue.
So what part will they have a problem with? Well in a bold move, the filmmakers have decided to play cupid with Batman and Batgirl which, to my knowledge, has never been suggested at before in the comics. Which if you think about it, is a bit of a surprise. Obviously what’s canon and which version we’re in, changes what the backstories or relationships are but, I’d argue that it could be completely reasonable for Batgirl to have a ‘thing’ for Batman and for him to have a ‘thing’ for her. Being the daughter of Commissioner Gordon, she’s probably heard stories about Batman’s heroism for many many years, so automatically she would admire him as a hero and a symbol of justice. Then once she becomes Batgirl and starts to train under him she would admire him as a mentor and this could lead to her having an unhealthy need to impress/please him. Likewise, I believe Batman would strongly admire her, he’s always liked Jim Gordon, and as his daughter, she will have similarities (not getting weird or anything) and allowing her to fight crime by his side shows that he trusts and admires her as much as she does him. Furthermore sharing that sort of secret and that life with someone could understandable lead to affectionate feelings; whether that’s right or wrong, messed up or whatever, that’s not for me to say but I think it’s quite an understandable progression and one that I, as a big Batman fan, don’t mind. It could make things a bit more interesting, add another layer and more complexity to these characters and to this story.
However, like another recent Batman adaptation, the execution of this idea mostly misses the mark. In some respects, Barbra comes across as quite a conflicted person who isn’t sure what she feels and if she should be feeling anything at all, in other parts she comes across as quite an immature winy ‘teenage’ girl. The former is good character development, the latter is very cliché and maybe it’s a little insulting to dilute this very strong female character to chasing after love with the older mentor. Unfortunately it’s the latter that wins out and sticks in the mind; especially as she confides in her gay best friend about her feelings for her ‘yoga’ instructor. It’s a real shame; something that could have offered real progression and character development just comes across as a bit sexist.
The oddest part of this ‘relationship’ comes, however, in the form of a rooftop sex scene between the pair. Odd I know. But then this is an animation for adults. It’s a pretty uncomfortable scene and even now, over a week after seeing it, I’m not sure how I feel about it. After having an argument about her safety and her leaving the case alone, things turn nasty as she attacks him and in slightly cringy Hollywood fashion, this turns into ‘love making’. I obviously wasn’t alone thinking it was a slightly odd addition as some audience members behind me laughed when this happened. We didn’t need them to have sex for them to have an emotional connection. It feels rushed, forced and unnecessary.
After this happens Batman then turns all ‘high-school jock’ on her and ignores her calls. She’s understandable embarrassed about what happens and wants things to go back to the way they were. Batman then gets himself into a bit of trouble with our crime boss (remember him?) and she’s forced to save him and, in a slightly savage display of violence, beats the crap out of him before realising she’s taking out some personal anger on him as Batman watches on judgingly.
Batgirl decides to call it a day as Batgirl. She’s just going to be Barbara from now on. Whether it’s this villain or her mistakes with Batman, she can’t be Batgirl at this moment in time. It’s an interesting decision and it’s one I think that works and one that informs and adds to The Killing Joke story that properly starts after this scene. As I say, some of it works and some of it doesn’t. It’s just a big shame that more of fails than works. If only they’d given it a bit more thought and moved away from some cliché’s and made both of them a bit more conflicted and confused as to what they were feeling it could have really worked.
On a side note on this section, there’s some very odd shot choices concerning Batgirl; a few too many lingering close ups on her as if we’re supposed to fancy an animated character. I’ve read a few articles on this, a lot of people are very unhappy about it, and I see their point, you don’t need to linger on certain areas of Batgirl as much as they do, but I do think for the character of Paris Franz to work, then you need to ‘see’ her as he does and so there is some (a very small amount) justification to this but it does feel quite forced as if it’s thrown in their for some weird sub-culture of weird, creepy comic book fans that can freeze frame those shots at home when they’re alone. Characters are often sexualised in comic books; I would argue both female and male characters are, so the design is in keeping with what has come before but it’s unnecessary to have so many close ups of her tight fitting outfit.
The prologue could have really worked if they’d taken a bit more care with their characterisation of Batgirl and attempted to create something a bit more complex than what we were eventually given.
So, we’re over 1500 words in (well done if you’re still here) and I’ve not really mentioned The Killing Joke, so let’s get into it!
As I mentioned in my two line review, it’s a really really strong, faithful adaptation of the graphic novel, it’s pretty much blow for blow, panel for panel, adaptation but that isn’t a problem (for me anyway). The graphic novel is so strong and such a great story that it doesn’t need changing. The whole thing is just enhanced by the fantastic work of the voice actors and the score and the animation and those powerful scenes between the Batman and the Joker have even more power and emotion as the lines are delievered by these iconic voices. Several reviewers have given The Killing Joke slightly negative reviews as it doesn’t make changes to the graphic novel. That’s the problem with adapting a whole graphic novel rather than just taking inspiration from it; people will be mad if you don’t change and people will be mad if you do. The curse of comic books. As I say, I didn’t have a problem with it sticking to the source material.
It’s an incredibly gripping, horrendously chilling tale that leaves you wondering where these characters will go from here, how far they are going to push each other and where will it all end?
The famous Joker flashbacks (when he’s pre-mental breakdown) are done beautifully. Stylised in sepia tones, you really get an idea of where the Joker came from and why he ended up the way he is, you’ll even feel sorry for him and Mark Hamill really nicely shifts his voice from the iconic Joker tone to a slightly toned down, mournful drawl of a man who’s at the edge. It’s one of the most interesting parts of the graphic novel as it gives a definitive backstory to the Clown Prince of Crime, and it works really well in the animated film. I would have liked a little more fleshing out of these scenes and his relationship with his wife and a bigger build up to him being on the brink of insanity but it still works well.
There isn’t much to say about it that hasn’t already been said; if you like The Killing Joke graphic novel then you’ll like The Killing Joke animated film (well at least the main segment) as it is that much of a faithful, blow for blow adaptation. Some may say, what’s the point in doing a direct adaptation, why not leave it as a graphic novel? And my answer would be when you have animators and actors as talented as these they need to be telling the very best of Batman’s stories; and The Killing Joke is definitely one of the best.
So how does the prologue impact the main story line? As I hinted at before, in terms of direct story arc, it doesn’t really, but it does add to character depths and motivations. We’ve seen Barbra Gordon be pushed to the edge and give up being Batgirl and then after all the dangers she’s faced while fighting crime it’s simply because she’s the commissioner’s daughter that she ends up paralysed. That does really make you feel and it’s a nice way to take the story. It also impacts Batman’s character motivations. In the comic he’s out to stop the Joker, save Gordon, and maybe get some vengeance for what the Joker did to Barbra. Now with the shift in the Batman/Batgirl relationship does it make it a strange ‘he hurt my woman so I’m going to get my revenge’ situation? It could be read that way but they don’t linger on it much and Batman’s motivations and drive seem to be very similar to the graphic novel.
So to round up (about bloody time right?); I liked the idea of adding complexity to Batman and Batgirls relationship, in places it could definitely have been handled better and I would have liked a more conjoining factor and more direct impact from the prologue to the main story; but that said I really enjoyed it and I’d highly recommend it to any Batman fan. The changes won’t be for everyone, we comic book fans can be very picky, but watch it for yourself and make your own mind up on whether it works for you or not. The film was nicely bookended with some history behind Mark Hamill’s progression as the Joker and an enjoyable, if not overly enlightening, talk with the films composers.
Batman: The Killing Joke is a fantastic story and that’s what shines through here, the filmmakers have taken the platform and story arcs that the graphic novel laid down and made a beautiful animation that carries real power and emotion, it’s a panel for panel adaptation and some people will have a problem with that, but if you want to see this graphic novel brought to life then give it a go!
What did you think of Batman: The Killing Joke? Did you like the Batgirl additons? Did you want them to make changes from the graphic novel? You can contact us on twitter @ReelFilm_Movies or me personally at @MJHall94! (No abuse please!)