If you’re a Batman enthusiast in any way, then you’ve most likely heard of The Killing Joke, Alan Moore’s graphic novel classic that gave the Joker his most iconic and beloved story. Lauded to an unimaginable degree for its brilliant writing and characterisations, it became a cornerstone for the Joker character and the Batman universe as a whole. A film adaption has been heavily clambered for by fans and now it’s here in animated form, so is it worthy of carrying such a prestigious title or is it in itself a joke?
Firstly, the film starts off with an added half hour prologue about Batgirl (Barbara Gordon), which is not in the original, and to be honest, it’s just awful. The attempt to give Batgirl more character and independence to make her a strong female character couldn’t have fallen harder on its face. Batgirl is portrayed as emotionally unstable, with her newly introduced romantic interest in Batman driving her down massively. A schoolgirl crush would have been fine as a sort of admiration, but this goes beyond a crush as she eventually forces herself on him.
Spoiler or not, you cannot discuss the film without bringing up the disastrous prologue, it destroys the film from its foundations. I could go on and on (and if you’ve had a conversation with me since I saw the film you’d know how long I can go on for) but we’ll leave it at it being a pointless half hour that dragged the film down into a fiery pit from which it’s almost impossible to escape. As for Batgirl, anyone familiar with the book knows she’s just a plot device. Her half hour backstory is not all that relevant, considering she gets shot and becomes paralysed very early on in the book, meaning her role isn’t actually expanded further in any way. It’s clear it was done in attempt to make her more than a plot device, and into someone Batman can more believably care about, but it only highlights further how little she has to do to the overall story. Let’s not forget it’s the Joker’s story we came to see, not hers.
It’s the Joker’s story, and after 40 minutes he finally appears on screen, and the story we came to see starts. However, while the story is welcome it’s albeit a bit disappointing. Mark Hamill returns from the animated series and Arkham games, providing the definitive Joker voice and the definitive Joker story; a match made in heaven surely, and yes, in a way it kind of is, but this isn’t Hamill’s best performance as the clown prince of crime. While it’s a still very good performance, but it’s let down by weak directing and, in all honesty, unreachable expectations. Some lines aren’t delivered in the strange tones that we have come to associate with the Joker, for example his famous line,” why aren’t you laughing?” is delivered angrily, whereas in the book it comes across as sad, melancholic and confused. The book’s interpretation is far more powerful and conveys the character’s struggles much better. For the most part however, Hamill delivers but little slips keep the performance from being his best. The voice work isn’t great or even noteworthy for anyone else, which is surprising given the talent involved including Kevin Conroy returning as Batman. However, unfortunately everyone, apart from Hamill, comes across as giving the bare minimum.
Pacing is a minor yet still present issue, where some monologues and scenes stretch out a bit. A problem when doing a straight adaption is what works on print won’t always work on film. The animation is also a bit stiff and choppy in places. DC’s animated films usually go straight to DVD, but the popularity and demand for The Killing Joke prompted it a short time release in cinemas, but it just doesn’t stand up. There’s no in film justification as to why this was released in cinemas.
The Killing Joke is a quieter story. Very rarely is there any action, and the drama and emotional weight aims to carry the film and help give depth and complex intrigue to the scenes. Unfortunately, those scenes don’t come across so well on film, mostly due to the weak directing aforementioned, and but also due to the action filled Batgirl prologue. The stakes of the actual story then feel lacking, proving yet another way the prologue pulls the carpet from under itself.
The finale seems rushed also. Joker’s goal is to give Commissioner Gordon the worst day of his life and prove it only takes one bad day to snap as he did. The third act rushes through everything and paints Batman in the clear perfect light despite all his weak counter arguments to Joker’s excellent points. Furthermore, without spoiling it, the ambiguous ending in the book which is also a major discussion element of the story, is removed, and the ending comes across as more confusing and sudden than anything.
To give some praise, mostly when it adapts the actual story, it does work. Panels are recreated perfectly and certain scenes are great, particularly ones centered on Joker and when he’s conversing with Batman.
In the end though, The Killing Joke is a massive disappointment. Weak directing, original writing and the atrocious prologue bring down one of the greatest comic book stories, and it’s a real shame. If you want to see a Joker of this vain on screen, you already can, it’s called The Dark Knight and it’s pretty alright.