DC has finally done it; they’ve created animated films for Batman Year One, The Dark Knight Returns and now one of the last classic Batman stories: The Killing Joke. I break down what it did right and wrong and come up with a final score after seeing it in theaters.
Batman: The Killing Joke (Warner Brothers Animation)
So what’s this movie about? The official movie summary reads:
To prove that one bad day can make any man as insane as he is, the Joker wages a psychological war on Batman that catches Commissioner Gordon and his daughter in the crippling crossfire and leaves scars on the Dark Knight that even time won’t heal.
Why does this movie matter?
Mark Hamill is back as the Joker (after saying Batman: Arkham Asylum was it for him), Kevin Conroy is back as Batman, and one of the most important Batman stories is put to screen. Why is it important? Some argue the version of the Joker in the original graphic novel dictated how he’d be written from then on. He’s sadistic, ruthless, and completely insane, which is a version of Joker we haven’t really seen in the animated movie front.
Fine, you have my attention. What did it do right?
It certainly makes you laugh (sometimes not on purpose) and that includes scenes with Batman and Batgirl. Frankly, I was surprised there was as much humor in the film considering its R rating. Writer Brian Azzarello does a good job keeping things light enough to be entertaining but balanced with just enough of the serious stuff too. That being said…
Batman doesn’t find it funny…yet.
It positively takes advantage of the R rating. People get shot in the head, lots of closeups of Batgirl’s breasts and butt are shown off (probably for the worse as it makes the film seem like it’s for horny teenagers at times) and sexual themes are dropped here and there too. Everything in the Killing Joke graphic novel is on display too (although the comic did have full butt shots of Barb and this does not). Most importantly, the incredibly iconic scene of Barbara getting shot is practically frame by frame exactly the same and they certainly don’t hold back. There’s something about a prone victim twitching that adds a whole new level of disturbing to the visuals. The creators also do a fantastic job with the more adult nature of the closing third in Joker’s amusement park.
But not as graphic as the comic.
Joker’s flashbacks work and it is in large part due to Mark Hamill’s great performance. When Joker is on screen he sounds exactly as he does in Batman: The Animated Series, but when we see the flashbacks Hamill infuses a bit more humanity in the character. He sounds, well, normal, and yet still somewhat Joker-ish too. You can tell he spent some time getting the voice to a point where one could compare the pre-Joker voice to the Joker voice and hear how Joker’s voice is a mental breakdown with a laugh. That adds some much needed complexity to the film.
Flashbacks of the Joker worked in large part due to the voice acting of Mark Hamill.
Harley Quinn shows up and yes, I know she wasn’t in the original. In a scene where Batman is looking at photos of the Joker, we see an image at the corner very briefly of Joker and what looks like a kid version of Harley. The comic didn’t have anything like that in it of course since Harley wasn’t even invented yet, but it’s a neat little nod and makes you wonder if a potential sequel is possible.
The entire portion of the film devoted to adapting the graphic novel works. Some of it is a bit wonky from animation hiccups or lack of a bigger production value, but The Killing Joke is sometimes shot for shot accurate to the original work. Most importantly Joker comes off just as sadistic and sick as in the comic and it all ends beautifully between Batman and Joker.
Time to laugh!
What did it do wrong?
I saw this in the theater so maybe the living room experience is different, but the first 15 minutes or so are spent interviewing Mark Hamill. They spend a good 5 minutes just talking about Star Wars and it’s nothing new. While his ruminations on being the Joker (and even taking the job at all) were interesting, it felt like they were padding out the movie to be able to call it a movie.
The first 45 minutes or so feel like an extended episode of Batman: The Animated Series. Now some will love this, but it draws things out, makes you wonder if they’re ever going to get to Joker, and seems to all be there to thrust the sex of Batgirl down our throats. One might argue it’s also there to give Batman more reason to want to end Joker permanently, but we really didn’t need so many close ups of Batgirl’s butt and breasts. Because of this new section of the film, it runs on too long never getting to the meat of what made The Killing Joke. We want the Joker dammit!
Are they as bored as we are?
Batman comes off as a huge dick in the opening non-adapted material section. Instead of being a mentor to Batgirl or even showing her one ounce of respect he’s mean and unnecessarily short with her. Maybe that’s usual for them, but it just makes him look bad. The dialogue in these scenes is laughable too and so overly dramatic it’s a joke to think Batman would ever be so petty and childish. It further makes the sex scene even stupider since there’s not one iota of sexual tension between them (unless you count Batman’s jealousy over a bad guy giving Batgirl attention). They show us more of Batgirl’s POV in this section and therefore show more of her apparently considering her and Batman a thing, but it’s so one sided it rings false.
Prepare for a lot of Batgirl.
Much of the actual animation isn’t bad, but there are moments where you’re reminded this isn’t a big-budget animated film. Characters move a tad for instance, but then hold that position for a beat too long as if the budget didn’t have enough money to have them move about a bit more. It’s a bit of a step up from the animated TV show, but it’s not as far along as one might like.
There is somewhat of a new ending for the story that I won’t spoil, but is incredibly unnecessary. The film should have ended just as the graphic novel does, but instead the director thought it best to close it out differently, possibly due to all the time spent on Batgirl. Instead it just reminds us Batgirl’s scenes were misguided and did not work.
Batman: The Killing Joke is a drop in the bucket of many much better made animated films. Dark Knight Returns was far better in many ways (including Part 2) and it also held true to the source material much more. It’s obvious the new Batgirl opening was slapped on, not because they rushed it or forced it, but because it’s not integrated into the whole as well as it should have been. It’s hard to blame them though, considering any changes to the portion that’s actually an adaptation would have angered fans and potentially ruined the story.
Ultimately, this is worth a viewing if you thoroughly enjoy Hamill and Conroy’s voice acting and if you adore the Killing Joke graphic novel. Just don’t expect to remember or care about a single second of the opening Batgirl scenes and you’ll come away feeling fulfilled…enough.