The Killing Joke
Based on the 1988 Prestige Format Comic by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
Directed by Sam Liu
Produced by Bruce Timm, Alan Burnette, Sam Register
Adapted by Brian Azzarello
Staring Mark Hamill, Kevin Conroy, Tara Strong, Ray Wise and Maury Sterling.
Batman:The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland is a contentious and venerated work. One that coupled with The Dark Knight Returns and the work of Denny O’Neil helped to refocus Batman and return him to his darker roots after the Silver Age and Adam West series had made Batman considerably more campy to outright absurd. The comic is considered a masterwork, a turning point for mature storytelling in comics (along with Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Millers The Dark Knight Returns ) and is noted for giving complexity to the Joker and Batman’s relationship as well as unveiling the most beloved account of the Jokers possible past. It is a tight, dark, complex, unrelenting and surprisingly human tale.
Given its status its been a consideration in many of the adaptations of Batman since in came out in 1988 and despite its renown it had never manage to be fully adapted. So when it was announced that it would be adapted by Warner Bros. Animation, and would reunite many of the talents behind the acclaimed Batman the Animated Series along with a limited theatrical release; hopes were quite high.
The killing Joke is a tight and brisk story that accomplishes quite a bit in a mere 48 pages. As such Bruce Timm, a producer on the film and a driving force behind most of DC comics animation for the last 25 years, announced that the story would be expanded and feature a prologue focusing on Barbra Gordon the original Batgirl. Aside from expanding the run time Timm hoped this would both increase the impact of what happens to Batgirl as well as alleviate the accusations of misogyny that have hounded the work for some time now.
The Prologue opens with Batgirl narrating, telling the audience that she knows that this is not how they expected the story to start but that she wanted them to understand how things were before. The story is set about a week before the events of The Killing Joke and focuses on Batgirl’s frustration with her relationship with Batman and her dealings with one Paris Franz. After a initial encounter, Franz becomes rather obsessed with Batgirl and attempts to bait her into a game of cat and mouse as he attempts a coup against his crime boss uncle Francesco. Due to Franz’s stalker like attitude and fascination with batgirl Batman repeatedly warns her to not get involved with a criminal who has a personal obsession. And his unilateral commands become more and more vexing for Batgirl who disregards his orders leading him to attempt to remove her entirely for the case. While this unfolds there are glimpses into Batgirl’s personal life by way of conversations with a coworker at her job at the Gotham library. In these talks they discus her relationship with Batman though the pretense that he is her yoga instructor and she his best student. While Franz is the antagonist and creates conflict the real focus is Batgirl’s confused feelings for Batman and her attempts to stop Franz just serve to highlight that aspect of the story.
This section of the film has received sharp criticism due to the way the Batgirl Batman tension arc plays out. After Batman removers her from the Franz case Batgirl becomes incensed leading to a argument and then physical fight which in a oh-so superhero fashion leads to a awkward sexual encounter. In a lot of ways the scene reminds me of the much maligned Batman Black Canary sex scene from Allstar Batman.
Really its amazing that the people behind this (Brian Azzarello as writer and Bruce Timm Producing) did not see how this would backfire. The wild fire of criticism began at a panel at San Diego comic con after a screening of the movie. After answering some questions, someone in the crowd asked that if Batgirl was such a strong character why did her story focus on the men in her life. Azzarello answered saying Batgirl was “stronger than the men in her life in this story….She controls the men in her life in this story,”. At which point a person in the crowd allegedly a reporter for Bleeding Cool.com yelled ” Yeah, by using sex and then pining for Bruce.”. To which Azzarello so eloquently responded “Wanna say that again? Pussy?”. After that exchange Azzarello and Timm took more time to elaborate on their reasoning. But this incident set the ball of criticism rolling fast. After the movie premiered it was called sexist by multiple sites, a Disaster by Io9, and said by The Verg to renew backlash against DC who has had a fair amount of controversies in recent years regarding its treatment of women.
For its part I do not think the outrage is entirely justified at least not in degree or the angle many have focused on. While I dislike the choice they made in having Batman and Batgirl have sex. I do not think that alone is enough to say that they objectified her or that the prologue part of the film was completely awful. Granted the film does indulge in shots where the “camera” pans up Barbra’s butt then breasts while jogging. And the way she reacts after is less than pleasant and her taking her frustrations out on some random dude arguing with his girlfriend doesn’t paint her in a positive light. But withing the story her encounter with Batman is portrayed as a problem for both of them. It did not strike me as her using sex to get her way or simply being a object of fantasy. And honestly taken as a separate entity the Batgirl prologue is a enjoyable short story. In some ways it seems like a refined (if imperfect) episode of the Batman the Animated Series, unrestrained by rating guidelines and able to tell a story without commercial breaks and cliffhangers.
The issue it does raise is how it affects the plot of the film as a whole. It is a odd choice to take a established story like The Killing Joke that exists within a certain continuity and introduce such a large change. They wanted to expand Batgirl’s role as in the original work she had a relatively small part. In the comic medium you have emotional attachment and knowledge of the character based on the previous works. They reasoned that this would not work for film thus the prologue. But in creating such a story they effected the The Killing Joke. Where before Batman had a friendship with Commissioner Gordon and a mentor additional father figure to Barbra Gordon/Batgirl. Now when the events of The Killing Joke occur she is more than a onetime ally and friend but someone he has a possible romantic attraction to and strong recent regrets. Its a unnecessary and awkward change that shifts the focus of the narrative a bit.
The Killing Joke
In terms of plot the animated version of The Killing Joke follows the original prestige format comic fairly closely. There is filler in there, elements only shown in wordless montage are expanded into full scenes and there are a few additional scenes. Because of the general faithfulness of the adaptation the strengths of the original work are the strengths of the feature.
It is a dark and personal tale that somehow manages to show the Joker at his most brutal and monstrous and at the same time his most sympathetic and human. The story gives us the Joker working to show Batman that anyone can be brought to his level by “one bad day”, that the line line between them is inconsequential and that in the end there is a absurdity in Batman’s moral pretension. He aims to do this by subjecting Grodon to some pretty extreme psychological horror to drive him mad. And Gordon’s daughter and Batman’s former partner Barbra Gordon is a periphery aspect in his plan. Through flashbacks we see the man the Joker once was (though Joker admits it may not be right) a stand up comedian struggling to provide for a pregnant wife. We see how he became the Joker as the unfortunate decisions and tragedy of one day change his life forever.
The story handles Joker’s character and progression very well and Mark Hamill’s performance is masterful. He manages effective restraint during Jokers introspective moments, is sympathetic and believable during the flashbacks and manages to enhance the narratives frightening brutality with his performance. He even sings well.
Like Hamill Kevin Conroy reprises his role from Batman the Animated Series. And like Hamill delivers a great performance. Watching the Batgirl prologue I was bit worried as his voice sounded off, as though his age had perhaps affected his ability to do Batman’s iconic voice. But in The Killing Joke he does a great job particularly in the more personal and weary moments.
After first reading The Killing Joke I felt that it may have been the best portrayal of Batman I had read or watched. Here as in the comic he is not presented as a angry, implacable inhuman force of dark coolness. But rather Batman is a man who after years of hard work, hatred and suffering fears where the Joker and his dynamic will take them. He shows a maturity rarely seen in the character and he truly wants to help the Joker for both their sakes. In this story he feel more like a person, more authentic than just about ever and it works brilliantly.
And really that is the greatest strength of the narrative. Yes its dark, and shocking and the brutal treatment of both the Gordons is horrific and adds to the story in terms of stakes and verisimilitude. In the end though its the strengths of how the relationship between the Joker and Batman is framed, how we see them both at their most human and genuine.
For all its strengths and all the places it works the movie is not without flaw. By necessity of the briefness of the original work and the fact the people on the project didn’t want to release it as a short akin to Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam the plot is expanded in places beyond the prologue. Some scenes work even if they change the flow of the original story. There is a scene with Harvey Bullock showing Batman a recently discovered but several years old crime scene. The way the scene is handled coupled with the haunting music very effective. Sadly not all the changes work so well.
Another issue is a scene in which Batman is talking to some prostitutes asking about Jokers whereabouts and one of them mentions that he usually comes around to them right away after breaking out and maybe he got a new girl. This may seem small but in the context of what happens to Barbra Gordon it seems to imply that the Joker raped her. Something that has been a common misconception with the original comic even years after Alan Moore said that was not the case. Bruce Timm did address this after the controversy hit saying that that was not the intention. But given that the writer is Brian Azzarello and his history I really wonder.
There are other small issues. An oddity within the film is that for all the talk of how they needed more time they cut dialogue. Some of which like Bullock telling Batman about the Joker taking pictures actually changes the scene a bit. There are also subtle references to the animated series (like the laughing fish) that coupled with the visuals, voice cast and developments in the Batgirl Prologue may make some wonder if this was in some self indulgent way meant to be folded into The Animated Series continuity. The music while mostly fantastic is a bit too much during a couple of the flashbacks. The animation is iffy, particularly glaring is how the Joker looks vs the circus performers during his song and dance bit. And the additional kangaroo court scene doesn’t really fit with the Jokers plan and sort of slows down what happening. But while some worse than others these don’t do too much compared to the bigger issues.
The film has Issues some of them quite substantial. But When it works it works very well, the strength and effectiveness of the original story coupled with some good directing, creepy music and the fantastic performances makes for a mostly enjoyable experience. In the end like the comic it delivers a grim, intense and deeply personal tragic story.