Going into my viewing of Batman: The Killing Joke, I was filled with apprehension as well as excitement. As a fan of the graphic novel it is based on (though the 2008 The Joker by Brian Azzarello is my favorite Joker tale), I’ve long felt that it is one of the more important stories in the Batman universe. Not just because it is well written and beautifully visualized, but because it reminds us of just how insane and horrible and criminal the Joker really is. He may be portrayed as charming and goofy and campy in some comics and cartoons and TV series, but he wouldn’t be Batman’s ultimate foil if he wasn’t truly a dangerous and unpredictable maniac. The Killing Joke reminds us, with a graphic act of violence against Barbara Gordon – done not because she is Batgirl and one of the heroes of Gotham, but because she happens to be someone’s daughter and can be used to prove a point – who and what the Joker really is.
I wanted to see the Joker portrayed in all his psychopathic glory. I wanted Batman to be morally conflicted about his relationship with the Joker. I wanted the animation to be slick and mature, and I wanted the tone to be dark and make me slightly uncomfortable. But going into the film, I knew this was a lot to ask for from it. Which is what left me excited but also apprehensive. And that may be what left me, not necessarily disappointed at the end, but also not entirely pleased with it.
By the way, while I don’t intend to give an entire play-by-play of the movie, I should probably warn those that have no previous knowledge of The Killing Joke that there will be some spoilers.
Animation and Voice Acting
Because it was the first thing I noticed, I’ll talk about the animation before anything else. What I expected was something along the lines of the Batman Gotham Knight anthology from 2008, or Assault on Arkham from 2014. What it reminded me of, however, was more like the half hour cartoons that air on television. I understand that Brian Bolland’s style from the original comic would have been difficult and probably cost-prohibitive and time-prohibitive to do. But I think a more mature style could have still been adopted. It threw me off several times from the story with just how cartoon-y the faces on the characters looked. The integration of 3D models during car chase scenes with the Batmobile also grated on me a bit. I have no problem with those kinds of elements being added into an animated feature. I just think they should be done with some finesse so they aren’t quite so obvious.
Now the voice acting, from Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy and Ray Wise, was absolutely excellent. I loved how you could tell even in the flashback scenes that pre-Joker was bordering on madness. The way Mark Hamill pitched his voice higher and higher in angry and not so angry excitement with his wife, gave a great glimpse into what he would soon after become. Kevin Conroy did an admirable job of keeping his Batman gruff but compassionate (though his laugh at the end was a bit awkward – though that could have been totally planned as Batman laughing does seem like it would sound awkward), and Ray Wise made his Commissioner Gordon emotional without becoming weak or hysterical. Even Tara Strong’s Barbara Gordon/Batgirl was well played, if a bit generic sounding. I prefer her as Harley Quinn, not just because that’s one of my favorite characters, but because the voice is so interesting and unique.
The second part of the movie is an incredibly faithful adaptation of the source material. While Batman questions his relationship with the Joker, and wonders where it will end and who will live through it, the Joker escapes from Arkham, attacks Barbara Gordon, kidnaps Commissioner Gordon, experiences flashbacks to his (possible) origin story, and tries to prove a very ugly point about what happens to people after one particularly bad day. It’s a sad, twisted, violent, dark story, but it is also an important one for the reasons I stated above. I know that some reviewers have been disturbed by the attack on Barbara and the sexually sadistic nature of it. But I didn’t think the focus stayed on the attack overly long, and I think it is an important element to remind us of just what a monster the Joker is. I had no issue with the second part of the film.
The first part, however, I wasn’t as onboard with. I like Batgirl and I don’t have a problem with her getting some time in the spotlight. I just didn’t feel like her moment should have happened here. The opening act with her voice-over and her main point of view felt like something that should have stood alone. Like it’s own episode of a series, and not the first act of a story ultimately about the Joker and Batman. Especially as, once her part is over, her character totally takes a backseat to the other characters. Gone is her voice-over, her point of view (mostly). She is attacked by the Joker not because she is Batgirl, but because she is the Commissioner’s daughter and she helps make a point. She is basically a tool for his plan. To have her be so central to the movie, and then so … not … is jarring. And to bring her back for an end credit scene, after the excellent ending between the Joker and Batman, is also jarring.
My Final Thoughts on Batman: The Killing Joke
I liked Batman: The Killing Joke, but I didn’t love it. The voices were excellent, the adaptation was faithful, and the dark elements from the comic were represented well in the film. But the animation was not as good as it could have been. It was flat in places and too cartoon-ish for the material it presented. The inclusion of scenes that were almost exact replicas of comic panels was interesting, but threw me off a bit with how well they were drawn compared to other scenes in the movie. I also felt like the Batgirl/Barbara Gordon stuff should have been its own story done elsewhere. It felt like it was added on to make the character look more important to the story or less like a tool of the Joker’s, but her importance in The Killing Joke is exactly that she is used as a tool by the Joker. And fans of the Batman series already know who she is and what happened to her and why she left Batgirl behind and became Oracle. That didn’t need to be included here. If filmmakers want to show her importance, they should give her a standalone feature of her very own. I’d watch that. It wasn’t fun to see her go through her emotional turmoil, realize that Batman would never see her as an equal, and that he really isn’t boyfriend material. But it was portrayed well. It just shouldn’t have been portrayed here.