Toon Review - Batman: The Killing Joke
Updated: Mar 12
It was destined for greatness…right off the bat. [Ugh…really??? – Ed.] Bruce Timm was executive producing. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill were reprising their iconic roles. Brian Azzarello was adapting one of Alan Moore’s most beloved stories and one of the two stories pointed to for the mid-80s redefinition of the Dark Knight himself.
So why is it that, after two viewings, I feel all so ‘meh’ about it?
Now, before we bring up the Bat-Fatigue, I’ll admit that I tend to put that on the back burner for the DC Universe animated projects. Sure, I get tired of how pretty much everything now is Batman Batman Batman. The upcoming Justice League Dark has the original team of Constantine, Zatanna, Swamp Thing, Deadman…and Batman, then they’re doing Teen Titans: The Judas Contract…finally…and I’m sure they’ll find a way to squeeze Batman in there…and then after that it’s a Batman and Harley Quinn animated feature. It’s kinda like DC animated projects are almost ACTIVELY giving me the finger!
Why don't we get back on topic. No, actually I was looking forward to this one. Again, it’s a seminal work. So how did it go off the rails? How was it destined for greatness only to fall to mediocre? Let’s take a look.
Let’s start with the story itself. The first thing you’ll notice with the graphic novel version of The Killing Joke is that it’s thin. Really thin. Anorexic French model thin. [Stoooop iiiiiit. – Ed.] That isn’t to say that the story itself is thin, very much the contrary, but in terms of strict page-count, yeah, thin. To adapt this into a 60-70 minute animated feature consistent with the remainder of the DC Universe line, the story was going to need padding, and, as mentioned above, you’ve got one of the better talents in current comics, Brian Azzarello, doing the padding…so it should be good, right? Well, mostly, it is. Azzarello takes the opportunity to spend the first half of the story on Batgirl, aka Barbara Gordon, before the events of the well-known story happen to her…allowing the audience to build up some emotional attachment to her. All in all, this segment gives us a good look at both Batgirl in her prime and at what traditionally happens to those that spend too much time as Batman’s protégé…they tend to leave in anger, because, let’s face it, the guy’s kind of a controlling dick. [As much as I want to make a comment about the first Robin here…naaaah. – Ed.] Actually, that’s not a bad segue, because it kinda leads to my problem with this. You see, Barbara’s chosen method of venting her frustration at Batman is to have sex with him on a rooftop. When I first heard about this, I really didn’t pay it much mind. And even now, I’m not really going to be too up in arms about it. After all, it was hinted at in an earlier Batman animated film, Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman…although that was back a little bit after the Animated Series had come to an end. But as I actually sat and watched this scene…well, it kinda stuck in my craw a bit. You see, in the comics proper, it’s been a long standing story thread that it was Dick Grayson and Barbara that had a thing…no Bruce in that picture. The two of them would always move on from another…and yet always come back to each other. To me, it was always this perfect mix of sweet and tragic. With Batman entering the [DON’T YOU SAY IT! – Ed.], ahem, picture, I dunno, it just felt wrong. The reasoning for it was that they felt they needed to give Batman that extra drive to push him through the remainder of the story.
You mean that the crippling, life-changing wounding of a long-time friend and partner by his arch-nemesis isn’t enough to piss Batman off? That’s fucking cold, dude. Look, if my arch-nemesis at my day job had shot and crippled one of my friends and then posted pictures of it on the internet, there would be absolutely NO safe haven…and I’ve only known this son of a bitch for almost 4 years. I wouldn’t need to have fucked any such friends to be that motivated. [Wow…that’s just…can we change the subject please??? – Ed.]
Look, I get what Azzarello was going for but…well, let’s just say that in his working with Frank Miller on Dark Knight III, maybe a little too much Frank rubbed off on him.
Once we get into the proper adaptation of The Killing Joke about halfway through the movie, well, there aren’t any surprises. The adaptation is pretty literal and certainly had the room to be such and thus, was handled mostly well.
I say mostly because we come to the next weakness: the animation itself. Given Brian Bolland’s highly detailed style, there was no way that was ever going to translate into animation. That’s more than understandable…but you should pick a style and stick with it. What ends up on screen here tends to look like one of three things: usual DC Universe animation style with some minor tweaks to invoke Bolland’s style, anime and a motion comic. I get that with a story as iconic as The Killing Joke you have to capture the look of the panels…and they are gorgeous panels, I mean, hell, about 60-70% of the marketing material for the ’89 Batman film was pulled from the pages of this graphic novel! But, to take an example from earlier DC Universe animated films, Justice League: New Frontier managed to blend the two very very well. [Ah, the late, great Darwyn Cooke. Sigh. Again, fuck you 2016. You suck. – Ed.] Here, not so much. There are moments, particularly the reveal in flashback of the Red Hood lifting his helmet to reveal the Joker’s face, that are extremely motion comics-y. Hrm. Apparently I’m going through the list backwards. Okay, thankfully, we’re at number two no matter which way you go. Really, there’s only one scene that looks like it was ripped right out of an anime, but it’s so jarring out of the style you’ve already spent about 30 minutes within that my eye never really recovered. It’s the scene where the guy trying to sell the Joker this abandoned carnival site flips on the lights, revealing the property in all its disrepair. While the elation on the Joker’s face is very obvious, again, it looks like a scene more out of Ghost in the Shell…not a scene out of the DC Universe. Lastly, or firstly if you’re reading that above list in order, the Bolland-themed DC Universe style, when used, looks fine. The Batgirl-centric opening is when it looks its best and, had the remainder of the film looked like that, I wouldn’t have to include this paragraph.
My last gripe is with the voice acting. Not Conroy and Hamill…hell, these guys can be left on auto-pilot and they’d still nail it. Tara Strong’s performance was rather good too (in the first draft I said ‘strong’, thankfully the folks at the Department of Redundancy Department caught that before it was published). The bulk of the last act of the story, The Killing Joke proper, falls at the feet of Jim Gordon…and while Ray Wise has done a fantastic job in many past DC Universe animated films (his Perry White in Superman: Doomsday springs immediately to mind), here he was rather weak. And while he was only in the film very briefly, the Detective Bullock in this film…ugh. Terrible. In rewatching the credits though, I saw why this might be the case. No Andrea Romano. She’s been the voice casting and direction staple of not only most of the DCU animated projects, but all the Bruce Timm animated series…Batman, Superman and Justice League. Voice direction and casting for The Killing Joke was handled by Wes Gleason, who voice directed the last two DCU features, Batman: Bad Blood and Justice League vs. Teen Titans as well as the kid friendly Batman Unlimited animated features…so maybe he’s being groomed as Andrea’s replacement? I dunno. But this story needed the old master…and sadly, her absence is noticeable.
This isn’t to say the film is bad though. Like I said, mediocre. Sure, there’s all the negative above, but there are also scenes that portray the Joker as downright scary that work amazingly…and doing that during a musical number? That’s impressive. And the ending. The silent, kinda chilling ending. I have to admit, I was kind of hoping that the film would pick a side in the great debate as to what happens at the end of the story, but found myself glad that it didn’t, being just as ambiguous as the graphic novel, allowing that debate to continue.
So, is it worth picking up? If you’ve been keeping up with the DCU animated projects, yeah, it’s worth a look. If you’re a Batman fan (and everyone but me is these days), then yeah, you really don’t have a choice. But if you were hoping that they’d finally adapt this title and looked forward to it with baited breath…well, you’re probably going to come away disappointed. As a hardcore DC fan with a continuing case of Bat-Fatigue, well, this didn’t help my condition. You know who else’s condition it probably didn’t help? Alan Moore. He’s had a long-standing feud with both Hollywood and DC Comics regarding adaptations of his stories. I was hoping that this would be the project that might earn a nod from him, especially with the talent involved. Sadly, I’d wager this film has only strengthened his ire, and given the missed shot at greatness this adaptation was, I can’t say I blame him on this one…can’t blame him at all.