Review: Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)

Problematic – from the source material, to the new material.

“That” scene is one symptom of what is inherently problematic about three things: the original comic The Killing Joke, this adaptation, and the Batman animated movies of this era. Let’s take them on in that order.

I was not excited when they announced this. Sure, it’s a classic – I read it when it first came out, when I was young and at peak fanboy – but it didn’t stick with me (although I think I still own a copy). Why?

It’s a thin story with great artwork – and if it weren’t for the latter, I doubt many would remember the former.

But let’s get right to the most outstanding problem with this adaptation (which isn’t even part of the original story): the sex scene between Batgirl and Batman. It bothers me not so much because of its supposed “treatment” of Batgirl as a female character (it’s certainly not alone in the history some of the more questionable choices in characterisation, story, tone and adaptation in these DCAU movies) as because it isn’t earned, and it doesn’t help or inform the narrative that follows – it’s just lame and creepy, and leaves a bad aftertaste.

I feel “that” scene is one symptom of what is inherently problematic about three things: the original comic The Killing Joke, this adaptation, and the Batman animated movies of this era. Let’s take them on in that order:

1. The original comic

It’s a lacklustre story (both for Batman and Alan Moore, who says as much himself), with amazing artwork by Brian Bolland. What sets it apart was the time and the context within which it was originally published. Along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Year One (both of whose recent animated adaptations are also problematic and disappointing – more on them later), and Moore’s own Watchmen, this was part of a new breed of fresh, edgy, shockingly dark mainstream comics. This Batman story explored ideas about madness and the origin of his most popular villain (a story which, in retrospect, is pretty meh), all of which worked at the time because it bounced off well-established archetypes that were still being explored in other stories of its time. But as a stand-alone story, much less in its own time-bubble of canonisation within Batman lore, it functions more as a relic than a Rosetta Stone.

2. This Adaptation…

… loses all but a few elements of the original’s artwork, and keeps the worst elements of the story. The off-putting animation style looks like an attempt to bridge the source material and the Batman: The Animated Series aesthetic of the Bruce Timm universe, and ends up with neither the power of the former nor the charm of the latter. One thing this movie frustratingly skips on is the comic’s beautiful visual motifs – the rain, the rich colour, and in particular the matching panels that transition into and out of flashbacks:

I could understand them skipping on these if this adaptation were live action, due to technical difficulty or simply not translating well. But this is an animation with almost slavish devotion to the original art at some points, and then a complete lack of poetry, nuance or style whenever off-book. In a movie struggling this hard to pad itself out, why not incorporate the most striking, effective, easy, stylish visual elements of all?

And then, to further make up a feature-length running time, the producers have created a Batgirl “prologue” to better establish her character before she gets fridged to pave / make way for The Men’s story. I won’t waste time talking about how many ways that move was doomed to fail… Instead, I’ll discuss why and how I feel this move was both a misstep and a missed opportunity. ‘The Killing Joke’ isn’t a Batgirl or a Barbara Gordon story: it’s a Batman / Joker story – and as Grant Morrison once theorised, it’s the final Batman / Joker story.

In the comic, it’s a story where the Joker fridges Barbara to get to Gordon to get to Batman to “make a point”. The movie’s tone-deaf rom-com / single-girl-in-the-city approach to establishing Batgirl and her relationship with Batman not only misses that point (in addition to being insulting and boring), it wastes time that could have been better spent exploring any number of other, better, more effective things.

Here’s one idea: flesh out the thin Killing Joke story with another classic Joker story like The Laughing Fish to introduce the stakes.

Introduce the Joker as a horrifically sociopathic, relentless murderer propelled by his obsession with Batman; Batman going through the horror of knowing more people die by the Joker because Batman’s code lets him live; and even bring Batgirl into the adventure, not as a romantic interest or some chick with something to prove, but as a fellow soldier and a first-hand witness to the evil of the villain, the conflict within the hero, and the co-dependent dynamic of the two. Maybe she “retires” because she doesn’t want to be part of their psychotic cycle. Maybe Joker discovers her identity just before he’s finally caught and locked away – and so when it’s discovered he’s escaped at the start of ‘The Killing Joke’, the subsequent events of that story then lead on directly from this.

3. The Batman animated movies of this era

There’s been a steady decline in the overall quality of the DCAU’s Batman movies since Mask Of The Phantasm. What made BTAS and the Justice League animated series compelling was that, while often being based on stories from the comics, they were also invested in developing their own world, personality, character dynamics and style. Mask of the Phantasm worked so well because it existed purely within the aesthetic of its own world. But since then, the movies have turned out less solid as stand-alone films the more closely they’re based on comics – and, the more popular the source material is, the more slavish and devoid of any personality their adaptations.

I could never bring myself to write about the The Dark Knight Returns or Year One animated movies because the very thought of it tired me – and then I realised why that was: these movies have no wit.

And by that, I don’t mean the movies need to be humorous – I mean they either don’t convey or don’t understand the elements of satire and commentary in the source material. And, with The Killing Joke, I’d go so far as to say the producers of these adaptations perhaps don’t understand the themes of the source material. Perhaps for them, the point isn’t the themes, or even the story, but simply to create animatics with celebrity voices. And while the performers in some instances are really good (Mark Hamill does beautiful work, perhaps some of his all-time best as the Joker, in The Killing Joke), the pacing and choices in almost all of these animated movies is really, really off. This may all come down to longtime voice casting director Andrea Romano, or whoever directs the nuances of the vocal performances and overall timing. It’s inherently problematic trying to adapt three-decades-old stories, moreso when the focus seems to be on literal translation rather than cinematic adaptation. I refuse to accept it’s purely a limitation of the medium. I’ve seen better than this – I’ve seen better animated Batman than this. I’ve also read better Batman than ‘The Killing Joke’ – so perhaps this was doomed from the beginning.


Further Viewing

In his post-mortem of this adaptation, Hbomberguy muses: “If you want to know what makes a great comic work… look at the desks and bookcases and bedside tables of Moore’s world. That’s the real writing.” (Sidenote: after re-watching the first part of his video essay, it now occurs to me that Rob Liefeld is to superhero comics as Zack Snyder is to superhero movies).