The long awaited film adaptation of Alan Moore’s seminal Batman book, The Killing Joke hit theaters and VOD last week. The book serves both as the widely accepted Joker origin story, as well as a climactic meeting between Batman and Joker in a “final battle” type of set up. Heath Ledger told media outlets that it was The Killing Joke that inspired his Academy Award winning take on the iconic villain. Fans have long awaited an adaptation of the book.
Over the past several years, DC animated films have really come into their own with great feature length direct-to-video films including adaptations of two other seminal Batman books, Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns (along with The Killing Joke, these late 80s graphic novels could easily be argued as the most important Batman stories of the past 30 years).
The overall aesthetic, right down to the artwork (specifically in the vein of the recolored reprint rather than the original pressing), remains intact. Make no mistake about it, this film IS The Killing Joke. The 76 minute runtime includes about 50 minutes of perfect canon adaptation of the book, but augments it with an introduction not in the comic and a short tacked on ending. One could justify the opening as a way to get lesser Batman fans more emotionally invested in Barbara Gordon and the ending feels like a set up for a sequel/spin-off cartoon. This non-canon material is what has most of the comic world buzzing, mostly with negativity and/or confusion.
Alan Moore is a controversial figure. One of the best comic book writers to ever share his talents with the world, his works are often perceived as having racist or misogynist overtones. The Killing Joke is one of his more controversial books. It includes the brutal beating and rape of Barbara Gordon as a means for breaking Jim Gordon down. The Joker is as dark and evil as ever in this book, so the argument has often been made that the brutality committed against Barbara is justified as a means to show how depraved Joker truly is. Of course, many others criticize the book, stating that it goes too far in its misogyny, to an unjustifiable extent. This film adaptation covers this dark story without censoring it at all, which is how the film became DC’s first R-rated animated feature.
This controversy was expected, but the new material was not. Very few fans, if any, went into the film expecting it to start with a Batgirl story. There was certainly no expectation of a Barbara Gordon/Bruce Wayne love story. The books always portrayed their relationship as a mentor/mentee type of thing, so this notion felt foreign. Some of the fans of the television cartoons knew that this romantic relationship had been explored once before, but many fans had never even thought about it. This was a shock for many and has caused a raucous response.
This added Batgirl story, complete with a Batman/Batgirl sex scene, was added for one of two reasons (or perhaps both): to fill out time and/or to build more connection between the audience and Barbara. If someone is not a diehard fan of the book or the late 80s Batman era in general, the scenes may serve the latter purpose pretty well. The diehards are already invested in what is going to happen to Barbara, but that may not be the case for the more casual fans or newcomers. Though, Barbara being Jim’s daughter should be enough to build that investment. The former possible purpose seems quite likely as releasing a 50 minute adaptation probably would have felt too short, at least in the eyes of the creators who wanted to seek a limited engagement theatrical release.
Connecting this beginning into the story, we are treated to an ending after the canonical ending that present a now crippled Barbara Gordon on the verge of becoming The Oracle, her post Batgirl persona. This presentation of Barbara is short and rings of sequel teaser. If nothing else, it ties up some loose ends from both the main story and the new introductory scenes. This ending frustrated some viewers because it detracted from the book’s close, which always felt like a perfect ending, dark and open to interpretations debated for decades.
Love the new material or hate it, it’s hard to deny that the art captures the tone of the book and the voice acting is spot on. Heavy hitters from previous Batman projects like Mark Hamill, Ray Wise, and Kevin Conroy, all perform their key roles flawlessly. Conroy has become the go to Bruce Wayne/Batman for the animated films and with good reason. Wise’s Gordon and Hamill’s Joker are among the best of all Batman animated projects over the years. It’s a strong cast and the cast accentuates the tone and feel of the animation perfectly.
Perhaps disappointing in some ways, The Killing Joke still remains another example of how DC has been covering their properties really well in their feature length animated ventures. The film handles Joker’s origin to perfection and even includes a fun little musical number from the killer clown. The “one bad day” theme of the book truly shines through in the film, as well. With upcoming Justice League Dark adaptations, it will be interesting to see how the darker toned material continues to develop and strengthen as the DC animated teams continue to world build. The live action DC folks could take a page or three from the animated team’s book; and, with some promising new Justice League trailers and the R-rated extended cut of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, it looks like they may be doing just that.