Film Review – Batman: The Killing Joke
Batman: The Killing Joke
When my brother passed away earlier this year I was both honored and intimidated to inherit the bulk of his vast book collection. He’d always been smarter than me and his voracious notes in the margins of famously difficult reads (Infinite Jest anyone?) convinced me I should ease slowly into this great undertaking. I decided to start with Alan Moore‘s widely lauded graphic novel, Batman: The Killing Joke, rationalizing it would be a short and relatively breezy read. I knew of its reputation but was still floored at just how grim it ended up being. It packed a punch I was unprepared for and so the prospect of a faithful, R-rated movie adaptation excited me greatly. Add to that the returning (and stellar) voice cast of Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as The Joker and you’ve got yourself the makings for a bonafide winner, right? Oh how the mighty have fallen..
For those unfamiliar, The Killing Joke centers around The Joker’s attempt to prove to Batman it only takes one terrible day to drive someone to absolute madness. He does so by kidnapping Commissioner Gordon (voiced here by Ray Wise) and putting him through every stage of hell. Given the slightness of the source material, writer Brian Azzarello pads the film out to feature length (well, if 76 minutes is considered feature length) by including a prologue centering around Barbara Gordon/Batgirl (Tara Strong), seemingly to add emotional weight to her eventual maiming. It is so clunkily handled, however, it’s hard to imagine what he was envisioning in the first place.
Much has been made of the mixed reaction the film received at Comic-Con. An attendee vocally criticized the blatant sexualization of Batgirl only to be called a “pussy” by Azzarello. If that doesn’t scream misogyny, how about the inexplicable rooftop sex scene between Barbara and Batman (most often depicted as a mentor and father figure, so ew) and her consequent pining for him? She voices her frustration to a gay co-worker portrayed with as much tact and subtlety as Hollywood from the Mannequin movies. This prologue lasts about 25 minutes before abruptly shifting to the Batman/Joker storyline. Thankfully, the movie improves from there, albeit only slightly.
The shifting power dynamic between Joker and Batsy has always been a highlight, and Hamill gives it his all (and shines.) Conroy, on the other hand, seems strangely out of place as Batman. Sullen isn’t the same thing as stoic and it was a little heartbreaking to watch one of my favorite incarnations of the character so blatantly phoning it in. Also, and there’s no diplomatic way to say this, the animation is bad. Stilted and murky to the point of distraction.
The sense of urgency and terror so perfectly encapsulated in the graphic novel is sorely lacking here. The adaptation is faithful in that the dialogue is largely carried over word for word, but where’s the passion? How can something this surefire miss the mark so disastrously? Even flashes of Joker’s origin story fall flat, not convincingly expounding on the awful turn of events that led to the creation of pop culture’s favorite monster.
I am flabbergasted at the wrong-headedness of Batman: The Killing Joke and pray Conroy and Hamill are given a later opportunity to bow out with their heads up.