Batman: The Killing Joke Review: An Uncomfortable Adaptation of the Controversial Classic

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With the wide breadth of iconic characters all with differing but nevertheless huge personalities, Batman stories can really take any shape and form. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was celebrated for its post-9/11 realism while Cartoon Network’s Batman: The Brave and the Bold was celebrated for its light, cartoonish whimsy. The Batman fans who embrace every corner of Gotham City can find value in both. That said, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke has been placed under some scrutiny in recent years due to the severity of what happens to its chief female character. Sam Liu’s adaptation, produced by veteran animator Bruce Timm, tries to remedy this by adding a whole prologue to the events of the graphic novel that showcase Batgirl (Tara Strong) at her best. As a much bigger Batman fan than the rest of DC’s pantheon of superheroes, Barbara Gordon has a very special place in my heart. She’s really the closest DC has to a Peter Parker-type in terms of being relatable. Being under the constant over-protective eyes of Batman (the one and only Kevin Conroy) wonderfully plays into that, which makes it really awkward when the film gives the teacher and his student a sex scene.

If you take everything to do with sex out of Moore’s book, as well as this movie, you’ve got one hell of a Joker story. The larger points of the story revolve around the dynamic of Batman and the Joker (Mark Hamill, still stealing scenes as the character two decades later) and the inevitable fate they will likely bring upon each other. None of that has to do with what the Joker does to Barbara Gordon earlier in the film. It’s just another case of senseless sexual violence against a female character.

But then there’s the added sex scene between Batman and Batgirl placed earlier in the film that attempts to push his and the Joker’s adversarial relationship into lustful, barbaric jealousy. The film portrays Barbara as a strong woman who can handle herself, but her presence turns the male characters into dogs, which, for the Joker, is the exact opposite point of the story.

The Killing Joke is laced with flashbacks to a life the Clown Prince of Crime may have lived before his skin was bleached. He later states, of course, that when it comes to his backstory, he prefers multiple choice. The events we see are just one possible way the Joker may have been created. As mass audiences learned with The Dark Knight, knowing how this man came to be is unnecessary to keeping him captivating. Even here, as Joker and Batman taunt each other about their similarities, how all they needed was one bad day to push them over the edge, the flashbacks feel insignificant. All it really does is make you wonder why we spent so much time on them.

Another disappointing feature of the film is the animation. The character models, which match those of the iconic Batman: The Animated Series, are of course great and appropriately familiar. But when characters move, there’s something off and almost liquid-like about their movements. The close ups are great to look at, as are the environments, but there are scenes where it’s clear zero effort was put into following basic human mannerisms. When father away, characters’ eyes, noses, and lips look like different objects entirely rather than the cohesive whole of the human face.

The best bits of The Killing Joke are all at the end, when Batman and his foil come face to face for a serious conversation about who they are and their effect on each other. The writing is lifted pretty much straight out of Moore’s novel, but Conroy and Hamill sell it as perfectly as they have been since the early ’90s. The statements these scenes leave us with have little to do with what came before, but the history of the Batman mythos makes them significant nonetheless.

But these statements are terribly dampened by the sexual connotations toward Batgirl in the earlier parts of the film. The Killing Joke turns Batman into a creepy “daddy” and the Joker into a rapist before it gets to the best bits of the novel it’s adapting. Sure, sexual subtexts are a huge part of Batman lore, even between Batman and Joker, but the treatment of Batgirl is truly despicable. It’s easy to wonder what an adaptation of this novel would look like if these moments were taken out. Instead, however, we have a tribute to one of pop culture’s best villains and his relationship with the hero who faces him saddled with ugly connotations. Remember, Batman stories are supposed to be inspiring and fun. After this and Batman v Superman, the folks over at DC clearly need a reminder of that. Grade: C

By Matt Dougherty

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