Many Batman fans of a certain age and time period will recall the prominence of The Killing Joke graphic novel in their local comic shop. Alongside Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and The Cult, it seemed to always stand as a DC Comics landmark. Slender in both pages and concept when compared to any of those books, The Killing Joke was nonetheless a slick, sharp distillation by Alan Moore in his prime of a certain version of Batman. Sharp, crisp and impenetrable, Batman’s strength took the form of an almost merciless will, every panel and scene of the story aided immeasurably by Bolland’s superior quality of art.
The animated movie adaptation is for the most part a faithful recreation of the graphic novel’s basic beats, sticking to the Joker’s base conceit of “one bad day” can destroy you, turn you into the Joker, from a pathetic wannabe comedian/weak civilian/failure into an insidious psychotic freak. Jim Gordon is the test case for Joker’s hypothesis, as Jim’s daughter Barbara Gordon (formally Batgirl) is crippled by the Joker by a single bullet through the spine when she answers his knock on the door of her apartment on father/daughter night.
Joker then takes naked photos of the crippled, bleeding Barbara which he later shows to a naked, chained Jim Gordon in an abandoned, run down funhouse. It’s chilling stuff with ice in the veins of the tale. That’s the second half of the movie. It’s a slow handclap at best, dull and leaden, stripped of power by the stilted nature of the character movements and vague recreations of the original art that only ever comes close to aping it’s excellence never matching it. Its by no means particularly bad as a re-telling and certain images (such as the evil abyss inside the Joker’s eye) are as prominent and powerful as ever, but too often I was dragged out of the action by Batman moving like it was cheap TV show animation.
The voice work is crisp and strong. Mark Hamill is excellent as an eerily in-control Joker, Tara Strong does her professional best with the material, and I would cite Ray Wise as Commissioner Gordon as very on note.
So there’s that. If you want to see the basic Killing Joke story play out with superb voice acting that is never off point, a script that seeks to mirror the source material from the halfway point of the movie through to the conclusion and you don’t mind the slightly sub par animation, pick up half way through and that wish will be fulfilled.
But to review the whole film, we need to talk about the first half of the movie where writer Brian Azarello (100 Bullets, DK 3: Master Race, Wonder Woman, Batman: Broken City), himself a mighty presence in modern comics, fashions a narrative prelude to the main action that seeks to build the persona of Batgirl as she and Batman go up against Paris France, a mobster punk on his way up the Gotham crime food chain. As a story and collection of scenes it’s serviceable at best, reminiscent perhaps of a lesser Batman: The Animated Series or Batman Beyond episode, decent, but essentially filler.
We’ve been told countless times by DC that this first act of the animated adaptation is supposed to build and empower the story of Barbara, but really it doesn’t in any substantive way. Why? She’s taken out of the picture too quickly. She’s too easily manipulated, by both Paris France and Batman himself. Barbara’s air of slight sass can’t possibly compete with the almost unbearingly grumpy and dour Batman. It pains me to say this, but I wouldn’t want to fight crime with Batman if he is going to stay in that mood for this amount of time. It’s again not terrible but it is slight. And Barbara sadly feels slight. We want to feel more for her. Those of us who know what’s coming, feel it in spades, as we waltz ever closer to that fateful doorway, but we bring that emotion with us, it isn’t in the script.
Much has been made of the physical scene on a rooftop between Batgirl and Batman, where an altercation between them leads to a kiss which leads to sex. It’s neither a very good scene nor a comfortable one. It comes across as a cliched short cut. Bruce feels way older than her throughout the film and acts like a grumpy boss, not even particularly friendly. On the rooftop, pre-sex, he grates on about the abyss in a manner most would find insufferable and one of Bab’s best moments in the entire movie is calling Bruce out on this freshman level philosophical wool-gathering. I found her comment amusing and not much else is in this story is amusing in even the slightest.
Where Moore’s Batman was driven, this Batman is barely able to convey any emotion but anger and coldness. And he does it to somebody he supposedly loves. There’s no Robin, Alfred probably appears for 5 seconds. Bruce isn’t 60, he’s not falling apart. He’s all mechanics, there is almost no character to him. He’s a physically perfect burnt out wreck who seems to have no problems with that. You are left feeling like Barbara deserves a lot better than him. He’s essentially incredibly shallow.
When the filmmakers spoke of “doubling down” on controversy, I wondered did they even view Batman and Barbara making out on a rooftop after fight as controversial, or was that just something to keep the “human interest “ level up? It’s not the biggest deal in the world, but it’s a depressing one when I think of all the options and room they had to move with Barbara. It’s not like they lacked running time. This entire first act took up probably a good 35-40 minutes of screen time.
All the major names involved in this project surely know the Batman character inside and out – Brian Azarello and producer Bruce Timm have each contributed to some of the most seminal issues and episodes in the history of the character. Nobody doubts their knowledge or their passion but not everything can be a home run. Perhaps it’s just the source material. The Killing Joke didn’t create Oracle. It crippled Barbara Gordon. That feels like an important thing to remember as we bounce through the years, recalling that gorgeous Brain Bolland art we saw when we picked up Killing Joke, often very early on in our love of comics, Batman’s perfect shadowed jaw, the reflections in the rain and the stylish, demonic Joker with his pathetic origin glimpsed like a possible past in a haunted funhouse of trick mirrors.
Time plays tricks with the mind. With all the forward progression on Barbara Gordon in the 90’s and onward with the character of Oracle and her current re-invention as “Burnside Batgirl”, it’s understandable that many fans of the current character would think her fate is a major piece of the puzzle in the story of The Killing Joke. But it isn’t and she isn’t. Batman is angry about it all but not so angry he doesn’t share a laugh with the Joker at the end. The internet rumors that he snapped the Joker’s neck in the final panel seem like an inadvertent attempt to redress a colossal lack of empathy inside of him. It just isn’t there. I don’t think this Batman feels much.
Barbara could have been Zatanna, she could have been Gordon’s wife or girlfriend, she could have been any second of third tier female character lying around at the time. Somebody there to eat a bullet and make Jim Gordon’s night a little tougher. It’s awful and cold and essentially without meaning and that is the basic tone of The Killing Joke.
Just like Barbara we are dragged back to the scene of the crime so many times over the years, to that doorway again and again, even as we grow beyond it, as Babs did through the 90’s and beyond as Oracle. Like many of us, perhaps I am tired of the story and have been for a very long time. There are just so many better Batman stories. Azarello wrote some of them so let’s not throw too many tomatoes. It’s a paying gig.
There is one scene in the comic and movie which interests me. Toward the end, as Batman inevitably does “win” and beats the Joker in a reasonably anti-climactic fight, (although I do enjoy him pulling a prop gun and actually getting the drop on Batman) there is a moment where Batman and Joker consider ending their feud, Bruce offers therapy to a Joker who seems to have a sudden disturbing amount of clarity considering how ruthlessly psychotic he has been throughout the entire funhouse scenes. In offering the Joker some form of detente, Barbara seems so far from Bruce’s mind, so forgotten. We are left with a pithy joke and Batman and the Joker laughing and then waiting for the cops to come. When you think of Barbara wounded and crippled in the hospital bed and what was done to Jim Gordon himself, mentally and physically, you wonder how and why Bruce would ever laugh about anything with the Joker. Even death and nihilism don’t seem funny. It ends in blackness with rain falling, as if we are supposed to be left thinking about the abyss. But that chasm is empty and so small. It’s as if the darkness and the sadness ate into the script until the dark became dull and stripped of life.
All these years later, I still wish Batman hadn’t laughed.