Batman: The Killing Joke is the adaptation of the wildly popular and critically successful graphic novel written by Alan Moore in 1988. The central story revolves The Joker, following his most recent escape from Arkham Asylum, seeking to prove that all people can devolve to the level to insanity and depravity where he currently, knowingly, resides. To test this theory, The Joker captures and psychologically tortures Commissioner Jim Gordon, taunting him using lurid imagery of his daughter, Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl).
What works in Batman: The Killing Joke is the voice acting and the dance between the Caped Crusader and the Clown Prince of Crime. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprise their roles as Batman and The Joker respectively, having established themselves as the definitive voices for the characters ever since Batman: The Animated Series debuted in 1992. The two are still masterful, demonstrating how they can sound both familiar and new as they lend their vocals to a wholly new arc that presents a classic and well-established hero/villain dichotomy in a fresh light.
Batman is a supporting character in his own story to The Joker, and the engagements the latter has with both The Dark Knight and Gordon are fantastic. This Joker is philosophical, and through a series of flashbacks, the audience is presented his journey to madness blended with current observations. The execution is so well-crafted—thanks to the source material coupled with Hamill’s ability to take the character new places—that one may actually feel sympathy for the devil. The Joker’s final interaction with Batman is so iconic and memorable that both Hamill and Conroy should seriously consider retiring on the high note they may never have the opportunity to hit again.
While Hamill and Conroy elevate the already superb dialogue established by Moore, the film falls short in an attempt to add further depth to the story through the introduction of a Batgirl prologue of sorts. The reasoning behind this inclusion is understandable—the source material unacceptably uses Batgirl in a misogynistic manner where her only role is to play the victim of sexual and physical violence. This film adaptation looks to expand her role by presenting the interaction and dynamic between her and Batman as a crime-fighting team. Unfortunately, the filmmakers completely miss the mark with their content. Instead of presenting Barbara Gordon as a strong and competent woman, she is reckless, whiny, and over-emotional which eventually leads to character development (for both her and Batman) that feels completely out of place.
The issues with handling the Gordons extends to the commissioner as well. The Joker’s experiment to break the man inexplicably never results in any suspense, and thus the gravity of the situation falls flat. Due to a lack of palpable danger, or even lasting effect, The Joker’s actions feel bland and boring which undermines some of the more interesting questions the original book raised. The entire supporting cast—Batman, Jim Gordon, ex-henchmen—all spend a lot of their limited screen time explaining how fierce and scary The Joker is, but this aspect of the character (while likely there), never becomes fully realized.
Batman: The Killing Joke will inevitably be divisive. The adapted material is likely to be enjoyed at some level, while the additions will either be dismissed at best and create justifiable ire among purist fans at worst. While perhaps not as strong a previous films (see The Dark Knight Returns), Batman fans should at least give this a look, if only for Hamill’s work.
Photos courtesy of Warner Brothers Animation