Batman: The Killing Joke, a film based on the cult classic graphic novel of the same name, written by Alan Moore with art by Brian Bolland, premiered at the San Diego ComicCon this past weekend, and opened in theaters on July 25, 2016. It features the voice talents of Mark Hamill as The Joker, Kevin Conroy as Batman, Tara Strong as Batgirl, and Ray Wise as Commissioner Gordon.
I must start by stating that I am a fan of the comic The Killing Joke. Since its release in March of 1988, there have been ongoing arguments, controversy, and speculation among fans regarding the meaning of the book, specifically its ambiguous and provocative ending. The newly released animated version of the classic story will surely fuel the fires, and ultimately does nothing to clear up those lingering questions. I am okay with this, as the mystery is part of the allure. Still, I would have been wildly excited if they had given the audience a crumb, even another ambiguous and vague crumb, just to make us happy.
A few years ago, it seemed that some of the drama surrounding the story might be alleviated, when Grant Morrison proposed a possible meaning to the comic’s conclusion that would drastically alter the very character of Batman, and the readers perception of the story’s end. It was quite big news for a bit, then faded away as trending topics tend to do.
In order to review this movie properly, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS and I must break it into two parts, the first half and the second half, for reasons which will become apparent. The second half of the movie is basically The Killing Joke comic, as we know it from the comic. The first half though explores the character of Batgirl and her (apparent) romantic involvement with Batman. None of the material is taken from The Killing Joke, and furthermore, a relationship between Batman and Batgirl had never existed until 2014, where it is referenced in Batman Beyond, which occurs in the future.
It is this relationship that caused me to have issues with the film. First though I’d like to touch upon its merits. Love it or hate it, the book is a lasting and important part of Batman history (though arguments are made for and against it being considered or intended as “canon”).
By far, one of the best aspects of The Killing Joke is Mark Hamill’s voice as The Joker. I watched Batman: The Animated Series in the 90’s, alongside my younger brother and sister, three geeklings overcoming our sibling discord for a half an hour of Bats and the Joker. Regardless of any flaws the film may have, I could listen to Hamill all day. In his reprise of The Joker in The Killing Joke, he simply oozes the essence of the character with an edgy, and appropriately darker tone, compared to previous Batman tales. Kevin Conroy, as the voice of Batman, is as brooding and imposing sounding as ever, and between the two gentlemen there was a lovely feeling of nostalgia as I watched and listened.
As stated earlier, the second half of the film stays true to the comic, with lines, scenes, and images almost directly transposed from the book to the screen. The film makes it clear from the start that it is intended for adults and older teenagers. It’s fairly graphic as far as some other DC animated films go. People are murdered. There is swearing, though none of the big boss words. Most significantly, the implied sexual assault of Barbara Gordon is kept as part of the movie, just as in the book. Overall, I have no issue with the second half, other then the feeling that it was so similar to the comic, that it didn’t offer anything new for fans to add to our imaginations and fan theories. Nevertheless, it was fun to watch The Killing Joke come to life. Ironically, my complaint that the second half is “too” true to the comic prefaces my next paragraph in which I bemoan a very off-comic departure in the film that bothered me on a few levels.
Commence bemoaning…. Batgirl is young enough that for her to have any physical or romantic relationship with Batman is just inappropriate. Throw in that he’s her mentor and teacher and a friend of her father’s….well, it makes Batman look like a bit of a creeper. Second, as has been established, no intimate relationship existed between them in the comics until Batman Beyond in 2014, over two and half decades after The Killing Joke was written. True, comics have reboots, multiple universes, resurrections, and flat out contradictions, but this is The Killing Joke. This is a classic and a Batman essential, and to impose a retroactive plot point decades later just seems wrong. Moreover, the relationship did not serve to further the story or, more importantly, to elevate the character of Batgirl in any way.
I suspect that the focus on her character was implemented for two reasons. 1) The Killing Joke is not an action-packed comic. Nor is there a lot of material to fill an hour and a half. I imagine the creators wanted to add some action and pathos to the film to give a deeper meaning to the the events that befall Barbara Gordon, and their affect on Batman. 2) I am curious if the amount of screen time Batgirl gets, fighting bad guys and chasing criminals alongside Batman, was intended to portray her as a formidable woman in order to offset the outrage that the sexual assault scene has caused over the years. In effect, perhaps the intent was to portray Batgirl as a strong female lead, rather than just a victim. In today’s climate of political correctness and extreme sensitivities, this is not necessarily a bad idea. It’s an admirable task, if indeed it was the intent. I just don’t feel it worked out that way.
One can only speculate on the choices made regarding the handling of Batgirl. I enjoyed her character – her bravery, her intelligence, and her stubbornness in standing up to Batman. Seeing her in action did add feeling and layers in light of the fate that befalls her. However, all of this insight into her character could have been achieved equally as well, if not more effectively, in the absence of any romance between her and Batman. The sex was just unnecessary.
While much of this speaks to women’s issues, I must say that I’d be critical of any movie that takes characters and has them behave in a manner that is either inconsistent with the comics, the character’s personalities, or that just doesn’t meld with an already great story. Feminism aside, I did not want to see Batgirl and Batman hook up. I wanted to see Batgirl kick more ass.
Overall, I can’t say “Don’t see this film”. It has great voice acting, some great imagery and music, and the second half will please purists and fans of The Killing Joke. So rent it, stream it. If you like it, buy it. I will say however, that if anything had to be changed or added to the film, I wish it had been done differently. I was not impressed with the handling of Batgirl, and the romance part was silly and out of place in one of the darker Batman sagas. Ultimately though, it was very cool to sit in the theater and watch the comic I’ve loved for so long, if for no other reason that to say: I was there. I would have preferred being at SDCC but that’s neither here nor there.