The joke’s on us, I guess.
Batman: The Killing Joke is the latest in DC’s series of animated direct-to-video movies. It features returning fan-favorites Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hamill (the Joker), and is produced by Bruce Timm, all returning from the seminal Batman: The Animated Series. Brian Azzarello of 100 Bullets fame wrote the screenplay, based on the 1988 prestige-format graphic novel by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. The film is directed by Sam Liu, who also directed the fantastic Batman Year One adaptation from a few years back.
With a creative team like that, it would seem that nothing could go wrong. So why was I, along with most everyone else watching this in the theater, so unmoved by it? What went wrong?
First things first; the source material. For all its notoriety, The Killing Joke is wholly a product of it’s time. It’s dark; it’s gritty; it’s… kind of pointless, really. If it weren’t for the artwork of Brian Bolland, it probably wouldn’t be remembered as fondly as it is.
There will be spoilers after the jump. You’ve been warned.
The gist of the book, for the uninitiated, is that the Joker shoots and paralyzes Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl) in Commissioner Gordon’s home. He then kidnaps the Commissioner and tortures him, showing him photos of his naked, critically injured daughter while also using him as bait for Batman. At the same time, flashback sequences tell the Joker’s origin story, humanizing the character (to whatever extent that’s really possible).
Overall, the story endeavors (in true Alan Moore fashion) to deconstruct the respective psyches of Batman and the Joker, exposing them to be two sides of the same coin. The problem with the book is that it fails to do this, and winds up being just nasty and unnecessary, known as much for inferring that the Joker raped Barbara as anything else. As I said before, it’s truly a product of it’s time. Some people, however, love it, so check it out if you haven’t read it before. Bollond’s artwork really is great.
The movie itself has the same problems, but added to them is a unique, and even bigger, one. In adapting The New Frontier or The Dark Knight Returns, animators had a lot of material to pull from, so much so that TDKR was split into two parts. The Killing Joke has the opposite problem; the book is a 64-page standalone story. That means there was plenty of time to fill, and unfortunately Azzarello decided to fill that time with a moderately boring, been-there-done-that narrative about Batgirl and Batman tracking no-name criminals, only with the added ripple of a sex scene featuring the two.
Yeah, it’s as dumb as it sounds.
Not only is the scene itself mostly implied (no Bat-nipples in this one), but then, like a fourteen year-old trying to freak people out, it keeps getting brought up. That is, of course, until the forced subplot no longer matters and the Joker actually shows up. At that point the film just becomes a boring, plodding adaptation of the source material that adds nothing of value. It’s cool to have Conroy and Hamill back, but the film just makes me long for better material. Why is this a movie when The Long Halloween, a much longer and better story overall, still sits on the shelf? The Killing Joke, with it’s professional pedigree, should have been better than it is.
The film it reminds me of the most is Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween. Now don’t get me wrong; The Killing Joke is a better movie. The way it reminds me of Zombie’s third cinematic atrocity is in how it wants to make a new mark on the story while simultaneously being slavishly beholden to the source material. Rob Zombie’s Halloween was going to get a mixed reception either way, so why bother to stick a truncated remake onto the end of the film? Either do a remake or a reboot, not half of each.
The Killing Joke would have been better if it had stuck to the original story, and added just enough new elements to beef up the already existing narrative. The film instead feels like two different episodes of a television show slammed together without any real effort to make sure they coalesce. The Killing Joke is noble failure, but a failure nonetheless.
Until next time.