The Killing Joke is such a weird beast. Written in 1988 by a self-proclaimed wizard, Alan Moore, as a one-shot story that wasn’t ever necessarily supposed to be part of continuity. The thing was, it ended up being so popular that DC decided to add it as an official entry. The reason that it was never supposed to be part of the main series is that it’s a pretty brutal story, and is more of a thought experiment than a good narrative. It’s more akin to Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum than anything you would have seen in an issue of Detective Comics.
Over the years it’s gone from seminal to somewhat reviled. Just last year there was a controversy surrounding an alternate cover for an issue of Batgirl that referenced the one-shot, so I thought the timing was odd when DC Animated announced that it was going to be moving forward with an adaptation. To be clear, I thought the “controversy” was largely absurd and indicative of the level of immature infantilizing that most of the vocal nerd world lives in. I’m not picking sides here, either. I think all the angles are pretty terrible, honestly. Remember when we just used to engage with art on its own terms, and not demand that it conformed to our tastes? Feels like a lifetime ago.
So, all that rigamarole aside is the Batman: The Killing Joke adaptation any good? Well, yes and no, leaning towards the latter.
The first hurdle that this adaptation has to face is one of content. There isn’t much. The source material is only around 50 pages long, and it’s incredibly straightforward, leaving little room for embellishment. To combat this dearth of material, they concocted something of a prologue. It focuses on Barbara Gordon and her life as Batgirl, her contentious relationship with Batman, and her struggle to deal with the criminal element. It accounts for almost half the running time of the flick, and it feels completely disjointed. Like, it does not feel of the piece.
In The Killing Joke comic, Barbara Gordon isn’t a character, she’s a narrative device. She exists to inflict trauma on Gordon and Batman. So, given the before mentioned controversies, they wanted to flesh her out and give her something more than just getting crippled and defiled. It’s a noble cause, but they’re not able to weave her backstory in organically. It feels like an episode of a slightly grittier version of Batman: The Animated Series, which would be cool, but they aren’t able to make the material feel substantive or meaningful to the actual story.
It ends up feeling like cynical filler, that was designed to quell the vocal minority that reared its head last year. Ultimately, they probably did more damage than they would have, as some of the content is being deemed as “offensive” because it hints that Barabara Gordon is a sexual being. I saw a headline somewhere that implied there was a sex scene, but there isn’t. There’s an implied sex scene and while I have no problem comic book characters being sexual, the implications of the scene feel like fan-fiction written by and edgy teenager, and adds a layer of complication that the story isn’t willing to explore. If this movie had just been about Batgirl and the narrative dealt with it, it could have been interesting, but as it is, it only pays lip service. It makes the whole thing just seem awkward. I wish they had been able to fold it into the story better and made her journey and decision to become Oracle after the events that take place seem earned. Yeah, that would have had to take a ton of liberties, but I think as a cinematic experience, it would have been more satisfying.
As for the rest of the adaptation, it’s pretty faithful. Actually, it’s so faithful that it reveals how shallow the story is at face value. It’s about big, broad ideas. It’s about the thin line between hero and villain when it comes to madness and obsession. Everyone is one bad day away from becoming a monster. The mechanics of how the comic got that message across has always been incredibly underwhelming, in my opinion, and seeing it adapted in such a straightforward manner it becomes even clearer. Seriously, the final moments are almost frame for frame the comic book, but it just doesn’t work here.
It’s the problem a lot of DC Animated’s output has. It’s hard to make straight adaptions of some of this stuff, as the best offerings tend to be more literary in nature. They were created with their respective medium in mind and they used that to subvert expectations and deconstruct. Without the medium, it all kind of falls flat and kind of does them a disservice. Listen, I’ve like some of their output, The Dark Knight Returns comes to mind, but after listening to a few commentaries and making-of segments, it seems like the people behind the scenes of these adaptations don’t always really “get” the deeper thematic stuff going on in some of these stories. They’re always going on about the “cool stuff” and very rarely, if ever, talk about subtext. Batman: The Killing Joke feels like another example of that.
Another problem that DC Animated has always had, is the quality of their animation. With the source material here being so iconic and, arguably, just as important as the writing it’s a little distracting. Everything looks too clean, too shiny, with an almost dayglow like effect put over everything. It looks too much like a Saturday morning cartoon and is off putting in an unintended way.It does a real disservice to artist, Brian Bolland. It’s an impressive work, and I wish that the movie reflected more of its unique sensibility. To be fair, these are all budget titles, so they are working with limited resources. The turn around on them is also pretty quick, so there is a definite “pump ’em out” mentality at play.
If there is something to enjoy, I’d say it would have to be the cast. Mark Hamil, Kevin Conroy, Ray Wise, Tara Strong and crew all put in pretty solid work. Having said that, Hamil and Conroy, dare I say, feel a little out of place? Don’t get me wrong, they do good work, it’s just that their histories with the characters feel a little incongruous with a story that’s this dark. Hearing their voices evokes an emotion that reminds you of the lighter stories that they’ve been involved in telling. I mean, it still works for the most part, but I did find it occasionally distracting.
I’ve always wanted to like these DC Animated movies more than I actually do. For the most part, they’re decent enough distractions and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that I’ve completely regretted watching, but with Batman: The Killing Joke they’ve come dangerously close to making me feel that way. It’s not terrible, it’s not great. Out of all the ones I’ve seen it definitely feels widest of the mark. Maybe rent it, if you’re super curious.