Batman: The Killing Joke is kind of like the Batman v Superman of DC’s animation library. It’s dark, gritty, and occasionally brutal. Above all else, though, it’s bound to split people down the middle. Despite being a mostly loyal adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel, the filmmakers do make several changes. Some of these changes are satisfactory while others seem tacked on. On the whole, however, this is a disturbing, gothic, and often gripping interpretation of the greatest Joker comic ever conceived.
Seeing how the source material only consists of 48 pages, it isn’t surprising that Brian Azzarello’s screenplay incorporates more backstory. It’s not the Joker’s backstory that’s expanded upon, though. His character ark remains virtually untouched and as ambiguous as ever. Rather, it’s Batgirl/Barbara Gordon who takes up much of the film’s prologue. On one hand, this makes sense. Although Barbara was a crucial player in the original graphic novel, she wasn’t exactly given a ton to do. This film attempts to mold her into a more three-dimensional character. While not a bad idea, the addition doesn’t entirely work.
Easily the best part about Barbara here is her voiceover actress: Tara Strong, who previously played the character in The New Batman Adventures. Strong once again turns in effective work as Batgirl, who’s depicted as a resilient – yet reckless – sidekick who’s determined to prove herself to the Dark Knight. While this allows the audience to form more of a connection to Batgirl, it kind of deviates from what The Killing Joke is really about. This adaptation almost comes off like two different movies, one of which centers on Batgirl and the other centers on the Joker. This might not matter so much if the Batgirl portion delivered, but her storyline has some major problems.
For starters, Batgirl has a twisted relationship with a criminal named Paris Franz that goes nowhere. The character can even come off as needlessly sexualized, which brings us to the biggest issue with the movie. There’s an incredibly forced scene between Batman and Batgirl that’s just… well, wrong. I won’t delve into any spoilers, but anybody who saw the film’s premiere at San Diego Comic-Con knows what I’m talking about. Maybe this plot development could’ve worked in another Batman story, but here it feels like shippers hijacked the script and turned in a fanfic.
With that said, if fans can get past the first thirty minutes, they’re going to get The Killing Joke movie they’ve always wanted. The animation isn’t quite as horrifying as Brian Bolland’s original artwork, but the look of the film is still unsettling, creepy, and haunting. The film doesn’t shy away from the ruthless nature of its source material either. The Killing Joke more than earns its R-rating, but the graphic content never feels unwarranted. It’s shocking in all the right ways.
Ultimately, The Killing Joke is a fascinating study of the dynamic between Batman and his archenemy. In many respects, Batman and the Joker couldn’t be more different. One is dark and silent while the other is colorful and flamboyant. Both have something in common, however: they each had one bad day. Batman’s one bad day motivates him to help others. The Joker’s one bad day motivates him to spread anarchy everywhere he goes. Although Batman fights for justice, he could potentially crack at any time. The Joker is determined to make Batman break his own code, proving how similar they truly are.
What’s more, the line between good and evil has never been blurrier. Over the course of a single story, we get to see the Joker at his most sympathetic, but we also see him at his most sadistic. Likewise, we get to see Batman at his mightiest, but we also see him at his most vulnerable. So basically, whenever The Killing Joke follows the graphic novel, it’s awesome. Whenever the film tries something different, it kind of falls flat.
Even if The Killing Joke is a mixed bag, this adaptation is well worth checking out simply for the voiceover leads. DC once again enlists Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker. These two were first brought together in Batman: The Animated Series and later reprised their roles in the Batman: Arkham video games. It’s only appropriate that they would return for this legendary tale.
Neither actor misses a beat, with Conroy bringing great strength to Batman and Hamill filling the Joker with fanciful evil. Over the years, we’ve seen many great actors portray the Caped Crusader and the Clown Prince of Crime. Whenever people pick up a Batman comic, though, they tend to hear Conroy and Hamill’s voices in their heads. It’d actually be fitting if The Killing Joke marked the last time Conroy and Hamill played these iconic characters. At least then they would both go out on a laugh.