Batman: The Killing Joke is as ambitious an effort by Warner Bros. Animation as any in their history with bringing iconic DC Comics stories to life in animated form. The minds and talent charged with adapting Alan Moore’s quintessential Joker story treat the source will great reverence. If it was in the book, it’s in the animated film version.
That reverence for the source, however, does cause the production a number of problems. Also, the practical need to expand the story in order to create a legitimate feature film causes other issues.
In short, while the film ultimately is compelling and memorable, it falls short of the heights of intensity reached by Moore’s original work.
What’s it about?
The film version of Batman: The Killing Joke actually tells two stories. The main story, which takes up roughly two-thirds of the film’s running time, is Moore’s original tale in its entirety. The Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill) escapes from Arkham yet again, and sets out to prove a terrifying point.
Using Commissioner Gordon (Ray Wise) as his test subject, he’s out to show that all it takes for even the most moral and upright person to be just like him is “one bad day.” After kidnapping Gordon from his daughter Barbara’s apartment, he subjects the commissioner to an array of torments certain to break Gordon’s mind.
Not the least of these horrors is, of course, the terrifying violation for which this story is infamous: Joker’s bloody and twisted treatment of Barbara, left helpless after a gunshot wound.
The other story, which is entirely new, focuses on Barbara Gordon (Tara Strong), and a defining moment in her Batgirl career shortly before the Joker shows up at her door. While working to run down an upstart mobster (John DiMaggio), Barbara finds herself at odds with Batman himself, and forced to question her motivations for putting on the cowl and fighting at his side.
New elements feel tacked on
Before purists judge harshly the filmmakers’ choices regarding additions to the film version of “Batman: The Killing Joke”, it’s important to remember that Moore’s original story was a one-shot, less than 50 pages long. As literally as this production adapts Moore’s material, the film without the new material added would have clocked in around 45-50 minutes. Too long for an animated short, but far too short for a feature.
Director Sam Liu (Justice League: Gods and Monsters) also clearly recognized the need to more fully develop the Batgirl/Barbara Gordon character. Without her, the film has no noteworthy female presence or character to speak of. Additionally, because she’s made so vital in the film’s first act, Barbara’s eventual fate has the potential to be much more impactful.
That said, the production arguably could have found ways to better integrate the new material for the sake of story flow and pacing. As executed here, the expanded Batgirl-centric material simply feels tacked on. There’s an identifiable moment in the film when it transitions from that narrative to the “main” story, and the shift is jarring.
More (Moore?) isn’t always better
Batman: The Killing Joke is not suddenly flawless once it gets into the material directly adapted from Moore’s work, either. Certain structural elements that work within the framework of printed pages disrupt narrative flow when utilized in a film.
Specifically, Moore’s use of flashbacks to establish Joker’s memories of his pre-criminal life do not work as well on film. In this version, they feel like speed bumps, preventing the film from maintaining tension and building momentum.
Voice talent comes through
What is exceptional about Batman: The Killing Joke is exactly what audiences would expect to be exceptional: the voice talent. Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy cemented their status among fans long ago as “the” definite voices of Joker and Batman, respectively. Their pitch-perfect work here adds yet another memorable cinematic moment to that shared history.
Tara Strong, best known to Batman fans for her voice work as both Batgirl and Harley Quinn, also delivers stellar work here. However one may feel about the Batgirl story in the film and the direction it takes, there’s no denying its a complex, emotionally demanding role. Arguably, Strong’s fine work here is, in fact, her finest with this character.
Batman: The Killing Joke is certainly worth seeing, especially for Batman fans. Despite its flaws, it’s still one of the best films to come from WB Animation’s line of DC Animated features. It’s also a milestone story in the evolution of the Batman-Joker mythos, as important as stories such as “Batman: A Death in the Family” and “The Dark Knight Returns.”
See it on the big screen if you can — you’ve got one more night to do it. Otherwise, enjoy it at home when it comes to digital. Also, if at all possible, read the source material first. It may heighten your sense of the additional material feeling intrusive. But it will certainly add to your appreciation of the production’s effort to honor its inspiration.
Batman: The Killing Joke
Starring the voices of Mark Hamill, Kevin Conroy, Tara Strong, Ray Wise, John DiMaggio, Robin Atkin Downes, Brian George. Directed by Sam Liu.
Running Time: 76 minutes
Rated R for some bloody images and disturbing content.