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Josh Reviews the Animated Adaptation of Batman: The Killing Joke

Released in 1988, Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland is widely considered a masterpiece, one of the greatest Batman/Joker stories ever told. And yet, over the last few years I have noticed something of a critical re-approximation of the work, with many finding fault with the story, primarily because of the degrading act perpetuated upon Barbara Gordon, and the way that act is used primarily to drive the actions of the male characters (Batman and the Joker) rather than in any way exploring the impact if that act on Barbara herself.

This is a perfectly valid criticism of The Killing Joke, and I can understand why some reject the tale entirely.  For myself, I can still appreciate the story in the context in which it was made, going on almost thirty years ago now, and I can appreciate the incredible artistry of the writing and gorgeous illustration work, even as I freely admit to being troubled, as a modern reader, by certain aspects of the story.

The decision to adapt the story for an animated DVD/blu-ray raised my eyebrows, because the not-for-children content of The Killing Joke is central to the story.  Recognizing that, the folks at Warner Animation made the decision to not pull any punches in the adaptation and allow it to earn an R rating.  I must confess that I am somewhat torn about this.  On the one hand, I have long been a champion of the idea that comics, and animation, do not have to be limited to being media for children.  I love the idea of an animated film embracing adult ideas and concepts.  On the other hand, The Killing Joke is so controversial, and such a product of its time, that I wonder whether it was really the best idea as a subject for an adaptation?  To be honest I am not entirely sure where I come down on this question.

Batman The Killing Joke animated.cropped

Unfortunately, this animated adaptation of The Killing Joke is something of a mess.  To address the criticisms of the original story’s treatment of Batgirl, the filmmakers made the very curious decision to add a lengthy prologue — forty minutes long, almost half the length of the whole feature! — that focuses on Batgirl.  In theory I understand why this is done, but in execution it fails almost completely.  The actual content of this forty minute prologue has problems (which I will discuss in a moment) but the biggest problem is that this sequence — which feels like a full episode of Batman the Animated Series tacked on at the beginning of the story — totally unbalances the film as a whole.  The events of the prologue don’t have any impact on the actual Killing Joke story, it’s a totally separate entity. (Albeit one intended to add some backstory to Barbara Gordon before the terrible thing happens to her.)  Alan Moore’s original story has a carefully-constructed narrative structure, with the story’s beginning and ending balancing one another.  Moving the beginning of Mr. Moore’s story to the middle of the film is a bizarre choice and one that breaks the careful narrative of the original.  That the Joker doesn’t even enter this “ultimate Batman/Joker story” until the halfway point should have alerted someone that maybe this new structure was not going to work.

Despite the involvement of talented comic-book author Brian Azzarello, the additional forty-minute prologue is full of problems. First of all, they made the curious decision to add a story element in which young Barbara Gordon/Batgirl has sex with the older Bruce Wayne/Batman.  This has gotten a lot of internet attention and spurred a lot of online outrage.  Myself, I don’t actually have a huge problem with this story idea, in a vacuum.  Actually, fans of Bruce Timm will know that Mr. Timm actually already introduced this idea into the later years of his DC Aninated shows.  There’s something very twisted and wrong about this notion that Batman would hook up with one of his young crime-fighting protégés, but it’s a very human story and one that proved to be fodder for some great dramatic moments in Batman Beyond. But here, it’s a bizarre choice to add to the story, and in many ways it just adds more abuse upon poor Barbara as now she is misused by the heroic Batman (who talks down to her even before he abuses his responsibility as her mentor/father-figure to have sex with her) before she is even further abused by the Joker.

Barbara does not come off well at all in this added story.  She seems entirely at the mercy of other powerful men, from Batman to the sexy criminal who drugs her and flirts with her.  We don’t see Barbara as a strong crime-fighting heroine, we mostly see her moping about how Batman doesn’t love her (to the point of making a scene in a public library about it) and then, after they have sex, moping because he doesn’t call her.  Then, at the end of the story, after Batman decides to end their relationship (note that the man makes the decision for Barbara, rather than Barbara’s being able to make this decision for herself), Barbara decides to hang up her cowl and stop being Batgirl.  Wait, what?  I just don’t understand how any of this was meant to give Barbara more depth as a strong, independent female character as an attempt to balance what happens to her in The Killing Joke.  To me it all seems to have the exact opposite effect.  I am truly mystified.

Additionally, the dumb, genetic criminals featured in this story are so far beneath The Killing Joke’s depiction of the Joker that the comparison of the two is laughable, and the prologue serves to dilute the Joker story that comes later. And don’t get me started on the terrible, painful depiction of the gay best friend they gave to Barbara.  The way that gay youngster is depicted is embarrassing, so generic and cliche.

As for the actual adaptation of The Killing Joke, when we finally get to it, it’s OK.  The best aspect of the adaptation is the decision to use the classic voice-actors of Batman and the Joker from Batman: The Animated Series.  Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill ARE Batman and the Joker in my mind.  I wish DC would use them for EVERY new animated DVD movie.  It’s incredibly joyful to hear them back in these roles, and performing the wonderful Alan Moore dialogue.

The animation is not terrible but it feels on the cheap side.  This is a story I’d love to have seen realized by really beautiful, lush animation, but that’s not what we get here.  Nor is the music that impressive.  Batman: The Animated Series, and many of Bruce Timm’s subsequent animated shows, had terrific, gorgeous music.  (The score for Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, the first animated Batman film that spun out of The Animated Series, is spectacular, one of the best Batman film scores out there.)  But again, sadly, what we have here is not at all memorable.  (I wish they’d reprised some of the great Batman and Joker musical themes from Batman: The Animated Series.)

And so, while the portion of this film that is an adaptation of The Killing Joke is a very faithful adaptation of the original work, nothing quite works on-screen the way it does on the page.  The dialogue feels flat, the scenes lacking drama or suspense.  The Killing Joke is a tense, dangerous read on the page.  This animated adaptation lacks that wonderful intensity.

With the incredibly talented Bruce Timm involved with this project, I had expected far more.  As it is, I’m afraid this animated version of The Killing Joke is a swing and a miss.

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