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Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Ray Wise, John DiMaggio, Brian George

Written By: Brian Azzarello, Alan Moore & Brian Bolland (graphic novel; Moore uncredited)

Directed By: Sam Liu

The Shot

Based on the landmark graphic novel of the same name and powered by a dynamite cast, Batman: The Killing Joke should have been one of the Caped Crusader’s all-time great animated films.  Instead, filler material and two major miscues lower its punch considerably and may even render it unwatchable for some fans.

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The Joker’s going tiki in that Hawaiian shirt.  You know he is.

“Why aren’t you laughing?”

Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s graphic novel “The Killing Joke” became a classic the instant it was published.  It was and still is one of the all-time great Joker stories, a top ten Batman comic overall, and one of three graphic novels that can be credited (for better or for worse) for setting the tone that has defined the modern interpretation of Batman in the popular consciousness.  (It’s also a pivotal story in the history of Batgirl.)

Given its age (vintage 1988), it’s remarkable that it took so long for someone to decide to make a movie of it, animated or otherwise, but now the time has finally come.  Considering such exceptional source material, the shield of an “R” rating to handle its dark themes without being hobbled (this one’s absolutely not for the kids, ladies and gentlemen), and a dream cast including Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as animation’s definitive Batman and Joker respectively, how could the result be anything less than another instant classic in its own right?

Unfortunately, the creative team at DC Animation found a way.

But first: the good news!  The aforementioned dream cast lives up to its promise and then some.  Kevin Conroy’s vocal portrayal of Batman brings forth images of a troubled but stalwart hero who is none the less every inch the embodiment of justice, even before one’s eyes have a chance to register the looming image of the character on the screen.  It’s no wonder that an entire generation of fans more easily associates his voice with the character than that of anyone who’s portrayed the Dark Knight in the flesh.  Meanwhile, it’s hard to go wrong with Tara Strong for any vocal performance, and she rides the roller coaster that is this screen story’s handling of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl with exceptional skill, hitting every emotional and analytical note with nary a hitch.  Ray Wise also proves to be inspired choice for the role of her father, Commissioner Gordon; indeed, “Twin Peaks” fans will especially appreciate the readily available comparison to his character on that show.

The hands-down highlight, though, is Mark Hamill’s amazing performance as the voice of the Joker.  Whatever major miscues The Killing Joke may have (and they are coming up shortly), for strongly established fans of Batman as he exists beyond the live action silver screen, Mark Hamill’s work here demands to be experienced.  Even assuming – and I think this one’s safe – that you’ve already heard him play the role in “Batman: The Animated Series” or in one or more of the “Arkham Asylum” games, what he does here is something particularly special, up to and including a macabre Broadway-style number.  (Hamill had, in fact, declared his retirement from the role of the Joker… unless someone made The Killing Joke.  So you know he put his soul into this.)  Absolutely, positively dynamite work, and that is that.

And in case you were wondering, yes, nearly all of the incredible material from the graphic novel that inspired Mark Hamill to work on this project to begin with is here.  Storyline, word-for-word dialogue, panel-for-panel storyboarding, classic ending; it’s here, and it’s 99% faithful, and that faithfulness is good.  Okay, so the director’s presentation doesn’t have the same punch that the comic’s panels did – at least not when the actors aren’t speaking – but still.  99% good adaptation.


That 1% deviation stacked on top of roughly a half an hour’s worth of front-end filler material do really make all of the difference.

The basic premise of “The Killing Joke” is such a deeply entrenched part of Batman lore at this point that I don’t think a simple discussion counts as a spoiler anymore.  (With that said, spoilers ahead the rest of the way.) Boiled down, the Joker seeks to prove to Batman that any so-called decent human being can be driven as utterly insane as he himself is because of just one bad day.  To prove it, he makes a case study of Commissioner Gordon, and a victim of his daughter Barbara (whom only Batman himself knows to be Batgirl).  Along the way, he suggests a possible origin for himself, too.  (Though longstanding Batman fans know to take anything the Joker says with a barrel of salt and assume he’s at least somewhat lying.  As the Joker himself says, “If I must have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.”)  All of this, and Batman’s handling of the situation, is good.

Unfortunately, since “The Killing Joke” is only 64 pages long, screenwriter Brian Azzarello was tasked with tacking on extra stuff, which he accomplishes primarily by front loading what amounts to a new R-rated take on an “Animated Series” episode in which Batman and Batgirl run down a mob scion named “Paris Franz.”  (Yes; even Batman groans at the name.)  There’s some conflict between Batman and Batgirl, and that’s fine… but the post-beating-each-other rooftop sex is not.

Yeah, you read that right.

If you’re not an established Batman fan – which is unlikely if you’re going deep enough to watch an animated film, though admittedly possible – then it is a ham-handed, utterly out-of-place plot device moment that destroys the film’s pacing and just doesn’t seem to fit the characters at all.  If you are an established Batman fan, then this encounter is an abomination that just might make The Killing Joke well-nigh unwatchable.  And if that doesn’t do it, maybe the implication that the Joker goes on to rape Barbara Gordon – which is absolutely not implied in “The Killing Joke” graphic novel and represents the one deviation that this screenplay takes from it – will.  As for me, those two sexual deviations are going to keep me from buying the blu ray… and probably from ever watching The Killing Joke again, for that matter.

And that is a shame, because it’s all so avoidable.  The rooftop sex and the implied rape did not need to happen to tell the same story; even the same adapted story.  Had Azzarello simply stuck a mediocre television episode story in front of the much better “Killing Joke” material, it would still have been a fairly good movie.  Not the classic the source material deserved, but still fairly good.  But the little bit too much… is way too much.

Thus, as much as I had hoped to be able to recommend Batman: The Killing Joke as a good way to expand one’s horizons into the animated world of the Dark Knight, I just can’t.  Established Bat-fans will probably want to take a single look simply for the outstanding vocal performances (especially Mark Hamill’s) and to be ready with fuel when the inevitable fan debates happen, but ownership potential is greatly diminished.  As for the casual viewer, I’d suggest picking up a different movie title to stroll into the animated world of Batman with, and picking up the actual graphic novel (or an e-version thereof) to experience the real story of “The Killing Joke.”

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, July, 2016

More From The Bar! | Batman v. Superman | The Equalizer | Batman |

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