As mentioned many times on FORCED PERSPECTIVE, I am not a comic book guy – Adolfo is. This is why I heavily value his insight whenever we review a “comic book film” on the show together – he always brings a unique insight to the film and its source material, from a perspective that I could never match. But that’s not to say that I haven’t dabbled in any sort of comic book; in fact, being a huge Batman fan, there’s a few stories that are must-reads. One of them is THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, another is BATMAN: YEAR ONE. But which is my personal favorite? That’s right – THE KILLING JOKE.
Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland, 1988’s THE KILLING JOKE is not only an incredible Batman story, but it is also what many consider to be the definitive Joker story. In short, the entire story details the Joker’s attempt to prove a point to Batman – that anyone can go insane after having one bad day. How he goes about this attempt is what gives THE KILLING JOKE a lot of its fame amongst Batman fans and comic book readers; it’s a very ruthless interpretation of the Joker that sees him cripple Barbara Gordon (a.k.a. Batgirl) and subsequently subjecting her father, Gotham City Police Commissioner James Gordon, to unspeakable mental torture.
I first read THE KILLING JOKE back in 2008 once I had learned that it was given to Heath Ledger by director Christopher Nolan in order for Ledger to prepare for his role as The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT. Immediately upon reading, I was absolutely mesmerized by it. Not only was the story an incredibly insightful read, but the artwork was just out of this world – Bolland’s illustrations added the perfect complement to this very dark and noir-like narrative. Right now, the deluxe hardcover anniversary edition sits proudly on my shelf in full-on display mode. It’s a piece of Batman’s long history that I am proud to say that I own.
So naturally, when I found out that Warner Bros. animation was finally going to adapt THE KILLING JOKE into a full-length animated feature, the fanboy in me start jumping up and down like a 5-year-old after finding out that he’s going to Six Flags today! The previous DC Animated film that I had watched, BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, was an absolute home run, in my opinion. As a result, my expectations for BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE were pretty high. After finally checking out a special screening at my local movie theater, the verdict is in.
The first thing you should know about BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE – if you don’t already – is that the first half of the film doesn’t exactly follow the graphic novel; in fact, it’s a 100% brand-new addition by writer Brian Azzarello and producer Bruce Tim. In this “prologue,” Batman and Batgirl track down a rising crime leader named Paris Franz, responsible for multiple robberies around Gotham City. The nephew of Gotham crime lord Francesco, Franz becomes obsessed with Batgirl, to the point where Batman forces her off the case. Batgirl, however, will not be deterred so easily.
At this point, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the “controversy” surrounding this first part of BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE. For those of you looking to avoid spoilers, I would skip over the rest of this paragraph and move on to the next one. Do it now…hurry up…still here? Good – so at one point in this story, Batman and Batgirl have sex. Yes, you read that correctly. This aspect of the story has certainly riled up a good percentage of the fan base. As for yours truly, it honestly didn’t really bother me. While I understand the viewpoint of it being “creepy,” considering that Batman and Batgirl traditionally have a father/daughter, teacher/student relationship, for this adaptation of THE KILLING JOKE, I felt that adding this layer to the relationship, in essence, heightened the stakes for Batman to really go after Joker when things go horribly off the rails.
But overall, the prologue story didn’t bother me in any way, shape, or form. I rather liked the fact that director Sam Liu and his team expanded Batgirl’s role in the story. In the original graphic novel, Barbara Gordon is nothing more than a victim; here, you see a little bit of backstory that really helps to humanize Barbara, which makes her tragedy that much more heartbreaking when it inevitably does happen.
Following this first part of the story, the rest is essentially a panel-for-panel reproduction of THE KILLING JOKE. Normally, shot-for-shots aren’t my cup of tea, especially when it comes to films (I’m looking at you, Gus Van Sant). But seeing as how I enjoyed BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, which was also mostly panel-for-panel, I can’t look down at BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE for it. I’d be more worried about changing anything about the original narrative in that regard as I’m sure the fan base wouldn’t have been too happy about it. So for fans of the graphic novel, great news – your beloved story remains fully intact, right down to its iconic ending!
Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprise their iconic roles from BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES as Batman and Joker, respectively. The one thing that I absolutely cannot knock about this film is the voice acting – Conroy and Hamill are still on top of their games and give incredible performances, as does Tara Strong as Batgirl. Seeing Batman and Joker on the big screen together, with Conroy and Hamill providing their voices, took me back to 1993 when I was a 6-year-old boy coming home from school in the afternoons, parking myself in front of the television to watch BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES. The sense of nostalgia just swelled up in me, and I was completely engulfed in emotions – not only were Conroy and Hamill together again as Batman and Joker, they were together adapting my favorite Batman story. I just couldn’t believe what I was witnessing – and I enjoyed the heck out of it.
For fans of Brian Bolland’s iconic animation, the look of the film might be disappointing. While I personally didn’t mind the animation style, I was hoping for something a little more closely resembling Bolland’s artwork. Instead, we got the usual DC Animated Film-style of animation, which is not a bad thing. However, I felt that this particular story merited a more unique style of animation, and at least attempting to faithfully adapt Bolland’s artwork would’ve sufficed in giving the film that unique style.
Overall, this was a very enjoyable film experience. I felt that the film’s prologue gave more character depth to Batman and Batgirl, in preparation for the story’s grislier events, while also remaining faithful to Alan Moore’s original narrative. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill deliver stellar performances as the iconic hero and villain, locked in a seemingly-eternal struggle but who, according to Moore, are cut from the same cloth. I feel that not only Batman fans, but fans of the graphic novel will enjoy this film. Granted, it’s not the greatest Batman film ever (animated or live-action), but it served its purpose by not only bringing to life a beloved story, but also reuniting Conroy and Hamill to tell that story. All things considered, this was a very enjoyable film experience.