Spencer Smith ’19 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
‘The Killing Joke’ (written by Alan Moore and drawn by Brian Bolland) is one of the most important, most celebrated, and most controversial comic books in its medium. It is arguably the defining Joker story and written by arguably one the greatest writers of the medium. Its influence stretches far and wide in the Batman universe. So when it was announced that DC Animated Universe and Bruce Timm were going to adapt it, expectations were high. They became higher when Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill were announced to reprise their roles. Even higher when it was announced that Batman: The Killing Joke would be the first R-rated animated comic book film! With spirits held high, a studio with a decent track record and the defining actors for Batman and the Joker, how could anything go wrong?
For those unfamiliar (possible spoilers ahead) The Killing Joke follows Joker’s attempts to prove that he can drive anyone as mad as himself with “one bad day”. He has a nefarious plan to use James Gordon as his example but all the while he is remembering his own bad day, the day he became the Joker. If you see what’s trending about the film adaptation though, you most likely have heard about one thing, and that is the Batgirl prologue. That comes later in the review but yes, it is just as bafflingly sexist as you’ve heard; but since it’s a pointless new story added to the original, how about the actual adapted part of The Killing Joke? After all it’s just the prologue, the actual adaptation holds up right? Sadly, it does not.
It is becoming evident that The DC Animated Universe has become lazier with their filmmaking. The studio’s last truly great film was Batman: Under the Red Hood and afterwards, nothing has been any more than enjoyable. Sadly, many of their current filmmakers seem lackluster. It’s evident that director Sam Liu is not a great visionary director. While Liu has striven to accomplish the basic visuals, it doesn’t share the same complexity. Maybe not in it’s animation but in Liu’s direction. The cinematography doesn’t even come close to the comic’s complexity. It feels more visually akin to a studio sitcom than a cinematic film. There’s hardly any noteworthy composition. Of course when adapting a comic one shouldn’t simply rip off every image but it should also have the same essence in the visual style of the comic. The film simply does not do that.
The writing is more of a mixed bag. There are times when the film really manages to bring Moore’s writing to life such as the hospital scene or the final fight. The best scene in the entire film is perhaps the comic’s most infamous: the paralyzing of Barbara Gordon. In fact, it’s the best directed part of the film. It’s perfectly paced, directed, animated, and written; capturing the scene’s horror beautifully. Yet these are only moments and the writing ultimately doesn’t adapt the original well. It falls into the trap of being overtly faithful to Moore’s writing and that practice rarely translates well to the screen. It doesn’t adapt, instead it poorly imitates.
If there is one thing the film does do indisputably well though it is the voice acting. While the entire cast is absolutely fantastic, it truly is Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill’s show. It is simply impossible to deny their talents. Just hearing Hamill bringing Moore’s Joker to life is chillingly perfect; it’s almost as if Hamill has been waiting to read the lines his whole life and it could be considered his defining take on the character. Conroy may have less to work with but his performance is splendid when he is there. The two are the defining versions of Batman and the Joker. If both weren’t in the film together, it would simply feel wrong.
Speaking of things that are wrong, it’s time to talk about that prologue (SPOILERS AHEAD). The prologue was added apparently to add depth to Barbara Gordon’s character which was a good idea. Moore’s comic, like many classics has a bit of uncomfortable casual sexism. Barbara was treated more like an object, she was a tool used by the male characters in the story. It wasn’t overt but it isn’t simply excusable either. So when updating the story, the prologue sounded like a good idea. Instead, it made it worse; much, much worse.
The prologue follows a case that causes to Barbara retire as Batgirl. Apparently the reason was that Batgirl and Batman had a romantic relationship culminating in a sex scene that is the most cringeworthy moment in film this year. Batgirl has been sidelined by becoming Batman’s overly emotional girlfriend, and that is not who Barbara has ever been. What the creative team of The Killing Joke have done is insulting to Barbara Gordon, to Batgirl, and to female superheroes. It is sexist, short-sighted and inexcusable.
Yet even if it wasn’t misogynistic, this film has so little to offer. It isn’t a compelling adaptation of the source material. It doesn’t capture the essence Moore’s splendid writing, and even less so with Bolland’s spectacular visuals. If it was meant to update the story, it fails and spectacularly so. It somehow managed to make the story even more sexist and controversial; but The Killing Joke comes out more disappointing than anything else. While glimpses of a great film occasionally surface they are only in brief moments and the voice acting.
Batman: The Killing Joke is a failure as a whole. It simply does not possess the same craft as it’s source material. Maybe it’s proof that Alan Moore is right, maybe his novels are simply unfilmable. Yet it’s also proof that the DC Animated Universe cannot just lazily put together films anymore, they need to step up their game and considering the deserved backlash, they need to do it fast.
Overall Grade: D-
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