Alan Moore’s 1988 graphic novel, Batman: The Killing Joke, is a masterful piece of comic book writing. Batman and comic fans alike often consider it to be one of the most groundbreaking releases in the history of the genre. Not only did it establish the co-dependent relationship between Batman and the Joker, but it also provided the definitive origin story for the Clown Prince of Crime. Although short in length, it is hailed for its darkened tone and iconic art style. The graphic novel is even the top inspiration behind 1989’s “Batman” which helped kick off the modern day superhero movie blockbuster. While possessing this massive acclaim combined with the unbelievable hype built up for a film adaptation for almost three decades since its initial release, it seems almost impossible to live up to the legacy and please everyone. While the book itself was adapted nicely, the additional material added for the sake of reaching a feature-length run-time has many fans up in arms. Following its highly-anticipated release on DVD and Blu Ray, special two-night screenings were held in major theaters across the country on the nights of July 25th and 26th. Having seen the film on the big screen myself, the controversy is most definitely warranted.
For those unfamiliar with the comic, the story revolves around the escape of the Joker from Arkham Asylum. He plans to paralyze Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl) and take revealing photos of her for the sake of not only traumatizing her, but also in the hopes of driving her father, Commissioner Jim Gordon, insane. This is to prove the point that any sane person can be driven mad when exposed to an emotionally crippling experience. In essence, pushing away the pain through letting go of one’s sanity and sense of reality just as the Joker did years ago. This is explained through numerous flashback sequences that depict his own origins as a failed comedian struggling to support his pregnant wife. When he turns to committing a criminal act for income, everything goes wrong and collapses beneath him ultimately leading to his insane transformation into the Joker. The Joker kidnaps Jim and puts him through mental torture in order to fulfill his intent of permanent insanity. Meanwhile, Batman is pursuing the Joker and attempting to put an end to his madness for good.
As fantastic as this story is, the film does not start out here. In fact, the entire first 30 minutes of the 76-minute run-time are devoted to fleshing out the character of Batgirl and her complex relationship with Batman. Bear in mind, none of this is in the comic and it was completely written for the film. This is what holds the film back from being great. The action sequences in this prologue are well-done and there are some great instances where Batman is shown mentoring young Batgirl in order to keep her from experiencing the pain he has felt firsthand. That being said, this prologue quickly serves as a melodramatic glimpse into Batgirl’s love problems/work life while somewhat sexualizing her and portraying the character in a somewhat negative light. Some of the scenes downright belong in a romantic comedy or afternoon soap opera. There is a particular instance that occurs with her that cannot be spoiled. This is what caused the controversy surrounding the film. I feel that Batgirl could have been portrayed as a strong heroine rather than a cliche from a romance novel. It added nothing to the story and could have easily been cut. Also for such an anticipated release of an adaptation of a hugely popular graphic novel, the animation was rather hit or miss. Some scenes depict superb drawn/3D animation while others look worse than the superior ’90s animated series. The inconsistency between good and sloppy was off-putting.
The real reason to see this film is the adaptation of the comic itself which takes up the remaining 45 minutes of the run-time. The absolute best thing about this movie was the return of Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker. These guys are legends as far as I’m concerned and have been doing these roles since the acclaimed animated series kicked off in 1992. An entire generation has grown up with these two voices representing the characters. They are in top form here and deliver quite possibly their best vocal performances in years. Not a single beat has been skipped and watching these two interact in animated form is a true delight for the fans. Moore’s source material is also given the proper respect it deserves as much of the dialogue and panels from the comic are put directly onto the screen. The Joker is even given a broadway-style musical number and it is nothing short of glorious. The darkened tone and unsettling sadistic atmosphere of the comic was portrayed well on film. The main story and flashbacks were all adapted wonderfully and properly make up for the unnecessary prologue. Unfortunately with the prologue taking up the entire first half hour, it makes the wait for Hamill’s Joker to appear quite long and agonizing.
I had a good time with this film. The primary problem is that this film had almost no chance of satisfying everyone’s unreachable expectations. With a graphic novel that has remained so beloved for almost 30 years, a film could never do it justice. Sure this film should have been great, but it was still enjoyable nonetheless. However, a straight adaptation of the novel may have been the best route. The added material did nothing to further the significance of the primary plot and I would have preferred a 45-minute film based on the story people wanted. Batgirl and Batman were somewhat tarnished by the opening act, but thankfully the film is redeemed with the final two acts depicting what was promised. Although this is an animated Batman movie, keep the kids at home. Besides the dark tone and scarier Joker, the film contains blood, sex and foul language to give it that light R-rating. It may have been mildly disappointing, but I still had a great time watching this one in theaters. Batman: The Killing Joke is now available on DVD and Blu Ray. 3.5/5