Batman: The Killing Joke, based on the graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, tells the origin of the Clown Prince of Crime as well as the moral dilemma on whether or not the Caped Crusader is willing to kill him or vice versa. The film stars Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamil as the Joker and Tara Strong as Batgirl; each reprising their roles from Batman: The Animated Series (Strong having previously played Batgirl in the continuation of said series, The New Batman Adventures). The film also stars Ray Wise as Commissioner James Gordon, Robin Atkin Downes as Detective Harvey Bullock, John DiMaggio as Carlos Francesco, Maury Sterling as Parry Francesco and Brian George as Alfred Pennyworth. Set during an undisclosed point in time in the city of Gotham, the film is a superhero drama that serves as a character study for two iconic rivals of fiction. It serves as the first R rated Batman film as well as the first in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies to have said rating.
The movie begins with a prologue detailing Batgirl’s relationship with Batman and how they take down Parry Francesco and his gang. Batgirl feels a bit of love for Batman, which is evident when after a brief scuffle, they have sex on the roof top. Since Batman doesn’t share the same feelings for her and said feeling cloud her judgment, she ultimately decides to retire the Batgirl mantel and remain Barbra Gordon for the rest of her days. After the prologue, Batman then goes out looking for the Joker after he escapes from Arkham Asylum. The Joker then seizes an amusement park, shoots Barbra in the stomach (with the bullet piercing her spine, crippling her permanently), and takes her father to the park where he tries to make the commissioner go insane. The story is intercut with flashbacks to Joker’s past, from his time as a struggling comedian to make ends meet with his pregnant wife, to the time he decides to become a criminal under the guise of the Red Hood.
This movie has alot of ambition and it shows with its faithfulness to the source material. That said, as a storyteller and avid reader, I know first hand that ambition alone doesn’t equal greatness. To start off, the prologue, while fine on its own, didn’t connect to the rest of the film. It’s apparent the creators (director Sam Liu, producers Bruce Timm, Alan Burnett, and Sam Register, and writer Brian Azzarello) wanted to give Batgirl a larger role than she did in the comic and it almost works. While I do feel bad she got shot, I think the impact would’ve been better if the Joker was the villain in the prologue as opposed to Parry Francesco and his uncle. Another problem I have is despite being R rated, it feels like a PG-13 film with more emphasis on blood. There are no “F” bombs, the sex scene mentioned earlier is implied rather than shown, and any form of nudity is covered by another character’s body. If the creators wanted the R rating, they shouldn’t have held back on any of those elements and went all out with the violence.
The acting itself was actually handled very well, especially from Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamil. They easily sink into these characters as they did in the past, making their struggle believable and real. I also liked Tara Strong as Barbra Gordon, as she makes the character sympathetic, emotional, and a real fighter. Ray Wise plays Commissioner Gordon excellently despite not having much screen time; he’s played as a genuine ally to Batman and his timing for when Barbra got shot was on point.
The animation is something viewers are going to love or hate. Personally, I’m okay with the way the animation looks. The characters are designed to look like they came straight out of the comic and it works well enough to appear convincing. Its also worth mentioning that the film recreates just about every panel from the comic, right down to the point where Joker holds a glass of wine over Barbra and says the infamous line, “Here’s to crime.” There also a use of 3D animation, but it’s kept minimal and you’ll most likely not notice.
Having never read the original comic, I feel as though Batman: The Killing Joke had all the right ingredients to make a good adaptation of a classic comic. That said, there in lies the over all problem with the film: it’s not an adaptation, it’s the comic in animated format with a 30 minute prologue. If the creators wanted to adapt The Killing Joke, but also be faithful to it, they should’ve done their own thing while keeping the moral in tack (like Zack Snyder on his take of Watchmen). As it is, this film has excellent voice work, decent animation and interesting characters. All it needed was a more earnest reason to be R rated and for Joker to be the main villain and this would’ve been as great as the creators had hoped. My recommendation is if you haven’t read The Killing Joke, it’s a decent watch at best. However, if you did read The Killing Joke, just do what Alan Moore does with all films based on his work and don’t see it; you’re not missing anything.