When I heard there was going to be an animated version of Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel The Killing Joke, I was happy. This is one of the core Batman graphic novels which shapes the modern Dark Knight. When you hear it is going to be voiced by Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill it sounds even better. Unfortunately, the end result shows some things should stay on a page.
Telling one of the more plausible Joker origin stories. Alan Moore’s novel focuses on the descent into madness of the character brought on by a series of tragic events. A failed comedian, trying to support his pregnant wife, he never can succeed. The pressure grows on him until he reverts to a shady deal with a criminal gang. His wife and unborn child are killed in a freak electrical incident and he has the fateful meeting with Batman, depicted in Tim Burton’s Batman movie with Jack Nicholson. He falls into the chemicals then awakes outside, bleached and with green hair.
On paper, this makes you empathize with the Joker character, it makes you wonder how you would react n the same circumstances and maybe gives you a way to forgive the horrendous acts he carries out in this story. In the novel, the focus is very much on the Joker and he is the driving maniacal force. The film takes a different approach.
While it still shows the origin story above, the film focuses more on the character of Barbara Gordon, Batgirl in the beginning and soon to be Oracle by the end. This is a strange departure and definitely, affects the interest levels in the movie. While it is needed to beef the film out to a feature length running time, the inclusion of so much pre-Joker storyline here will leave many fans disappointed. The pre-Joker element is an awkward tale of Batgirl and Batman chasing down a criminal gang. In itself this is ok but in a film version of The Killing Joke, this downgrades it to just any other animated Batman story. We basically have 30 minutes of Batgirl playing a hot-headed student who is unhappy with Batman holding her back. It has been done before and done much better than it is here. It culminates in the two having an argument that leads to sex on the rooftops. Yes, really I just said that. This actually sets up a dangerous message for the real story of the film. Without this weird sexual relationship, what subsequently happens to Barbara would have been so much more chilling on behalf of The Joker. Now it legitimizes his actions as she is both a valid way to get at Batman directly and an enemy in her own right. In the novel she was just there, it was an unprovoked and maniacal attack on her that fitted perfectly with the Joker. Now it looks predetermined.
The attack itself is one of the most shocking in graphic novels. Barbara is having a night in with her father, Commissioner Gordon when she simply answers the door before being shot in the spine by the Joker. Reading this showed him to be the maniac he is and also to be totally heartless. Because on screen, we have seen how effective she is in battle and that she is in a personal relationship with Batman it ruins any powerful effect the novel had. He planned to do this because she was a threat rather than he did this because she just happened to answer the door. It was shocking in the novel, and while the assault is still violent and shocking the element of surprise is lost as she has been the main character in the film so far and therefore something was obviously going to happen.
After she is shot in the spine the character of Barbara may as well not appear in the rest of the book or film. The focus then turns onto the horrific torture of her father and Batman’s efforts to rescue him. The Joker captures him, strips him naked and forces him to go on a torturous ghost train ride with a bunch of circus freaks. When you read this it seems to go on for page after page and makes you feel incredibly uncomfortable. Again this does not translate to the screen as the whole experience seems to be over in a couple of minutes. The uncomfortable feeling never gets a chance to build and you seem raced to the ending where Batman comes to save the day.
The animation style is also an issue. Unlike the animated version of The Dark Knight Returns, this sticks very closely to the style of the animated series and the novel itself. While this may produce excellent stills, it doesn’t move well. It feels disjointed and frankly dated. The much-heralded R rating for this film isn’t even necessary as the blood and violence are so unrealistic that it could never be viewed as real. In fact, I wonder how it even managed to get this rating. Was it a cynical marketing ploy to appeal to an older audience? Unfortunately after watching it seems that this is the case.
The vocal work of Hamill as the Joker and Conroy as Batman is as perfect as ever. Both steal any scenes they are in and really come to life when they are together. It is only a pity that they were wasted on this adaptation. Like Moore’s other great work Watchmen, it is a film that should have stayed on the page. It is too literal an adaptation not worth your time. For a Killing Joke story to work it needs to inspire a greater story. You would have needed to combine the origin story with a deeper examination of the Joker’s psyche. You do not tack on a love story with Batgirl!
If you want to experience this story buy the graphic novel and experience it as it should be, a brilliant Joker origin story. All you get here is an ordinary episode of Batman: The Animated Series.