Cinematic Releases: Batman - The Killing Joke

We review the highly anticipated animated adaptation of Alan Moore's masterpiece

This is a really hard review for me to write. Alan Moore is arguably the single greatest and most influential comic book writer of all time who penned the original graphic novel, The Killing Joke, which has gone on to be one of the most legendary comics ever written. Now, I completely understand that when adapting something of this caliber, something considered to be easily in the top five graphic novels ever written, there is just no way you can live up to those expectations. I totally get it. It's not easy. So, what do you do? You get the one guy responsible for making possibly the best animated Batman works by the name of Bruce Timm, and a hugely respected contemporary comic book writer in Brian Azzarrello to at least try. You bring out the biggest guns you can and you do it right. They even got Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill to reprise as Batman and Joker, respectively, in their fan acclaimed roles.

How could this go wrong?

In my opinion, it does. The Killing Joke isn't terrible as an animated film. It's also just not good at all. It's less than mediocre. Personally, I really don't get the hatred for their portrayal of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl. Her relationship with Batman felt as natural as it was nuanced. The problem doesn't lie with the sexual content or some kind of supposed misogyny on the part of the writers and producers. I've seen relationships very similar to this happen in the real world with master and student, in fact I know some people who have very healthy relationships that started and evolved not unlike Batman and Batgirl's relationship does and I didn't get the impression that Batgirl was a weaker woman because of what she felt she needed or wanted out of her life as a protégé of a master vigilante. With little issue I take with the writing of her character, the problem is that when coupled with the Killing Joke story, it adds virtually nothing whatsoever to the second half of the plot, which is essentially a lazy, surface-level adaptation of Alan Moore's masterpiece.

"I'm just here for the paycheck."

As I was watching, I kept thinking that the Batgirl story would have worked on its own if fleshed out further as a solo feature. I kept waiting for that transition into The Killing Joke story and how they would twist the two together. It never happens. All of the story development up until the point where the adaptation starts has virtually no bearing on the Batman and Joker plot that develops later. It's like they took two different short stories and put them together just to pad the length. I do understand that Azzarrello and Timm probably wanted to make the audience understand why Batman cares to see this through by building a stronger relationship between him and Batgirl, but not only is it unnecessary, but the themes explored between Bruce and Barbara are entirely abandoned halfway through the film, being explored no further.

How was the Killing Joke part, though? Average at best. Not only does the animation barely pay homage to the stark contrast and colorful pop of the original panels, but it's pretty clunky and dry feeling. There's no power to the action. No soul in the framing. It's been utterly dehydrated of the saturated pallette of Brian Bolland's gorgeous work in the original novel. Even the story loses its calculated ambiguity which is massively important to Alan Moore's vision. The story is as cut and dry of an adaptation as the animation is. In fact, the culmination of Batman and Joker's diametric opposition falls utterly flat. The moment that defines their philosophies, that defines the Batman universe, those final panels of Alan Moore's masterpiece, have lost all of their impact and meaning here.

"Tell me, Joker! Where is the rest of the color pallette?!"

You'd think after nearly thirty years of comic book culture dissecting Alan Moore's masterpiece that these film makers would have a far better grasp of the power behind this story. It's clear that either they don't grasp it, they don't care, or they just did it for the pay check. I don't see any love or respect in this film except from the actors who lovingly recreated the beats and emotions of these characters as best as they ever have. Even the music written by a number of artists, seemed eager to lovingly stroke the right chords with the movements in the story. But that is literally all I could say about it that I enjoyed. Great music and voice acting. The only other singular praise I could call out would be that a handful of key moments were transposed from comic panel to screen... decently. On the other hand, it makes the rest of the film look far more dull by contrast.

Again, I knew full well going in that there would be no possible way it would live up to the original work, and I'm known to be a very forgiving comic fan. I tend to favor the vision of the artists more than the potential reception of fans. I'm a highly vocal supporter of changes and experimentation with the super heroes we've grown to love. I'm all about moving forward and trying new things and seeing how far we can bend or even breakdown our common understanding of the heroes we grew up with. This, however, is a lazy, half-assed, barely surface-level representation of what it should have been with a needless, entirely unrelated story tacked on as a preface.


- J.G. Barnes