There are hordes of people who love Michael Keaton’s Batman movies or Nolan and Bale’s Dark Knight Trilogy, but not as many are aware that some of the best Batman films (Mask of the Phantasm, Under the Red Hood) have been animated ones. I fancy myself a Batman connoisseur. And when it comes to animated films about the caped crusader, there are few I don’t own and even fewer I haven’t seen. So when I heard that Alan Moore’s acclaimed graphic novel The Killing Joke was being adapted for an animated film, I immediately prepared my blank check. The excitement only grew when it was announced that the film would be DC Comics’ first ‘R’ rated animated feature.
The Killing Joke, is a controversial classic for numerous reasons, but mainly because of the “definitive” back story it gives to Batman’s sadistic arch nemesis, The Joker. This animated version reunites the iconic voices of Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hamill (Joker) who worked together for over a decade on the Emmy Award winning Batman: The Animated Series as well as the popular Arkham video games. Tara Strong also heads the cast as Barbara Gordon/Batgirl.
The plot to this animated feature is split into two parts. The first (not included in the original graphic novel) follows Batgirl as she tries to prove herself to Batman and take down a mobster’s nephew (Maury Sterling). The second half features the Joker as he injures Batgirl and kidnaps her father, Commissioner James Gordon (Ray Wise). His twisted goal is to torture the Commissioner and prove to Batman that one tumultuous day can turn even the nicest people into maniacs like him.
All of the great philosophical questions about the sanity of both Batman and the Joker remain from the graphic novel and if you’re a fan of the Dark Knight, then it’s hard not to find some enjoyment in anything where those characters are done justice. That being said, it’ll be hard for casual fans and purists not to consider this Killing Joke film to be a bit of a disappointment. There are several reasons why.
The first, and most glaring, is its hardly relevant first half. A film about the Joker and named after the Joker should probably not go roughly half of its runtime without the character even being mentioned. And sure, the original graphic novel alone would hardly span the course of a feature length film, but instead of making the first half of the film a Batgirl mini-movie (that also makes the character seem juvenile), why not expand upon the flashbacks about the Joker’s supposed past? Limiting the actual Killing Joke portion of The Killing Joke to what was originally on the page just makes those elements feel rushed.
Then there’s the fact that this movie is supposed to be Rated ‘R’ and yet characters repeatedly say watered down swear words like “F’ing” instead of using actual profanity. This is especially unusual because other profane words that would be okay in a PG-13 movie are used several times. That might be a small gripe to some, but don’t promote something to be hardcore if it isn’t. Take away a few scenes with point blank gun shots to the head and one inference of rape and the movie could easily have been PG-13. In fact, if you’ve seen the PG-13 rated Batman: Assault on Arkham (a fun animated film about the Suicide Squad), you’ll notice that it is barely less extreme than Killing Joke.
The animation, while fine, only does Brian Bolland’s original artwork justice in spurts. The ending may also be anticlimactic and unsatisfying, but anyone who’s read the graphic novel knows what to expect. At the end of the day, I’ll add The Killing Joke to my collection and it’s certainly worth a watch for casual Bat fans. But if you were one of the people who paid more than the normal price of admission to try and catch the film on the big screen… sorry if it didn’t live up to the hype.
FINAL GRADE: C+