Batman: The Killing Joke | Review
Alan Moore has had a rough go of it. As the author of some of the most iconic, beloved, and critically acclaimed graphic novels in history, you’d think that his stories would be ripe for adaptation in today’s superhero obsessed culture. And you’d be absolutely right.
In 2001 there was From Hell, starring Johnny Depp. In 2003 we got an awful, unfortunate adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. 2005 brought us the unforgettable V for Vendetta, and in 2009 we got Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, both of which were incredibly solid, well-made films regardless of where they differed from Moore’s original source material. So all in all, there’s been some good adaptations of the man’s work, and some very, very bad ones. Moore himself is no fan of Hollywood, and he definitely hasn’t been shy about his thoughts on people adapting his stories.
So when it was announced that Batman: The Killing Joke was going to be made into an animated, feature-length, R-rated film by Warner Bros. Animation, fans of the graphic novel (myself included) were both intrigued and…a little bit worried. How were they going to make a feature length film out of what’s essentially a 48-page story? Would they be adding anything to it? Would they change the writing at all? I had a lot of questions, but I was still hopeful. For one, the fact that it was going to be rated R was definitely a good sign, given just how intense the original story was. And there was even more to be excited about.
Warner Bros. had adapted other stories from the pantheon of the Batman comic book universe, some to critical acclaim. Films like Batman: Under The Red Hood, Batman: Year One, and The Dark Knight Returns have all been very successful, both in the eyes of critics and fans alike. So hearing that they were adapting The Killing Joke automatically made me think that, if nothing else, the story would be told well. And to top it all off, it was later announced that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill would be reprising their roles as the voices of Batman and The Joker respectively. Having two of the most beloved voice actors returning to take one of the most iconic, definitive stories in the Batman universe could only bring good things.
But unfortunately, the voice acting is one of the only good parts of Batman: The Killing Joke. The rest of the movie—the animation, the storyline, the music—has taken what made Alan Moore’s original story so great and thrown it by the wayside. In its place, screenwriter Brian Azzarello has come up with a script that attempts to use The Killing Joke as a vehicle for something that the graphic novel was never really about: Batgirl. The first thirty minutes of the film is essentially a prologue that contains a bit of backstory to the events in that take place in The Killing Joke, which would be perfectly fine if it wasn’t so terrible. The dialogue is cringe-worthy at times, with characters speaking plainly in cliché, some of whom are outright clichés and stereotypes themselves.
But the main problem here is Batgirl. Azzarello seemed to be content with sexualizing her to an enormous degree, and I guess the animation team was OK with it too because we get plenty of slow, panning shots of Barbra Gordon’s breasts and backside, both in and out of costume. But it’s not just that. The addition of Batgirl’s story in The Killing Joke is an obvious attempt at fleshing out her character within the context of what happens to her, which, if you’ve read the graphic novel, is one of the pivotal moments in the story. But rather than adding context, all the first act manages to do is weaken Batgirl as a strong female character, and detract from what should have been a fairly straightforward film with Batman and The Joker at the center. Instead, we get a half-baked story about Batgirl pining for Batman’s approval amidst her utterly irrelevant rivalry with a rising criminal. And without spoiling anything, what happens within the first act is possibly one of the worst depictions of pointless “character development” between two beloved characters in the DC universe.
Once the first act/prologue is over, we move onto the actual story of The Killing Joke, although by the time that happened in the theater I was sitting in, I had almost forgotten that I was watching an adaption and not a completely different film. What could have been a great retelling of a classic Batman story is marred by bad decisions, poor writing, and clunky, uninspired animation. If you haven’t read the graphic novel, I won’t be spoiling anything about what happens, but I can tell you that the film’s depiction of it comes off as just…bland. Conroy and Hamill are tremendously talented in their respective roles, but even they’re pitch-perfect voices can’t break the curse that the first act set upon the film. There are a handful of shots that directly harken back to Brian Bolland’s original artwork in the comic, but with the animation being the way that it is, those shots never rung true to the psychological insanity and the sheer demented nature that’s supposed to be at the forefront of the story.
Most of the memorable moments from the comic are intact within the film, apart from a Joker monologue or two which I really think would’ve helped. But what remains is something that, from the outside, may resemble Alan Moore’s original story, but can’t seem to stop itself from tweaking and changing things around until it feels almost nothing like what I was hoping for. I was just so let down by what I saw in that theater, and I hope that Moore never watches it himself. There’s something sad about ruining a story that has so many great moments, so many iconic pages, and so much to say about two of the greatest comic book characters ever created. But then again, maybe I just didn’t get the joke.