Friday, August 5, 2016

The Killing Joke (animated movie) review

Warning - This will contain spoilers for both the graphic novel and the animated movie.

    So yeah, this was a thing. Not a good one either. Should you see it? Eh, probably not, unless you enjoy epic failures. There's a lot of really good here but its marred by the same mistakes of the original comic only dialed up to the 11 and entirely new ones added to the process. The Killing Joke is one of the most important comics of the 1980s and it's been questioned whether it should be by many individuals, including Alan Moore himself.

Tara Strong VA-work is beautiful despite the bad writing.
    The one-shot graphic novel has been enormously influential and shaped massive amounts of characterization in both the Batman universe as well as comics as a whole. It's also a story which has somewhat dubious literary merit as while it has all of Alan Moore's trademark style and shock-value, actually is more style over substance.

    I know, blasphemy. However, to review the animated movie is to review the comic along with some really dreadful additions (more on that below) so I thought I'd just throw my .02 on the original graphic novel before I get into the animation itself. In my opinion, The Killing Joke has one really good idea and that's the idea of the "one bad day." This is, of course, the entire point of the comic so I may sound like I'm disassembling but bear with me.

    The Killing Joke has the Joker relate his possibly-true, possibly-false backstory as a Z-list comedian who agrees to take part in a chemical plant robbery in order to support his pregnant wife. His wife, however, dies in a freak accident right before the robbery which he's forced to partake in anyway. During the robbery, he's wearing a costume to serve as a Judas goat for the Batman and gets knocked into the chemicals which transform him into the Joker.

The actors do a great job despite the darker interpretation.
     Essentially, it's a fairly decent explanation for why the Joker is who he is. The Joker had something terrible happen to him and he decided that he would lash out at the world for the rest of his life because of it. It's a comparative experience to Batman and what finally explains their peculiar connection as the Joker realizes Bruce Wayne had a similar experience.

    Explaining away the Joker has its own inherent flaws, however. Batman's Rogues Gallery, Mister Freeze exempted, actually doesn't really need explanations of how they came to be. The Penguin has had like thirty origins and aside from both the Gotham and Danny Devito versions, none of them really effect he's an odd-looking crime boss with delusions of culture.

    The fact the Riddler was a smart but not genius working-class kid with delusions of intellectualism, doesn't really effect his crimes. Alan Moore, himself, said the problem with the comic is Batman and Joker are static characters so there's nowhere really go to with them even if you fill in some of the blanks. As Heath Ledger's version of the Clown Prince of Crime shows, you don't even need to know why the Joker does what he does as anything or nothing could be the event which made him.
The Killing Joke parts are perfect adaptations.

    Either way, the origin story part of the Joker's life is fine. Plenty of real-life criminals have been warped by trying to pay the bills only to end up horribly abused for it. It's just an exaggerated fun-house mirror of it. Unfortunately, the rest of the original comic and story is tasteless and vulgar. The Joker kidnaps Commissioner Gordon, tortures him, sexually humiliates Barbara Gordon, and expects him to snap.

    As a note, I don't actually blame The Killing Joke for crippling Barbara Gordon. That was DC comics' editorial board as nothing prevented them from having her recover from her injury the way hundreds of other shot superheroes have. It's only a combination of factors and the fact she became a symbol for disabled heroes as well as the misogyny of the comic books industry that it became a problem.

    Which comes to the problem with the movie. The Killing Joke adds a substantial bit of backstory to Batgirl as she's a nonentity in the original comic--just Commissioner Gordon's daughter. Unfortunately, the additions are Barbara Gordon becomes Batgirl because of her lust for Batman. Also, she and Bruce Wayne have a sexual encounter right before the Joker cripples her. Okay.

I still think Batman kills him at the end.
      This is a Bruce Timm thing because I can't think of anyone else who thinks this was a good idea. He came up with the idea for it in Batman Beyond, I believe, and now it's appeared here. The age difference thing bothers me less than the power dynamics. After all, forty-something billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne has probably been with a lot of women in their twenties.

    However, Batgirl is certainly portrayed as a young twenty-something at best and is not treated as an effective crime-fighter at all. Indeed, the first thirty-minutes show up screwing up repeatedly against a non-costumed criminal named Franz who is motivated by his lust for Batgirl. A criminal which Batgirl has extraordinarily difficulty with and gets humiliated by on a number of occasions.

    This, pointedly, being a franchise where they have a ten-year-old Damien Wayne fighting crime effectively. Plus, there's the fact Commissioner Gordon is a father figure/best friend to Bruce. Finally, this undermines Batgirl's motivations as a mature woman who admires Batman's glorious justice (at least not as a euphemism). So, no. Just no.

Yes, this is Commissioner Gordon in a dog collar.
    As troubling as the original comic is, it doesn't take quite as much sexual interest in Batgirl as the creators here did. Even the reveal of Barbara's future as Oracle doesn't get rid of the uncomfortable moments of oggling her in skimpy clothing as well as treating her as a lovesick teenager.

    As for the actual adaptation portions? Well, it feels like the first thirty minutes were completely unnecessary. They add nothing and feel like they came from an entirely different movie. No one acts the same whether they're Batgirl, Gordon, or Batman. The dialogue is different between the Azzarello and Moore portions with nothing really feeling the same. While imitating Moore's style is a tall order, if you're going to add to his work then you should probably try. I wish they'd just have kept the adaptation forty-five minutes and adapted A Death in the Family alongside it.  Hell, just leave it as 40 minute movie and do a documentary on the original comic.

    Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill do amazing jobs as both Batman and the Joker. I have no complaints about their performances, which both have perfected across decades of both animation and video games. The production values for the movie are high and there's a lot to say for it. I just wish they'd chosen a more dignified way of handling one of my favorite superheroines.

    In conclusion, I think this is more miss than hit. It's one of the extraordinarily well-crafted awful movies which may be worth a look but only to say why it's so bad. Which, admittedly, are the meat and drink of fanboys. I will say, also, I totally believe Batman killed the Joker at the end. Just a head's up. Sure, it's ambiguous but I think it works better as a story if Batman does it.



  1. One of my biggest beefs with this adaptation was the way they seemed to be implying that the Joker raped Batgirl. Gordon's partner doesn't mention the lens cap to Batman as he does in the comics, and then there was that added scene where the prostitutes mention that the Joker usually comes to see them, but that he must have "found another girl" this time.

    Brian Azzarello, who codirected this adaptation, infamously wrote a story where the Joker rapes the wife of one of his henchmen a few years ago and blew up the internet. The story itself was good, but his job here was to adapt Alan Moore's material, NOT push his own version of the Joker.

    And I agree, Batman absolutely killed Joker at the end of the original comic.

    1. The implications appear pretty strong there as the Joker is much more sexualized than in the comic (which was written before the Joker was conceived of having a sex life). Part of the tonal dissonance of the movie is the fact the original comic isn't about Batgirl.

      It's Commissioner Gordon's "One Bad Day" not Batgirl's, though, ironically it does serve as a tragic event which propels her to be a more effective superhero--that also would undermine Moore's point that the Joker is full of crap.

      Food for thought.

  2. Some various thoughts on the graphic novel:

    It's an interesting character study of the Joker, but very little more. The idea that Joker would have had some tragedy in the past that made him the way he is kind of an interesting link between him and Batman. Having said that, the Joker's usually stated to be some kind of sociopath, which is a neurological condition that manifests in very early childhood. So, the whole "fell into a vat of chemicals" deal seems rather unlikely. However, the other half of Joker's evil (his nihilistic, illegalistic ideology) can easily be seen as something caused by some kind of trauma.

    As a Batman STORY, it's not particularly interesting. Joker shows up, tries to torture Gordon. Batman shows up, curbstomps Joker.

    1. Agreed. In the DCU, the chemical bath could have easily caused a form of brain damage but that's stretching things a great deal. The "nothing matters, so why not laugh" is perhaps stretching it to call it an ideology but it makes sense in the context of summarizing the Joker's character.

      I agree with the rest of your post 100%