Batman: The Killing Joke is two movies. The second is a pretty straight adaptation of one of the most well known and celebrated Batman stories, given a voice by the two most celebrated actors of Batman and the Joker. The first is a half-hour prologue that attempts to remedy the biggest flaw in the original comic story, but ends up getting everything wrong, making things worse, and that’s besides not actually doing anything to affect the plot or characters into the second half.
As an adaptation of the comic, The Killing Joke doesn’t do much to add anything, but doesn’t mind cutting a few corners. The best thing it adds is the voice acting, done by franchise veterans Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker. Hearing these two in these roles is always a treat, and it’s especially fun to hear Hamill read some of the Joker’s most famous monologues. It’s unfortunate that he doesn’t get to read them all.
For a film that decided to invent a half-hour of content in order to reach feature length, it’s surprising that it doesn’t squeeze every last word out of the original source material. And even the stuff it does adapt often feels rushed. It’s understandable that they couldn’t do a completely 100% accurate adaptation; a good chunk of the source material is made of monologues, and even one that’s repeated as “voice-over” over a latter scene – but it’s those sorts of things that give the book have a more cohesive thematic through-line, in a way this adaptation doesn’t.
The story; Batman chasing a recently escaped Joker, who’s on a mission to prove that all that separates normal people and people like himself is “one bad day,” is completely in-tact, but lacks the oomf found in the comic. Bridging two time periods and three points of view, the themes of fighting against inevitability, and sanity vs. insanity become muddled and begin to interrupt, rather than compliment, each-other.
There are also some changes from the source material that are downright confusing. For instance: in the comic there’s a one page wordless montage of Batman interrogating a number of people, including The Penguin, on information to the Joker’s whereabouts. For the film, they remove the Penguin cameo and flesh out the other scenes of the montage. One of them has Batman beating up a street-level crook, the second has him question a mob boss; and the third has him asking prostitutes where the Joker is. It’s the last one that gets me because the adaptation decides to lean into Joker’s sexuality in a way to further victimize Barbara Gordon by even more strongly implying that Joker raped her. There’s a deniability in the original – reading the Joker as asexual, or at least not sexually motivated has been a well-worn interpretation of the character – that spared Barbara from being a victim of rape on-top of everything else the Joker does to her in this story; that the adaptation completely removes.
The victimization of Barbara Gordon has always been the blemish on The Killing Joke – a blemish that this adaptation tries to rectify with its half-hour prologue, but completely fails at, perhaps even making things worse. This story is all about Barbara Gordon as Batgirl (they got that right, at least), but shows her at her least competent, rational, and likable.
Batman and Batgirl are after a rising mob boss with a crush on Batgirl. When the villain makes things personal between himself and Batgirl, Batman takes her off the case, which drives her to solve things before he does. There are heavy shades of a Robin’s Reckoning type story that wants to be told – of a sidekick wanting independence from an over-protective Bruce; but this story doesn’t give Batgirl her due. When Batman takes Barbara off the case, we agree with him because we’ve already seen her be outsmarted and outfought by the mob boss.
And where in Robin’s Reckoning, Robin rebelled against Batman because he wanted his independence; in this story, Barbara rebels because she has a crush on Bruce. And then she gets her wish, and Bruce and Barbara have sex. This is wrong on so many levels. First, there’s the discomfort of the teacher-student relationship becoming sexualized, and what that says about Batman’s character for allowing it. Second, Barbara’s whole motivation, and the eventual fallout of this action turns Batgirl from competent, independent crime-fighter to hormonal, emotionally needy teenage girl.
And this isn’t me trying to demonize female sexuality. It would be fine if Barbara had a crush on teacher, and they made a plot of her struggling to balance her feelings and their professional relationship. And if Bruce weren’t a type of parental figure, it’d even be cool if the two had sex, and for her to realize that’s not what she actually wants. But for them to have sex, and for Barbara to get clingy afterwards, and then for her to give up being Batgirl (!) makes Barbara look like a weak, confused, and naive girl instead of a strong, competent superheroine. If the goal of this half of the movie was to try to make Barbara more of a character before getting fridged, making her even more pitiable was not the direction they should have gone in.
Oh, and they also decide to give Barbara a personification of gay-stereotypes to be her friend, so also there’s that bit of lazy writing.
As for the animation, while the movie’s art direction was inspired by Brian Bolland’s original illustrations; they say that the devil is in the details, but it seems even he had higher standards. This movie borrows Bolland’s character designs, but flattens them, ridding them of details, emotions, movement, and well, character. The animation is fluid, but feels cheap nonetheless. It’s functional, not beautiful.
In an attempt to justify the legacy of, and celebrate The Killing Joke as a landmark of comic storytelling, this animated adaptation only aggravates the book’s faults and flattens its artistry. Instead of watching this, it would do you a lot better to read the original, and also something like Batgirl: Year One. I’m honestly having trouble wondering deciding if this is a worse adaption of the comics than Batman v. Superman, which is something I would have never expected until watching it.