Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke is one of the most influential, seminal graphic novels of all time. It is so ingrained into the public consciousness of who Batman and the Joker are, that nearly every big screen representation featuring the two have borrowed from it in some way. Now it finally gets a big screen adaptation of its own, and while added elements bring very little to the story, the core of DC’s latest animated flick is an otherwise faithful, and well-crafted recreation of the harrowing classic.
The first and biggest point of contention for this adaptation is going to be the highly-criticized Batgirl elements. In order to give the later proceedings a bit more dramatic heft, this telling of The Killing Joke was given a prologue, narrated by Barbara Gordon. This prologue takes up a good half hour or so of the film’s lean seventy five-minute runtime, and while it does its best to tie in new elements to the story, most of them fall flat, feeling half-baked at best, and ill-conceived at worst. While I won’t go into spoilers, the Batgirl section was a major letdown, opting to focus on Batman’s sidekick over him, even though the crux of The Killing Joke has always been the dichotomy between Batman and the Joker, but more on that in a bit.
Once the Batgirl section ends, we are immediately moved into the beginning of the established Killing Joke plot. From here, it is a mostly faithful adaptation of Alan Moore’s story, for better and for worse. I won’t spoil anything too badly, but if you are familiar with the comic, you know almost exactly what to expect from the film. Joker escapes from Arkham and sets in motion a plan to prove to Batman that every normal person can go just as crazy as him, all the while reminiscing on his origins through a series of flashbacks. It’s in this section that the film earns its R-rating, although looking at some of the harder PG-13 films in DC’s catalogue, it might be hard to see why at times. Nevertheless, animators did a wonderful job bringing the world of Moore’s novel to life, even if it often lacks the 80’s color palette of Brian Bolland’s illustration.
One of the biggest flaws in the film is a distinct lack of connective tissue. The Killing Joke is a short book, so I understand the need to lengthen it. The problem with the way the producers chose to do that lies in the fact that there is almost no connection between the events of the first half of the film and the latter section. The opening sees characters and emotions clash, but by the time the dust settles and Batman walks up the Arkham steps, there was almost no reason for any of it to have happened. If the events had somehow set The Killing Joke into motion that would be one thing, but instead we are left with two individual stories, neither of which really want Batman as the main character.
This brings me to my single biggest problem with the film; it never really focuses on Batman. Joker might be the main focus, but what Batman is feeling and thinking throughout Joker’s scheme is just as important to the themes of the film. Instead of investing in the second most important character in the story, the filmmakers decided to invest in the third favorite character, carving out an entire plot line just for her, only to have it go nowhere once the traumatic events of the graphic novel begin to unravel. In many ways, it turns an incredibly rich premise – to expand the lore of The Killing Joke – into a weightless disappointment.
But that doesn’t mean the whole film is a loss. For the most part, the end made up for the inadequacies of the first half, even if that’s not saying much. When Joker’s plan gets into full swing, I couldn’t help but be swept up in the madness onscreen. Action flies across the screen fluidly, and the more violent aspects of the comic are adapted well, losing none of their initial shock value in the process. While the script does get a bit too verbose at times, it all resonates well with my inner fan. If it were put into a live action film it would be laughable, but nestled between the sound animation and larger-than-life performances, it feels right at home.
That is due almost entirely to the absolutely stellar voice cast, spearheaded by Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy reprising their roles opposite one another for the first time in an animated feature in over a decade. Conroy’s moments of quiet contemplation paint the ideal picture of Moore’s Batman, as someone who is ready to go as far as he needs, even against his better judgement. While Conroy brings his A-game, it’s Mark Hamill who really steals the show. Akin to his performance in the Arkham series, Hamill’s Joker is vile, creepy, and utterly despicable, all while being the most likable character onscreen. It is evident how much he poured into this performance in every line he reads, and he even does a fantastic job of showing the man behind the Joker in the quieter moments of the story. Even if you think you’ve heard everything possible from Hamill’s Joker, you have never seen him like this.
The supporting cast is filled with all-star talent as well, including Robin Atkin Downes (Metal Gear series), Ray Wise (24), Nolan North (Everything), Tara Strong (Batman: Arkham series), and John DiMaggio (Gears of War series). Each and every member of the cast does a fantastic job bringing the source material to life, and Tara Strong’s Batgirl is very well done, even if she is placed in the middle of meaningless fluff.
Also of note is the soundtrack. While you won’t find any thundering scores a la Batman v. Superman here, there is still plenty to appreciate in the subtle, industrial sounds the score has to offer. The soundtrack serves to highlight the unsettling nature of the subject matter, and does so very well, permeating a foreboding atmosphere throughout the duration of Joker’s mad reign.
For many, The Killing Joke adaptation has been a bit of a disappointment. I can’t help but wonder, however if it was a victim of its own hype, making disappointment inevitable. While the adaptation of Joker’s origin story is far from a flop, it can’t help but feel padded with an unnecessary plot line that does nothing to further the overall narrative. Thankfully, the performances within elevate what would otherwise be a middling product into being an acceptable one, albeit not without some caveats. In the end, The Killing Joke can’t quite reach the lofty standards set by DC animated greats like The Flashpoint Paradox or Under The Red Hood, but it can settle for a spot right below.