The Batman’s most infamous enemy has one more punchline up his sleeve, but it won’t be so funny to those taking part in its setup. Based on the classic comicbook storyline by writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland, this almost note for note retelling comes to a broader audience via animated form.
This is not a negative review
I’ve made no secret of my disappointment in the DC universe as a whole; the characters are just not very plausible and I’ve never really bought into most of them for simple core logic reasons. I’d argue that’s part of the real reason the DC Cinematic universe isn’t capturing audiences as well as it could. That said, I can appreciate the intent. All the characters have great potential and I’m open minded enough to give creators a chance to win me over.
I was never a big fan of the idea of the Joker getting a backstory. I’m aware that his Red Hood origins have been around since day one, but a character like the Joker works IMO because his real strength is in his unknowability. We have an easy ability to fear what we don’t (can’t?) understand. Joker has the calculating brilliance of a sociopath while simultaneously exhibiting the complete unpredictability of a psychopath. What could be more frightening…he’s scary because we have no hope of understanding him. We can’t possibly know him and that makes it near impossible to beat him. So, to then attempt to know or understand what makes him tick robs him of his greatest power. He’s the monster in the shadows that has just been exposed as the disheveled raincoat on the hangar. The Nolan team understood this when they created their version with Heath Ledger, but Alan Moore, for all his brilliance as a writer, seemed not to grasp this when he wrote his version decades earlier. Incidentally, in the afterword to the collected series, the book’s artist Brian Bolland suggests he agrees with my assessment of the character.
So, all that said, I wasn’t exactly excited to revisit what I considered an unnecessary narrative. Those low expectations going in might have put me in just the right mood to enjoy this adaptation of that infamous story.
The Spoiled bits (aka Spoilers!)
The animated version of The Killing Joke translates the source material almost note for note, but also expands and weaves in a new story involving Barbara Gordon (batgirl). The Batgirl subplot seems to have created quite the controversy and I’m not particularly sure why. I can understand why the creators expanded her story. In the comicbook she’s never seen or referred to as Batgirl and is only ever seen out of costume in the now fateful sequence involving her and the Joker. It makes perfect sense that the animated team would choose to expand her part for some pretty important reasons. Chief among these reasons is that it adds emotional impact to her eventual scene with Joker because we’ll have grown attached to her leading up to that scene.
The comicbook relies on readers already having that pre-existing knowledge and attachment to Barbara, but the animated filmmakers can’t make that assumption. It’s reasonable that they’d want to broaden the impact of the scene by making it clear who this character is (besides just being Commissioner Gordon’s daughter) and why it should matter that she’s been hurt. By the time we see her get shot, we should know Batman has real personal feelings for her and the stakes are higher than usual. So, despite good intentions Batman’s choice to this point of letting Joker live has caused yet another person he cares for to be affected. It potentially makes you question whether Batman will retaliate with some permanent violence of his own once he catches up with the Joker again.
Of course all that reasoning aside, I can also see the perspective of others who will argue that expanding Batgirls story in the way that the filmmakers did had the unintended consequence of taking away from the core story; that of Joker vs Batman. We don’t really need that much backstory for Barbara to understand that Joker is a menace that must be stopped — certainly we didn’t need to see Batgirl and Batman do the nasty to get the point across that they have a relationship. A tender hand on the shoulder (something Batman would likely never do) would speak volumes about his feelings toward her.
In the end though, I fall on the side of the filmmakers. I think the story works for what it is. It could certainly have been handled better, but it works for me.
The principle voice cast is excellent. Mark Hamill as the Joker is always a joy to listen to. That creepy laugh that only he can seem to really pull off. He also really nails the morbid punchlines. Kevin Conroy as Batman has always been perfect and Tara Strong as Batgirl was always a great choice. Ray Wise as Commissioner Gordon is solid. I didn’t even realize it was him. Great job all around.
The animation quality is on par with other DC animated straight to video releases. The character designs aren’t quite what I was hoping for. Lacking in elegance. Very down and dirty which makes for cheap looking results.
Overall I would say the translation from the page was aptly handled. Nothing will replace Brian Bolland’s great character designs and color work, but much of Alan Moore’s dialog is word for word and certain sequences are note for note from the book so, fans of the source material should look forward to revisiting this seminal storyline again. Give it a look when it hits a streaming service near you.