The Killing Joke (2016) | Directed by Sam Liu | Crime/Science Fiction | Rated R | With Mark Hamill, Kevin Conroy, Tara Strong, Ray Wise | DC Comics, Warner Bros. Animation | Box office: 4.4 million USD | Rotten Tomatoes: 48%
Feeling betrayed enough by the other Batman movies this year? Don’t worry, the DCAU has you covered!
Hey, DC fans! I know the recent cinematic outings have been subpar, with weak scripts and poor understandings of the source material, but fortunately for you they’ve been making a bunch of animated movies that are much more faithful. Movies like Flashpoint Paradox (2013), Superman: Doomsday (2007), and Under the Red Hood (2010). They’ve got great acting, great animation, and above all else, respect for the comics that they’re based on. Like The Dark Knight Returns (1986), which was split into two movies just so it didn’t have to cut anything. So despite DC’s less-than-stellar recent cinematic outings, you can always count on their animated films to bring the quality of the comics to the screen.
Oh yeah, and then there’s The Killing Joke (2016).
This film is an adaptation of Alan Moore’s classic short story about Batman and the Joker. In Moore’s story, the Joker pulls off his greatest scheme yet, driving Commissioner Gordon mad to prove that it only takes one bad day to go from a well-adjusted human being to an absolute madman, all while giving the Joker a (potential) backstory. The comic is noted for its characterization, its dark and disturbing plot, and Moore’s stellar use of the kind of nuance only possible in comics (just like in all his other comics), and is one of the most influential Batman comics of all time. The movie largely follows this plot, with one small difference: Moore’s story doesn’t start until halfway through the movie. The first half hour of the film is a story about Batgirl, which is both all-new and almost entirely unrelated to the Killing Joke part of the Killing Joke.
I’m gonna throw a spoiler warning here, since I’ll be talking about things that ruin surprises, even though they are pretty awful. The whole first half makes sense in theory: set up Batgirl as a complex and likeable character so her fate is more emotionally impactful for those who hadn’t read her comics. But like a rich Frenchman with half a neck left, the film is a victim of poor execution. Paradoxically, despite an extra half-hour of character development, Barbara Gordon ends up being more of a weakly written teenage girl archetype than ever. She flirts with cute guy villains, has a bad screenwriter’s idea of a gay person for a best friend, and has sex with her boss. You read that right, BATGIRL HAS SEX WITH BATMAN. There are so many reasons this is wrong (he’s like a father figure, he’s almost twice her age, it’s entirely out of character, just to name a few) but the movie focuses on it as a major part of Batgirl’s story. I long for the Babs with actual complexity, independence, and generally an interesting personality, but alas, DC seems dedicated to squandering my hopes.
For whatever reason, this movie is rated R. While this is totally arbitrary and doesn’t actually affect the quality of the movie, it does raise the question of why this movie seems to think it’s PG. Characters constantly drop not-swears (I don’t even think a single F-bomb is dropped), the violence isn’t even worse than The Dark Knight or other PG-13 movies, there’s no nudity, there’s nothing in it that warrants the rating. It’s just for edgy marketing, but it means the movie has a lot of potential for darker content, and the intentionally lighter content just becomes unrealistic and takes the viewer out of the experience. Perhaps that’s a good thing, considering how painful the experience is.
On the technical side of things, the animation is subpar. It looks like a low-budget anime, with minimal frames and blatant CG being used to save some cash. Despite having some great names like Conroy and Hamill, the acting still leaves much to be desired. Some line deliveries, like the Joker’s “why aren’t you laughing?”, seem to deviate from Alan Moore’s vision (through of no fault of the actor), and others, like Batman’s “the entire first half of the film and a decent amount of the second half” just sound phoned in.
Now I have to talk about something that really irks me: the ending. Moore’s book ends very ambiguously, leaving the reader to wonder whether or not Batman actually killed the Joker. The book gives credence to both arguments, but the movie leans heavily toward the “he straight iced him” interpretation. The Joker’s laughter cuts out at the end, while Batman’s continues, as though he began strangling him, while in the comic their laughter blends together before trailing out, with no solid answer as to who exactly is laughing in each given panel. The book also includes the headlights of a police car as a callback to the joke that caused the laughter in the first place, leaving a layer of symbolism to be interpreted. This mistreatment of Moore’s subtly ambiguous ending is perhaps the movie’s worst offense, since it actually paints the viewer’s opinion on the comic’s ending as well. Moore is already rolling in his grave, and he’s not even dead yet.
Batman: the Killing Joke is not a good movie. It’s a straight-to-DVD release, and it shows. One has to wonder how a film of such terrible quality got any sort of theatrical release, but I think we all know the answer. It isn’t hard to see why Moore took his name off the movie (it’s billed as “adapted from the graphic novel illustrated by Brian Bolland” with no mention of the scriptwriter). To all Batman fans: do not watch this movie. Even if you think you’ll find some redeeming factor in it, you’ll only be met with disappointment and sadness. I want to believe Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016) will be better, but DC is giving me a lot to worry about. If I were to give The Killing Joke a numerical rating, I would say it’s ten shots of bleach out of ten. Don’t watch it.