Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke is arguably one of the most iconic graphic novels in the bat-repertoire, providing inspiration for countless adaptations of the Batman/Joker relationship. This film seemed inevitable since DC Universe Animated Original Movies has had a fairly successful run of 25 films to date (this makes 26) and such a hot property is a sold ticket for many fans. But Sam Liu’s The Killing Joke has garnered some back-lash for choices it makes outside of its approach to the original content.
The first thirty minutes of Brian Azzarello-penned script are a tacked-on Batgirl story constructed to give more gravitas to the eventual shock of the graphic novel’s shock events. It’s a bold move, beefing up a classic story with an original prologue, but it makes some sense in some respects. Barbara Gordon is little more than a catalyst for the Batman/Joker dialogue in Moore’s story, but any attempts to make her anything more in the film are seriously undermined by a whopper of a dodgy decision. In a controversial move, Batgirl (Tara Strong) and Batman (Kevin Conroy) hook up in the midst of an anguished plot characterised by an obsessive upstart gangster with a dangerous attachment to Batgirl. Paris, voiced by Maury Sterling, is a pretty-boy mobster added to terrorise Batgirl, even going so far as to make uncomfortable leery comments after he’s gassed her and unconsciousness begins to take hold. It’s a dark moment, and when considered alongside the Joker’s later use of photos of Barbara, makes sex with Batman look even worse. It seems odd for both characters and pretty much perverts the fatherly role Batman takes with all his protégés.
Thankfully, once the damage is done, the film goes on to achieve a pitch-perfect rendition of the source material with a ridiculously potent turn from THE Joker, Mark Hamill. The animation won’t be for everyone because it’s oddly uncanny, fusing the visual style of Brian Bolland and the distinct deco-inspired cityscape of The Animated Series but it’s not enough to really damage the script. The dark touches are rendered beautifully and blood is used sparingly, if brutally, from the Batgirl segment right through to the end. But then, that’s testament to the moody Noir elements of Moore’s story, The Killing Joke is essentially a macabre, darkly comic thriller which flaunts the macabre potential of the Batman universe proudly. It’s a short story which acts as a kind of philosophical espresso on two bizarre but brilliant characters and that’s probably why the opening story stands out so much.
More than anything, The Killing Joke feels like a final stamp of approval on Hamill and Conroy’s incredible pairing, giving the two performers a great story and some of the best Batman/Joker dialogue available to prove why they’re still as potent a pairing more than twenty years since they started. Hamill in particular provides his most layered rendition of the Clown Prince of Crime to-date, seizing the opportunities in Moore’s story to flesh out Joker’s chaos with a little tragedy, back-story, and the calmer tones of a pre-acid supervillain.
The proverbial thorn in the side of The Killing Joke comes in the form of a one-night-stand none of us wanted to see. For an adaptation of one of the most important Batman/Joker comics, this is a surprisingly distracted project, attempting to readdress the “collateral” of Moore’s story. Instead Azzarello’s script makes Batgirl an even more perfunctory prop (in a segment that would have made a better episode) then goes on to let Hamill and Conroy work their magic with Moore’s work. In the end, though, The Killing Joke is an enjoyably twisted animated Batman film with a good pace and a gripping story, ultimately watchable for its iconic dialogue and superb performances.
Dir. Sam Liu
Stars: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Ray Wise