MOVIE REVIEW: Batman: The Killing Joke



There is an intrepid base of comic book purists (who may or may not all be versions of the “Comic Book Guy” on the “The Simpsons”) that strongly dislike the tangential manipulation of DC Comics’ heroes on the big screen (cue all the “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” haters with pitchforks and torches).  Those diehards have long known that the animated scene is the place to cherish their beloved characters as they were intended.  Since “Superman: Doomsday” in 2007, Warner Bros. Animation has churned out 26 original movies and graphic novel adaptations of the most cherished and superior storylines the DC Universe has to offer.  One the comic label’s holy grails, 1988’s “Batman: The Killing Joke,” finally receives the feature treatment, one transcendent enough to warrant a rare theatrical debut before full video release, a sign of importance, pride, and confidence.

To the uninformed, “Batman: The Killing Joke,” a one-shot written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland, is a blistering 64-page classic of grim madness that fleshes out the most widely-accepted and definitive origin story of Batman’s greatest villain, The Joker.  The graphic novel routinely, after nearly thirty years, tops the lists of the best Joker stories, and even overall Batman stories, ever told on the comic page.  Filled with rated-R level violence and disturbing content, this is not your Saturday morning or weekday afternoon Batman story.

The animated film version of “Batman: The Killing Joke” begins with an added opening act diverging from the original Alan Moore tale.  An adventure is established illustrating Batgirl’s presence working with the Caped Crusader (Kevin Conroy) in Gotham City.  Daughter of top cop Commissioner Gordon (Ray Wise), Barbara Gordon (Tara Strong) is a quiet librarian by day and a determined crimefighter by night.  Though constantly skilled and helpful, she feels overprotected often by Batman’s non-negotiable rules and decisions.  Their mentor/mentee relationship is put to the test in pursuit of the narcissistic Paris Franz (Maury Sterling), a crime boss heir looking for a bigger leadership stake.

When the rain stops and the bad guys are booked, their Batman/Batgirl alliance is rattled.  Matters are made worse when The Joker escapes Arkham Asylum.  He purchases a derelict amusement park to create his own house of horrors.  The Clown Prince of Crime has targeted Commissioner Gordon and his family in the victimizing effort to show that he can drive a good-hearted man to the same level of madness as him.  His quest to do so mirrors sepia-toned flashbacks to the criminal’s own tragic past, when he was a lowly and unsuccessful standup comedian struggling to make ends meet for him and his pregnant wife.          

Who better to put inject this magnum opus with proper showcase than the voice actors who have played these characters longer than anyone else in their 75-year-plus history.  To multiple generations of fans, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill will be the definitive personifications of Batman and Joker, spanning 24 years-and-counting across numerous animated series and video game portrayals.  When many picture this interlocked hero and villain, they hear their voices before anyone named West, Romero, Nicholson, Keaton, Bale, Ledger, Affleck, or Leto. 

Their returning portrayals here are precise and flawless works of true veterans that know and love the material.  The subject matter of “Batman: The Killing Joke” requires these actors to go to darker places.  Conroy has always been pitch black as Batman, making the dial turn easy.  It’s Hamill that increases his already-high level to reach characterization lengths far exceeding your typical celebrity voiceover.  That laugh is, and has always been, a thing of beauty and terror.  His censors and filters are off, which is a dangerous and riveting surge.  Coupled with the return of the original Barbara/Batgirl voice actress Tara Strong, this reunion is spot-on and special for performance authenticity and excellence.  Further, the go-to Bruce Timm/Alan Burnett animation teams does an adequate artistic job bringing Brian Bolland’s comic panels to startling life through their simplistic animation style.

Modernized and adapted into a feature by notable comic writer Brian Azzarello, “Batman: The Killing Joke” is 100% adult fare not suitable for all audiences with complex dynamics working at every level.  The daring choices made in the extended Batgirl backstory, buttressed as a plot device for length and depth, are drawing loud and warranted controversies.  A few votes of courage will be outnumbered by many calls for recklessness and needless.  After that gross miscalculation, the film is still faithful to its source where it matters and dark where it exactly needs to be.  Buyer beware, take the R-rating seriously and don’t think of this as a cartoon.  “Batman: The Killing Joke” is a horror story, not a swelling or heroic comic adventure.   

This is a grizzled Batman of little emotion and complete control, matching psychological warfare against a Joker more sadistic than any live-action take on the character not played by posthumous Oscar winner Heath Ledger.  The Joker has always been the absolute best adversary of Batman in any entertainment carnation.  The character is so good that whoever plays him brings a new shade of darkness or new wrinkle of evil that adds to the villain’s overall lore and longevity.  Hamill has been establishing new bedrock traits for almost 25 years and his work culminates with this quintessential Joker story that has deserved this larger stage for a long time.

LESSON #1: THE DYNAMICS OF FATAL RELATIONSHIPS—After tangling with death at the hands or machinations of the Joker numerous times over the course of their shared history, Batman is convinced that their relationship will only end in death, speechifying that it is just a matter of who kills who first.  Let Heath Ledger’s Joker explain it even further.   

LESSON #2: OUR INNER STORAGES OF MADNESS—It doesn’t matter how good people maintain themselves on the inside to the best of their abilities, everyone has a limit or breaking point that triggers their craziness.  The right emotional triggers can release pent-up, fight-or-flight rage.  They people that can face the dark abyss that lies at the edge of their limits and return to calmer emotions are greater than those that give in an fall into that void.