Despite the reverence Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke enjoys in the heart of comic aficionados, it really is a strange choice for Warner Bros. Animation to adapt into their next feature film. For one thing, it’s incredibly short. And aside from one key moment early on, there really isn’t all that much to the story that is there. The real narrative value comes from the characterization of the Joker as he dances between his wacky/cartoonish origins and his more frightening psychotic interpretations. But even that often proves quite subtle, and when combined with minimal action and a deliberately obscure climax, the studio was going to need a lot of filler to pad out the running time.
Surprisingly though, it’s actually the filler that steals the show and gives the film its best material. The screenplay (written by critically acclaimed DC comics veteran Brian Azzarello) is split right down the middle, dedicating the first half to an enjoyable Barbara Gordon/Batgirl story, and the second as an extremely faithful (though very safe) adaption of the source material. The two do feel fairly divided; almost the entire cast changes over, the lead protagonist switches over, and the plotlines don’t really follow through. Despite the disconnection, it does kind of work thanks to one specific but crucial component that connects the two stories. If you’ve read the original story or know about the big moment from it you can probably read between the lines here, but at the risk of spoiling it for the uninitiated I’ll just say that they are two mostly unrelated stories, and what works best in both of them is enriched when put in context of the other.
Don’t worry, that’s as cryptic as I’m going to get.
As you probably gathered from the above, it’s the Batgirl material that’s the real success story here. Voiced by Tara Strong, the daughter of Commissioner Gordon and protÃ©gÃ© of everyone’s favorite brooding superhero is a girl with a lot to prove. Ignoring obvious traps and enjoying the superhero game a little too much, she starts stepping on Batman’s toes, and is driven to rebel even more as he condescends and tries to keep her in line. It’s a familiar story, but it’s told with maturity and enthusiasm. It’s made all the more entertaining by how much of a dick Batman proves to be, leaving Barbara constantly second-guessing and swirling in emotions she clearly isn’t ready to deal with.
A veteran of voicing Batman, Kevin Conroy’s irritably stoic take works wonderfully as a foil to Barbara’s ambition, but sadly much much less so when he takes the lead in the film’s second half. While Conroy obviously has plenty of history with the character and has a take on Bruce Wayne that he has crafted over a long time, he is so utterly wooden in his line reading that it becomes impossible to treat the film as the mature piece of drama it so often strives to be. Alan Moore is a wordsmith, and even though his dense dialogue can be a little theatrical to adapt, there always remains a certain whimsy or poignancy. But Conroy’s heavy tread and monotone delivery robs Moore’s dialogue of its magic completely, leaving all the heavy lifting to his clown-faced counterpart.
Thankfully, Mark Hamill proves again to be a fantastic Joker, delivering every line with an unpredictable enthusiasm. His relentless cackle and vaudevillian delivery slips seamlessly into a droll and deadpan delivery, speaking volumes about one of the most complex and heavily analyzed characters around with the simplest of character beats. He’s a man that has embraced his lunacy as the only sane reaction to the madness of the world, a philosophy that is sometimes a little too tempting to empathize with.
While the Joker’s crazy ideals work to make him a fascinating on-screen presence, the script’s exploration of them is heavy-handed to the point of derailing the film’s momentum. A big part of the problem is simply that some things work on a comic page that don’t work on screen. Joker’s plan is far too zany and ambiguous to capture the tension the movie tries to imply. Sure, there are great character insights and bits of subtext flying all around, but it’s dramatically unsatisfying and at incredible odds with the much more grounded first half of the film. Worse are the flashbacks into the Joker’s “origin”, which worked well in the comic because of some careful framing around them and whether or not they could even be believed, but here seem downright trite.
There is a lot to unpack (maybe not as much as the original short story, but still), but whether that’s what you want in an animated superhero movie is going to vary significantly from person to person. Perhaps the bigger problem is that The Killing Joke sometimes forgets what it’s trying to be and falls back into out-of-place action tropes. The fight scene with the carnival freak show, in particular, is something I could have done entirely without, especially at such a late point in the narrative. Even the film’s R rating in the U.S. (a first for an animated Batman film) seems like a ploy to trick audiences into expecting a violent and gritty drama. Which isn’t to say the flashes of violence or adult themes feel gratuitous or out of place, but they certainly don’t feel necessary either.
Despite all its praise, the original graphic novel was always going to be a damn hard story to turn into a film, but thanks to some unexpected fresh material The Killing Joke manages to stretch it into something worthwhile. The film’s shortfalls and shifting tone from one half to the other hold it back from being a must watch. But between the fun and grounded (as much as an animated superhero movie can be) Batgirl story, and the madcap Joker exploration that follows, Batman: The Killing Joke is an easy recommendation for anyone looking for some interesting Batman material.