1980s’ Batman graphic novel ‘The Killing Joke‘ retains a place of infamy for the brutality it featured and the consequences it left in its wake. So it’s disappointing that the new animated adaptation is more abusive in its own way…
Though Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen get a lot of the mainstream coverage when it comes to how the 1980s changed comics, it’s another of Alan Moore’s works, The Killing Joke, that retains a certain infamy. Illustrated by even-then veteran and respected artist Brian Bolland, it told of a definitive confrontation between Batman and The Joker – examining both their origin stories and exploring how they were, in some ways, the flip-sides of the same giant coin, each arguably needing the other to balance them out. It was also notorious for its brutality. Determined to get a reaction from his nemesis, the ‘Clown Price of Crime’ dispenses with some of his wilder schemes and simply turns up with a gun and a camera at the apartment of Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl) and her father, Jim. He proceeds to shoot Barbara in cold-blood, the bullet severing her spine. He then videos the aftermath, including a horrific molestation that could actually be rape and making Jim Gordon watch the footage before sending a message to Batman and getting ready for a final confrontation at an abandoned amusement park.
Though initially intended to be an out-of-continuity story, the repercussions rippled out into DC‘s main titles and Barbara, now permanently confined to a wheelchair, was forced to give up her Batgirl persona. It’s taken DC almost three decades to put her back, literally, on her feet and into the Bat costume but those years shifted the focus to her intellect and she was still a fan-favourite, assuming the identity of ‘Oracle’ and helping others fight crime.
There’s no doubt the original graphic novel is a powerful piece of work: sheer shock value aside, it’s ambitious, sharply written and illustrated and certainly not easy to forget in a medium that often had a far more immediate cure-all for impossible recoveries and even fatalities.
So how does one adapt it for the screen? There’s little chance, even with the sometimes casual and nihilistic brutality Zack Snyder has inched towards in the recent DC-Universe movies, that the story would ever be made as a live-action feature but it has now made the leap to an animated feature, released into a limited cinema run in the US and then to DVD. Even long in to an era where animation is no longer merely kids-territory, this traditionally-drawn project has its hurdles when tackling such difficult material. Writer Brian Azzarello wanted a feature-length story and the decision was that however strong the original graphic novel was, there would need to be more material to stretch the running time. That was, they decided, a positive – there was the chance to expand Barbara’s story and make sure she was seen as less of a maguffin for the revenge tale. They could make her as strong a character in their version of the story as Batman and The Joker themselves.
Sadly, that isn’t what’s happened – quite the opposite.
In fact, this is a production that actively wants to see the Behdel Test chained to kitchen-sink, or possibly Gail Simone’s refrigerator. The chance to empower Barbara in those extra minutes (essentially the first full half of the feature) is wasted, falling into the disappointing and dated idea of a clumsy side-kick and damsel in distress, driven by almost unrequited love, ever mooning over bad-boys and waiting for the phone to ring. Minor-league sociopath Paris Franz (yes, really) leads her a merry self-centred dance, perhaps as a counter-balance to the Bats/Joker rituals, but it’s all luke-warm in execution. Worse – Batman is far from the supposed ‘mentor’ figure here, he’s ultimately a bullying monosyllabic misogynist and opportunist. Not only does he treat her like an inferior, abject rookie (admittedly because the juvenile script makes her act in exactly that way), but he scolds her like a child one minute and then gives into to her ‘Hit me baby one more time‘ crush and takes her to bed (or rooftop) the next. And that’s just… creepy. Forget The Joker’s violence that comes thereafter, it’s Batman who is just as much an abuser in this scenario.
“He doesn’t know you. He’s objectifying you…” warns our Dark Knight, but later, as the production pans up Barbara’s jogging torso, he could be talking as much about Azzarello’s contribution as anything. The casual stereotypical sexism is quite stunning to behold, even having Franz complain that Batgirl’s anger must be down to ‘her time of the month‘. One could argue that it’s the character’s ignorance being given voice, not the creators, but the tone of the entire new pieces all feel as flippant and prehistoric.
The adaptation of the source material works a little better when it finally gets to that – around 35 minutes into the 75 minute running-time. The monologues appear mostly intact and the original brutality is still there and though dialled back ever so slightly to ’15’ levels of violence with R-rated implications, it still isn’t remotely for the kiddies. Kevin Conroy, voicing Batman for the umpteenth time, is given little of quality to work with excepting the original graphic novel dialogue and Tara Strong must have rolled her eyes in despair over Barbara’s emoting. Mark Hamill’s made a second career of playing The Joker in animated projects and imbues him once again with that required sadistic snark, though at the time it threatens to slide into Seth MacFarlane territory. Reliable actor Ray Wise voices Jim Gordon, but not so you’d notice with the limited dialogue.
All in all, this is one merely for the curious… the people old enough to remember the graphic novel and those who are younger but have heard of its legendary status. Unsuitable for kids, too nasty for some, too compromised for purists. It would be far more befitting your time to go back and read that controversial source material than indulge this opportunistic production. All the questionable, and intentionally morally-dubious elements remain intact, but this uneven animated movie simply gives more layers about which to feel uncomfortable.
Batman: The Killing Joke (15) is available on VOD and will be released onto blu-ray by Warner Home Video in the UK on 8th August and on 2nd August in the US…