Not long ago, there was a time when Warner Bros. Animation could do no wrong. Every one of their DC Comics releases, most of which were adapted from fan-favorite graphic novels, were hard-hitting, fun, thoughtful and exciting. They brought beloved stories to a wider audience, taking great care to respect and celebrate the source material. Some of these adaptations were even better in quality than the big-budget super hero movies dominating the silver screen, which is an amazing feat, considering these animated features were direct-to-video. Within the last few years, however, something happened to the animation studio, and the releases have varied wildly in quality. Some movies are great. Others are terrible.
Out of all of the countless graphic novels to be adapted into animated features, Batman: The Killing Joke was thought of as the crown jewel. It was the one that shocked the world when it debuted in 1988, serving since as the definitive Joker tale. When Warner Bros. and DC got into the business of adapting comic books to animated features, The Killing Joke became a popular fan request, one very few ever thought would receive the adaptation treatment, given its darker, more graphic and mature nature.
Unfortunately, the greatest dreams don’t necessarily translate, especially when a once-infallible animation studio has been releasing duds lately. Even more unfortunate, the feature-film version of Batman: The Killing Joke happens to be one of those duds. One major reason is that it comes paired with a bonus Batgirl-centric backstory that fails to connect to the adapted source material (and may leave viewers confused, bewildered and upset). This backstory is a low-stakes adventure featuring random, made-up mobsters, and its intent is to expand and complicate the relationship between Batman and Batgirl. In that vein, it takes their relationship a step beyond what any other incarnation has taken it for seemingly no reason other than to shock viewers. I say this because there’s no payoff. This expanded relationship bears no weight on the film’s story, and if it hadn’t been for a jarring moment of intimacy in the first half of Batman: The Killing Joke, audiences would have probably forgotten about this backstory by the end credits. That’s how inane it is.
The second half of The Killing Joke features the storyline comic fans have been awaiting with bated breath. It follows the source material fairly close, recreating comic book frames and dialogue with a great level of care and detail, but there’s something off about the adaptation, something that keeps the tension off-kilter. The animation feels soft and blander than its comic book counterpart, providing a little less scope and detail to Batman’s dark and dirty world. The backdrop comes across as a little too sterile and clean in comparison, and so with the grime gone, the impact is lessened. It’s less real, as odd as that sounds — less personal.
Even more troublesome, Batman’s torso is strangely box-like, and it’s very noticeable when he walks. It’s as if Batman’s a malformed robot, his midsection wobbling from side to side as his legs clank away. Barbara Gordon suffers from a similar ailment. The space between her eyes shifts, depending on the perspective. There are moments in this feature where she looks more hammerhead shark than human.
That being said, The Killing Joke isn’t necessarily a bad movie. It has good moments, all of them at the end. There’s a musical number The Joker sings that’s morbid, disturbing and absolutely delightful. It’s arguably the most memorable moment in the movie, and the song is quite catchy. Actors Kevin Conroy (Batman), Mark Hamill (The Joker) and Tara Strong (Batgirl) are also at the top of their game. Some of the animation is fun and colorful, with little comic book references hidden in the background, and Joker’s origin story is definitely a highlight.
The last scene of the movie, however, has an unintentionally darker undercurrent to it. While it’s an ending straight out of the book, the added backstory from the beginning makes this closing feel out of place. It leaves Batman appearing colder and more disjointed from reality, his friends and Gotham as a whole. For a guy who is supposed to care about his city, the emotions in this moment fly in the face of who we know Batman to be, mainly because, again, that backstory has no real connection to the rest of the film. It’s cheap, melodramatic filler, and quite frankly, it makes Batman look like an asshole.
For those willing to look beyond the opener, it’s highly recommended to fast-forward the first half an hour of this movie. Don’t stop until you see the first panel of the graphic novel. Batman: The Killing Joke is much more enjoyable that way.
The Killing Joke
Starring: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Ray Wise
Directed by: Sam Liu
Written by: Brian Azzarello
Running time: 76 minutes