Batman: The Killing Joke (2016 BluRay)

Posted: August 10, 2016 in DC
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Within the last few decades Batman has been defined by the villains he faces more than just about any other character in comics. He has a gallery of nemeses that are more recognizable to the average person than any two or three heroes combined. Among that collection of foes, one stands head and shoulders among the rest, The Clown Prince of Crime: The Joker.
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Created in 1940 as a one-off villain for Batman to face, the pale-skinned psychopath quickly became a fan-favorite. He began showing up in more stories throughout the 50’s but it wasn’t until the 70’s and 80’s that the character was truly shaped into the madman that modern audiences would recognize. The late 80’s, in particular, solidified the character as THE villain to Batman’s hero with works like The Dark Knight Returns, A Death in the Family and The Killing Joke.

Written by Alan Moore with art by Brian Bolland, The Killing Joke was a shocking and seminal work for the character. It gave him some pathos and a tragic origin that added some believability and even pity to his psychosis. The work has gone down in history as equal parts ground-breaking and controversial.

Feeding off of that controversy, Warner Bros. has adapted the story into an animated film that is the first of their DC animated movies to be rated R. It was explained very early on that the reasoning behind the decision was to be true to the source material while at the same time expanding the narrative in a natural way to accommodate the run-time of a feature film. Since the film’s release, the controversy surrounding the story has grown exponentially.
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At this point, I should note that I’m going to be discussing the end of the story as well as some specific plot points. I don’t know that Barbara Gordon’s paralysis requires a spoiler notice, since it happened 30 years ago, but just in case, forget that you just read this sentence and replace it with “SPOILER!”

But yes, the film’s second half is a faithful adaptation of the events in the comic, namely Joker heinously wounding the former Batgirl. In order to pad the running time, the film offers a prologue that focuses on Barbara’s strained relationship with Batman and her decision to step away from the cape and cowl. This sequence has been met with nearly as much derision as the climactic crippling of the Ms. Gordon.

jokeGoing into it, I was aware of a fair amount of complaining that the character hadn’t been respected and a shocking amount of focus was placed on an early sex scene. So much so, that it seemed like the entire first act was a non-stop screw-fest between Barbara and Bruce. Needless to say, it isn’t. I can understand not liking the (incredibly brief) sex scene but it’s not without precedent in other stories and it somewhat makes sense in the narrative: both characters had been pushing themselves to avoid emotions and not get to close to a case. All those pent-up feelings have to go somewhere. As for the treatment of Barbara, I don’t understand the reasoning behind the complaints at all. Some fans seem to imply that the story isn’t respecting her by portraying her as obsessive, brash and a bit headstrong. However, I feel like her obsessive personality and bullheadedness is a direct result of her training from Bruce. A bit of his personality rubbing off on her, if you will. A part of me can’t help but wonder if fans would react the same way had this story focused on Robin. I mean, it does have some very similar character beats and themes of “I can take care of myself” (minus the sex) that “Robin’s Reckoning” does and that’s considered a classic episode of Batman: The Animated Series.

babTo me, the only real failure of this prologue is in not directly connecting it to the core story of The Killing Joke. It’s an oddly self-contained story with a beginning, middle and end that concludes right before the Joker’s story begins. That should have been interwoven a bit better. I feel Joker should’ve been introduced at the start and the two narrative halves should’ve been fused together for a more cohesive whole. That, to me, is really the only serious flaw of the story.

batsOne aspect where there’s certainly no flaw is the cast. Kevin Conroy is just as perfect as he always is as Batman. This is a man who has lived this role for 25 years. He can do no wrong as The Bat. On that note, Mark Hamill delivers a wonderfully unhinged Joker. There’s just no way to describe any of his performances as The Joker and do it any justice. He’s so creepily comfortable in the role that it’s just magic any time he inhabits the role. Finally, Tara Strong also reprises the role of Batgirl from the 90’s animated series. Since those days, Strong has become an incredibly well-respected and prolific voice actor. It’s fun to hear how much she’s matured as an actor while also maintaining her eternally youthful voice.

In the end, this film isn’t without it’s problems. Had the narrative been cleaned up a little with a re-write, I think it would’ve benefitted greatly. As for the controversy surrounding the character and the story as a whole, I continue to not understand it. However, my favorite incarnation of Barbara Gordon has always (and will always) be Oracle. As such, I’ve always seen The Killing Joke as a prologue to the origin of that persona (something the post-credit scene makes explicit). When you think about it, there have been a few Batgirls over the years (Barbara wasn’t even the first) but there’s only ever been one Oracle. She was tough and intelligent and could do things no other Justice League member could do. Oh, yeah, did I mention that Oracle was a JL member? That’s an honor no Batgirl has attained. So maybe this story, like it’s twisted antagonist, just takes a different mind-set to enjoy.

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