Batman: The Killing Joke (2016) Review
Reviewed by John Hussey.
With all eyes on whether or not the DCEU is a success or not, based on this year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, let us turn our attention to another WB/DC project that needs no introduction: Batman: The Killing Joke.
I myself have never read the graphic novel but I know of its legacy and how it impacted the comic-book universe through its darkened tones and intense character dissections. This narrative signal handily revolutionised how to tell a good comic-book story, and now finally in 2016 we see this masterpiece brought to the small screen through the art of animation.
For such a project you need the right actors and who better to voice the Caped Crusader and the Clown Prince of Crime than Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. These two have certainly made a name for themselves and become one with their signature roles, to which they are frequently branded the best interpretations of the respective characters. I for one agree. Having grown up in the 90s I cannot forget hearing their versions of Batman and Joker within the critically acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series, and their work has only improved over time as they came back time and time again to reprise their iconic roles. My personal favourite stories of theirs is Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker and the Arkham series.
Hamill had stated numerous times that he was hanging up his cape as The Joker but each time found a way to return, because let’s face it, you can’t keep a good clown down! [Bad joke.] He has also stated that he’d love to do an adaption of The Killing Joke, and finally he has fulfilled that dream in spectacular fashion. As stated above, Hamill is renowned for his interpretation of the Joker and I myself couldn’t have watched this film without hearing his voice onscreen. He just knows how to capture the Joker’s character, from his comical nature right down to his inner insanity.
Before talking about the film further I must address the elephant in the room, and that is the first 30 minutes. Now I became very confused as I first viewed this film as I waited in anticipation for the narrative to get started and Joker to appear. But what I got was an entire 30 minute filler following the story of Batgirl. And looking at this in perspective it completely feels out of place. I mean the story goes absolutely nowhere and doesn’t tie in with the rest of the film. I know that sounds hard to believe but this is the absolute truth, it literally adds nothing to the adaption and is there purely as a tag on to expand the runtime to a feature length run.
Now don’t get me wrong, these scenes weren’t too bad and proved to be entertaining, especially as it focused on Batgirl and her own internal struggles, but it did become off-putting through the characterisation. When I look at the relationship between Batman and Batgirl I see a good strong friendship filled with respect, or as others see it: an uncle and niece relationship. In this film, however, the creators take it one step further and add in a love angle which revolves around the idea that there is a complicated relationship going on and they both have feelings for one another. This results in Batman being overprotective, whilst Batgirl insists on proving herself (whilst whining in the process to her stereotypical gay friend), which concludes in an argument followed by an awkward sex scene as their tensions rose to a point where they needed to let out their inner emotions (on a rooftop no less).
It’s fair to say that this whole section of the film feels very strange and is completely out of place with the rest of the feature. There are small connections, such as Batman not wanting Batgirl to be baited by a serial psychopath because this will drive her over the edge like his relationship with Joker. In the end her challenging battle makes her hang up her cape and that’s the only real relevance to the rest of the plot in which it explains why Barbara Gordon is no longer Batgirl. But it wasn’t needed. If anything it subtracts from the rest of the film as you see the disjointing of the two sections and how you wish it didn’t exist and that more expansion could’ve been given to the actual Killing Joke plot.
The rest of the story is phenomenal through its dark narrative, interesting colourisation and above all, its impressive character study. Naturally a lot of the attention is on the Joker with this being his film (minus the first 30 minutes) in which we see him at his most insane. His scheme is just twisted as he attempts to send Commissioner Gordon over the edge through him turning up at Barbara’s doorstep and shooting her without mercy. This ultimately paralyses her. Joker then proceeds to kidnap Gordon and sends him through a freakish carnival ride in an attempt to make him lose his sanity, hoping to prove that anyone can be driven mad through one “bad day”.
This all echoes back to flashbacks in which we actually see a possible answer to “who is the Joker?” In this version we learn that the Joker was once a normal person with a wife and unborn child. These flashbacks are excellently crafted in order to make you look at the Joker in a new light, and for once actually feel pity for him. For the first time you see his humanity and realise he is capable of good deeds instead of being just an insane murdering psychopath.
In many ways the path towards his criminal ways in nothing short than “a tragic journey” as he foolishly tries to commit a crime in order to get his wife some money and give her the life he feels she deserves. This was brought on because of him being a failed comedian, causing him to feel guilty that he couldn’t provide for his family. It was sweet to see the devotion his wife had for him and how much she loved him despite his failings, showcasing the Joker’s happy existence. But after his wife and child were taken from him in cruel circumstances, and a brief encounter with Batman, he met with his ultimate fate as he emerged in the mud and the raid, now covered in chemicals, as his new reflection sends him over the edge.
Fundamentally this entire story revolves around the core conflict within the Joker and Batman’s relationship in which they want to understand each other. Batman in this narrative is desperate to try and sort things out before it’s too late, knowing full well that their battle will only end with one of them killing the other. You can see that all he wants to do is help Joker, finally admitting that he himself suffered a “bad day” the same as Joker and that he can help him recover from his demons. The Joker truly wants Batman to admit that he is as crazy as him, and even suspects that Batman suffers from a similar past as him, but Batman teases him with the knowledge that only he could go mad and nobody else.
The Killing Joke is very much a dark, gritty journey into the mind-set of the Joker as he pushes the boundaries of proving a point through sick, twisted mind games which will leave you disturbed. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted. As stated above, this is very much a character piece exploring the Clown Prince of Crime and his complex nature, as well as his unique bond with Batman. Also one cannot forget about the brilliant little number in the middle where Joker has a song and dance, whilst Gordon is driven to the point of madness as he stares at multiple pictures of his daughter naked and bleeding.
I would love to give this film full marks but unfortunately we have to take into account the first 30 minutes and the fact that the actual Killing Joke segment could’ve easily been fleshed out. But I don’t wish to mark it done any further because when you do watch the 45 minute feature adapting the infamous graphic novel you get an amazing narrative that leaves you totally immersed from start to finish through its twisted imagery, and equally twisted story. Hamill certainly got to shine in his moment of glory as he sends off his beloved incarnation with a bang, and it was bittersweet to see this occasion joined by Conroy as the two of them sparred off in the ultimate conclusion, one that will leave you both surprised and satisfied.