Batman: The Killing Joke review – controversial take on a classic

The Killing Joke gets controversial adaptation

On the short list of revered Batman stories, The Killing Joke is right near the top. It was groundbreaking when it hit comic book stands in 1988.

Never one to let a legendary Batman story go untold, Warner Bros. Animation adapts the final essential Batman stories from the 80s. While The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One stuck to the source material, Killing Joke makes some very controversial deviations.  Those changes nearly derail the film, but there’s no way to fully kill a classic as Killing Joke nails the landing.

Batman The Killing Joke review - Batman and Alfred

To lend a greater sense of importance to the film, Warner Bros. Animation brought back Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill to reprise their roles as Batman and The Joker. Conroy and Hamill have long ago established themselves as the voices for the characters. Their work here might be the highlight of their tenure.

Hamill delivers his best work in the role to date. He’s chilling, cunning, warm and a captivating storyteller. This is one of the best takes on The Joker ever. Hamill gives Ellen DeGeneres some competition for the best vocal performance of the year.

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Screenwriter/comic writer Brian Azzarello adapts Alan Moore’s story nearly perfectly — after the first 30 minutes. It’s within The Killing Joke’s first half hour that it’s rightfully earned so much scorn from fans.

Killing joke’s opening act is largely devoted to establishing Batgirl’s role as one of Batman’s understudies. It’s Batgirl (Tara Strong) who faces the most serious repercussions at the hands of The Joker in the original story. But in the film, she’s consistently treated shoddily.

Batman The Killing Joke review - Batgirl

WBA projects are likely going to be very confusing for fans who see the movies with no knowledge of the source material. The last Batman film, Bad Blood, featured a quick cameo by a clearly teen aged Batgirl. While Bad Blood is part of an ongoing continuity based on the New 52 universe, The Killing Joke is a standalone adaptation.

Azzarello initially seems to understand the Batman/Batgirl dynamic as mentor/mentee. Batgirl is trying to take down a hood Paris France that’s become obsessed with her. Batman’s being his normally overly protective self. Paris quickly becomes obsessed with Batgirl lusting after her in a way to completely objectify her. For a criminal that’s fine, but the film also has some weird leering shots of Batgirl that would be better suited in an anime. That would be off the mark, but tolerable if that were the only issues.

Batman The Killing Joke review - The Joker in funhouse

In a misguided attempt to make the film’s most shocking moment more personal, Azzarello adds a romantic twist to the Batman/Batgirl relationship. That decision is disastrous on every level. It minimizes Batgirl as a character reducing her to a lovesick puppy yearning for approval from Batman. It also makes Batman look incredibly creepy for hooking up with one of his young sidekicks. The relationship diminishes the notion that Batman legitimately cares about all of his protégés and needed sex to be interested in Batgirl.

Once the film gets to the actual Killing Joke story crafted by Moore it becomes a fantastic adaptation. Joker recalls his past while preparing a scheme to show Batman everyone is just one bad day away from going crazy like them. Told through dull sepia flashbacks, these sequences accomplish the rare feat of making The Joker a sympathetic character.

Director Sam Liu (Justice League vs. Teen Titans, Justice League: Gods and Monsters) does almost a page by page adaptation of the story. It’s a tremendously faithful interpretation of the comic, which makes that opening act all the more frustrating.

Batman The Killing Joke review - The Joker

Liu doesn’t have as many action sequences to handle as some of his other WBA films, but he captures the tone and eeriness beautifully. There’s a number of expertly realized scenes thanks to the shadows and music choices. The character designs do a decent job capturing the style of the comic artist Brian Bolland.

The first act is a debacle that turns Batman’s world into a daytime soap, but The Killing Joke ends on a high note. Break out the chapter select function and zoom past the Batgirl subplot and this is one of Warner Bros. Animation’s best efforts.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment

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