Directed by Sam Liu
Starring Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Ray Wise
Release date: Aug 2, 2016 on DVD and Blu-ray. Available Now on Amazon and Vudu.
There are few Batman stories as controversial as The Killing Joke, so there was almost no way for the creators to “win” when turning it into a DC Universe Animated Original Movie. If they were faithful with their adaptation, they were damned, but if they took some liberties, they were still damned. Well, they decided to do both. Batman: The Killing Joke was released in theaters this week for a two-night engagement before its release on home video platforms. I had the pleasure of seeing the movie Monday night, and I felt that it was a solid adaptation, but that’s still not going to be a good thing to some people. First, let’s take a look back at what’s so controversial about the story itself.Created in 1988 by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, Batman: The Killing Joke is mainly remembered as the graphic novel where Barbara Gordon/Batgirl is crippled. The character would eventually reemerge as Oracle, the computer hacker to the stars, but this story signaled the end of her career as Batgirl. The fact that it’s such a turning point in Barbara Gordon’s evolution, however, is almost an afterthought, as that’s not what the story is really about. It’s actually an examination of Joker’s psychology, and it’s the closest thing to an origin story that we’ve gotten for the character. Originally a failed comedian, he hooks up with some gangsters to help them with a score against his old employer, and that one bad day would set him on the path to becoming The Joker. It’s basically the comic equivalent of Michael Douglas in Falling Down. To prove that any man is basically one bad day from insanity, Joker shoots Barbara Gordon in front of her father, police commissioner Jim Gordon, takes sexually charged pictures of her, and then takes the commissioner to an abandoned amusement park to begin his “experiment”. Despite being tortured and forced to see the pictures of his daughter, Gordon refuses to break, and demands that Joker be taken in by the book, to show him that The System still works. The crux of the story, however, is the fact that Batman comes to the realization that the shared hatred between him and The Joker would eventually end in the death of one or both of them. In order to prevent that, Batman makes one final plea to reason with him, even offering to rehabilitate him. Joker, feeling he’s too far gone, decides instead to end the meeting on a joke, which surprisingly results in a shared laugh between him and Batman. If that’s what you remember about the classic graphic novel, then you won’t be disappointed by most of the animated movie. I say “most” because of the liberties the movie’s creators took. You see, The Killing Joke is a pretty short story, so to flesh it out to a feature-length film, they added something like a 22-minute “prologue” that shows us Batgirl’s last adventure. And this is the part that most folks are finding the most damning part of the film, mainly because it includes a sex scene between Batman and Batgirl. To many, Batman is more of a father figure to the members of the Bat Family, so this is clearly a violation of that relationship. That said, this is not without precedent. To anyone who has followed Batman: The Animated Series continuity, this is familiar territory. In a comic series set in the show’s timeline, Batman: Adventures: the Lost Years, it’s established that a relationship between Bruce Wayne and Barbara Gordon was a key reason that Dick Grayson left the fold to begin his career as Nightwing. Then, later down the same timeline, the comic Batman Beyond 2.0 furthered this along by revealing that Barbara actually became pregnant by Bruce, but lost the baby after being attacked. So, as you can see, “there’s nothing new under the sun” – especially when it comes to comics.
The biggest problem with the prologue, however, is Barbara’s characterization. I’m sure someone thought that the addition of this segment would “strengthen” the character, but it actually weakens her. She comes across as a romantic comedy trope, chatting with her stereotypically gay friend about how the man in her life doesn’t take her seriously. Her argument is that she’s just as capable and should be seen as Batman’s equal, but her actions don’t show this. She’s not on his level, intellectually or emotionally. She has potential, which Batman clearly sees, but she’s not THERE yet. She, however, doesn’t seem to realize this. After the characters sleep together, it drives a wedge between them that they can’t overcome. I get the feeling that this was added in an attempt to get the audience to care about Barbara once she’s crippled, but the problem is that the STORY doesn’t even care about Barbara after that happens. The Killing Joke, despite what anyone might want to tell you, is NOT Barbara Gordon’s story. She does not leave the story as the hero, and her involvement is almost as collateral damage instead of having any actual meaning. It’s not like this HAD to happen to set up the creation of Oracle. No, the creation of Oracle was basically an attempt to right the wrong of ruining such a promising character. As the story goes, Killing Joke editor Len Wein’s directive on the story was “Cripple the bitch”, so you can sort of see how this story was not meant to be any sort of tribute to Barbara Gordon. So, it’s interesting that the movie adding more heft to Barbara’s story actually makes her maiming seem even emptier. After all, it’s not like she was injured in the line of duty as Batgirl. No, she was shot as a civilian, so adding 20 minutes of “Here’s why you should care about Batgirl” seems almost futile. It’s 20 minutes of a jilted lover in a cape who ends up distracted by the appearance of a new man, who happens to be an up and coming mobster. It very much feels like a lost episode of Batman: The Animated Series, down to the fact that it’s the same voice cast and Batman drives the same Batmobile as seen in The New Batman Adventures. It’s fine on its own, but it really doesn’t add anything to The Killing Joke. It would be fine for them to release a DCAO movie about Batgirl, and this would be a start, but don’t do this as a prelude to what eventually happens to the character behind the mask.
After the first 20 or so minutes, the story gets into the Killing Joke that you read all those years ago. This is where writer Brian Azzarello got things right. Azzarello was a great choice for this project, as he was also responsible for the critically acclaimed Joker original graphic novel . So, he gets the nuanced relationship between Batman and the Joker. Adapting a story this infamous couldn’t have been an easy feat, but Azzarello does a capable job with the material he’s been handled. If there are any hiccups, they revolve around the new material that has been added to the story. If you’re a Batman fan, you owe it to yourself to see this film, if only so you can engage in the conversations it is bound to trigger.
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Toys, Comics, Cartoons, Thrift, Collector, Blerd, Token Black Friend. He’s forgotten more about pop culture than you’ll ever know. Check out his weekly pop culture round up, West Week Ever, at williambrucewest.com. You can also yell at him on Twitter @williambwest