In the four color world of Batman comics, two stories loom large over all others: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. Both have achieved legendary status, becoming the standard by which all other Batman stories are judged. Virtually every modern cinematic Batman film has borrowed from these two stories. Frank Miller’s tale was adapted for animation in 2012, and now, after much anticipation, Alan Moore’s work has been brought to life by Bruce Timm and some of the same people responsible for the Emmy-Award winning Batman: The Animated Series. The story itself is deceptively simple. Batman confronts The Joker in an attempt to put a stop to their eternal struggle. He wants to reach deep within the man himself, past the madness, to connect with any rationality that is left. Alan Moore wrote it as the ultimate Batman/Joker story, and -- 28 years after it was first published -- it still is.
With an adaptation as high profile as this one, there is bound to be some controversy, and Batman: The Killing Joke has had its share in recent weeks. Most of it centers around the decision to add about 20 minutes of new material at the beginning of the film, material which isn’t based on Alan Moore’s lauded story but is completely original. The added story attempts to flesh out the character of Batgirl, AKA Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Commissioner Gordon. Barbara plays a pivotal role in the events of The Killing Joke, but doesn’t get much of a character arc in the original story. The added material was undoubtedly an attempt to give Barbara Gordon/Batgirl more of an actual progression than what was allowed in Moore’s short graphic novel.
However, one of the things that makes The Killing Joke so great is that it’s a deconstruction of the characters and what makes them tick. It scrubs away the heroic veneer and shows us who these people really are underneath, warts and all. Perhaps that’s what writer Brian Azzarello was going for with his screenplay here, and I can come closer to understanding Batgirl’s flawed portrayal if I consider that Azzarello was attempting to show us a damaged person. It’s just a shame that we don’t really get to see Batgirl in a positive light at any point in the film. To deconstruct, you must first have something constructed. We don’t get that with the character.
Once we get through the 20 minutes of new material added to bring this story up to a movie-length running time, the screen fades to black. When it fades in again, we’re treated to a fairly faithful adaptation of Moore’s famous story. Most of the dialogue and shot compositions are taken directly from the comic. There’s still a small bit of additional material, but fans of The Killing Joke graphic novel can rest easy that, once things get going, the story is rendered with love and with few surprises.
Watching The Killing Joke come to life, albeit in animated form, serves as a reminder as to just how incredible this story is, even after all these years. To say that it’s excellent is to damn it with faint praise. When this adaptation succeeds, it’s doing so by faithfully bringing the words of Alan Moore and the artwork of the graphic novel’s penciller Brian Bolland to life. When it doesn’t succeed is when it strays too far or adds too much. I would rather have had this be a solid 30 minute short that hewed faithfully to the original story than a 77-minute feature-length movie that added scenes for a longer running time.
For the past few years, there’s been a debate about what happens at the end of The Killing Joke. It’s been a subject among comic book fans since Grant Morrison expressed his opinion during a discussion with Kevin Smith on a podcast. The filmmakers have made a very clear choice that seemingly leaves little room for deliberation. I love their commitment, and I love their decision.