Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Review: Batman: The Killing Joke

by Heath Holland
One of Batman’s greatest stories has been adapted into an animated movie. This is both a good and bad thing.

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.
Unfortunately, a lot of the negative press around this added 20 minutes stems from the fact that Barbara as a character has been seriously compromised. Without spoiling the story, I’ll say that she makes some serious errors in judgment and ends up frequently looking immature, hot-headed, and most importantly, incompetent as a crime fighter. There is a very controversial sex scene in this movie (which is rated R), but that’s not the most offensive part to me. What I find more troubling is that the strong feminist character of Batgirl has been reduced to a series of clichés and serves as little more than a foil and a sexual object for the men in her life. I’m not one to often level accusations of misogyny, but I have to be honest about what I see, and I see some misogyny. One character actually tells her “It must be that time of the month.” Were this balanced with a multi-dimensional character with some obvious strengths, it would play as less offensive. Frankly, Barbara deserves better than this movie gives her. I don’t think it’s enough to break the movie, but it is an unfortunate turn of events that could easily have been rectified with a more balanced screenplay.

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.
The real draw to this project is the voice work of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. The two actors have played Batman and The Joker since 1992, across every DC Comics cartoon that Bruce Timm produced, in video games, and in direct-to-DVD animated movies. Batman: The Killing Joke is literally the culmination of 25 years of work for these two actors. Hamill had even stepped away from the character in recent years because there was no new ground to be explored, but said he’d come back if they ever adapted this story. It’s easy to see why. This is the best material he’s ever had to work with as the character. There are nuances that we’ve never had the luxury to see before, and Hamill gets to take The Joker to some strange, wonderful new places. He paints the corners of the canvas with a madness that is both frightening and delightful. It’s a tour de force, the best performance he’s ever given as the character. Conroy gives a solid performance as well, but he doesn’t get to have nearly as much fun. Also, sometimes his voice sounds a little different than I’m used to; higher, thinner. It’s still great to have these two men in these roles. No one else would have done them justice.

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.
The animated adaptation of Batman: The Killing Joke is not the definitive version of the story; that will always be Alan Moore’s original graphic novel. It suffers from a misguided introductory act that I understand the need for, but don’t agree with in execution. However, the actual Killing Joke portion of this film is fantastic, and is probably the best take we’re ever going to see of the classic outside of the printed page. I can see myself turning this on and skipping past the prologue and directly to the classic story for future viewings. And despite my distaste for the first 20 minutes, I’m sure there will be MANY future viewings.

17 comments:

  1. I only just saw this last night with my adult niece, who is a staunch feminist. We were both fairly okay with the new material with one very notable exception: the sex scene. It's unnecessary, and while we both agreed that Barbra could easily be enthralled by her mentor, there was NO FREAKING WAY that Batman would go along with it.

    I too loved Mark Hamill's performance as the Joker. My niece pointed out that this is a very dark story, and Hamill makes the Joker truly terrifying in a way I haven't seen since Heath Ledger.

    Heath, did you watch past the end credits? There's a nice little bit with Barbra (and her new identity as Oracle) that I nearly missed - I would have turned the thing off if I hadn't been hunting menus for the special features. It shows that like her Dad, Barbra hasn't been defeated by her traumatic experience.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I definitely saw that after the credits. I like that they're trying to give Barbara more of an arc, but I'm not sure how much of it works. I wish they'd showed Barabara in a more positive light leading up to the story proper and then it would have felt a little more triumphant to me.

      Delete
  2. I was slightly disappointed with this mostly because of the Barbara stuff you mention but it does make her stuff with the Joker hit harder, especially I would imagine for people who aren't as familiar with the character.

    I noticed Conroy's voice was off a bit too. Hamill was amazing though. All in all I liked it but didn't quite love it - I didn't notice it was rated R but that makes sense!

    So I found the ending of the movie just as ambiguous as the book and I haven't read any kind of official explanation...I'd ask you to tell me but so we don't spoil it for anyone else I'll just look it up myself...okay, yeah, that's kind of what I figured. Especially the last panel where that beam of light has disappeared - that relates to the Joker's joke right?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, it's a little bit more of a liberal choice on the filmmaker's part because they take it farther than the panels in Alan Moore's story do. In fact, from what I understand, there's no ambiguity to his script at all and the story simply ends without implication.

      Speaking of Alan Moore, I'd be remiss if I didn't post this , because I think he's right.

      Delete
    2. Oh...I getcha now...for some reason I thought you were saying that he definitely DID [redacted] in the movie - I was so wrapped up in how the movie was going to handle that moment that I didn't notice that the ambiguity wasn't there and he simply DIDN'T.

      Great link - I think Moore is so right about all that and, though I was buying into Morrison's opinion pretty hard, I much prefer Moore's.

      Delete
    3. This is getting confusing! It's so hard to talk about this without potential spoilers (even though this story is almost 30 years old).

      Spoilers
      Spoilers
      Spoilers





      In the comic, I don't necessarily think Batman does "it." I think that it is less about that moment and more about analyzing the characters and their motivations. It's intentionally open-ended so you can think whatever you want. But in this movie, I think he ansolutely did do "it." That's the killing joke. Batman's final laughter after Joker falls silent, to me, confirms everything Joker has been saying about him throughout the story. That they're the same. That Batman is a hypocrite. That they're two sides of the same coin, driven forever by the events of one bad day, both crazy but manifested in different ways. I think this ending works best for this movie, but Alan Moore's ending works best in print. This is just my take; of course. I thought it was much bolder than the printed version, but I guess they still don't spoon-feed it to us, so I like that it's still up for debate.

      Delete
    4. Hey, if there's one thing I'm good at, it's making things confusing! Dancing around spoilers didn't help either.

      No point really getting into the debate - after doing a bit of reading on it I'm still not totally convinced one way or the other but why do you think it's called "The Killing Joke"?

      Delete
    5. I think the title is deliberately left to one's own interpretation and plays on multiple levels. I believe it references both the themes of similarity between Batman and Joker as well as the crux at the end of the story.

      And what I appreciate is that it doesn't matter exactly what happens at the end. While I think the movie definitely takes a side, I also think it's more about that MOMENT in their cyclical struggle and what it says about them going forward. It's a phenomenal character study.


      Delete
  3. Nobody is talking about the very bad ray wise performance. I always loved him in whatever work of him i saw, but this time was so bad it made me cringe

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I noticed it wasn't great. I was mostly thinking that it was nowhere near as good as Bob Hastings' original animated series performances (he died in 2014) or Bryan Cranston's in Year One.

      Delete
    2. i was thinking the same, cranston in year one was great. the guy who did gordon in the dark knight return was great.

      only ray wise disappointed me as a voice actor in any of thse animated feature

      Delete
  4. Other than the odd and (in my opinion) unnecessary/poorly conceived additions to Batgirl's story (which ultimately don't factor in to the main event), one of the weirder additions was the mention of Joker's sexual appetites. The original novel shows Batman asking various persons on the street for info, but this adaptation felt it necessary to have prostitutes comment on the Joker and his expedient search for sex. I think they mention they usually know when he's broken out of the asylum before the cops do because they're practically his first stop.

    While I don't necessarily oppose the choice to add this in (other versions of the Joker have been shown to be hyper-sexual), mixing it into this well-known story felt more like justification for the R-rating than anything necessary to the plot or to the character.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Before I watched the movie, I decided to revisit and reread the graphic novel for the first time since 1988. A few things stood out. First, the “The Killing Joke” is only 44 story pages in length (additional material outside of the story pushes the printing up to 65 pages). It’s relatively short for a graphic novel main story. By comparison, “The Dark Knight Returns” original 4 issue, prestige format, limited series from 1986 was 184 story pages in total. A strict animated adaptation of “The Killing Joke”, with no significant additions, wouldn’t be near feature length, even with end credits. And there isn’t really anywhere in the midst of the original story material where events or sequences could have been dragged out without making it appear that the movie was stalling, and doing so poorly. So I understand why the movie producers decided to add SOMETHING lengthy before the beginning of the original Killing Joke material to pad the movie to feature length (the Batgirl prologue is actually nearly 28 minutes long). However, I agree with most viewers that what was added doesn’t really work well artistically for the finished product (I’ll get back to this later). Second, the Brian Bolland artwork from the graphic novel still stands out for its high quality of style and detail. By comparison, the movie animation artwork is not bad. It seems about par for the course for these DC animated movies. It’s just that the graphic novel artwork was so good, that the movie animation artwork seems noticeably inferior to it.

    Third, the original story is DECENT, not great. I’m not even sure it’s especially good. I was amazed by it back in 1988. But, I don’t think it holds up after 28 years as a masterpiece today. I think its enduring reputation is built in large part on its original reception with 28 years of compound interest, on who wrote it (Alan Moore of “The Watchmen”, “V for Vendetta”, “Swamp Thing”, etc., though he was recruited for the project by Bolland and doesn’t think highly of his own work here), the excellent Brian Bolland artwork (which does hold up), and the era in which the story was originally published. Despite the fact that Batman comics had been relatively dark and free of camp since the early 1970s, most kids, teenagers, and young adults in the late 1980s were more likely to have formed their impressions of Batman (and the extended Bat-verse) from the live-action Adam West TV series and Hanna-Barbera Super Friends cartoons than from contemporary comics. However, Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” series of 1986, “The Killing Joke”, Frank Miller’s “Batman: Year One” storyline from 1987, the “Death in the Family” (death of Jason Todd “Robin”) storyline from 1988-89 (where there was a hotline phone number for fans to call and vote whether Robin lives or dies – they chose “dies”), and the lead-up to and theatrical run of the “Batman” 1989 movie (which boosted Batman comic readership) were at the forefront of the massive Batman pop-culture boom and rebranding shift which began in the late 1980s and continued through the 1990s with “Batman: The Animated Series”, successive animated series, and the comics plugging along in the background. In 1988 and 1989, if there were 25 kids in a school classroom, 2 of them were wearing Bat-Symbol t-shirts. But seven more live-action Batman movies, hundreds of hours of TV and direct-to-home video animation, 28 more years of Batman-related comics, most of it consistent with the Bat-verse in which “The Killing Joke” exists (including a surgical cure for Barbara Gordon’s paralysis and a return to active status as Batgirl, per the 2011 DC Comics New 52 reboot), and the amplification of all things “geek” on the internet over 20-plus years, have diminished the lasting impact of the Killing Joke story.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As for the story in “The Killing Joke”, the most memorable aspects for me were, Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) getting shot by Joker and paralyzed, the “possible” Joker origin story (involving a brief stint as The Red Hood), and the ambiguous ending. The Joker origin story seems to me to be more a “possible” version today than the “definitive” version I wanted to accept it as in 1988. And that’s fine. However, as depicted, the events seem to have taken place far too many years before the main story’s present day, as if filtered through recollection of an old “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episode from the late 1950s. Were we to assume that Joker had been more or less the Joker for 25 to 30 years before the present day events of “The Killing Joke”? If so, what had he been doing for most of that time, before he first made his presence known in Gotham City? And, by the way, “present day” in the Batgirl prologue of the movie depicts technology, such as computers and smart phones, more in line with 2016 than 1988, so that makes Joker’s origin flashback seem all the more anachronistic in the movie. Maybe the depiction is the point – it couldn’t have happened exactly that way. And Joker’s plan after escape – I want to avoid as much in the way of spoilers as I can – is dicey. Did Joker really expect to “break” Jim Gordon that way, in any permanent sense? Traumatize, sure. But be rendered insane? And the point Joker says he’s trying to prove, while possibly valid, isn’t original or obscure, and doesn’t really amount to anything that has ramifications for the characters or their relationships with each other. This would be fine, if this was a plot driven story. But it’s really not. Very little happens. Regarding the ending, I don’t think the darker speculative interpretation happens. The police are nearing arrival, Gordon and Batman have spoken with each other, and I don’t think Batman has been driven over the edge in that particular way.

      Regarding the Batgirl prologue added before the beginning of the Killing Joke storyline, I think it makes for a fine Batgirl story, but it doesn’t work as an incorporation into the Killing Joke storyline. It’s unnecessary, and shifts too much focus away from the story as a Joker story first, with Batman, Jim Gordon, and Barbara Gordon as significant supporting characters. Readers of the original graphic novel were supposed to be stunned by the shooting and paralysis of Barbara Gordon, based merely on their general or more vivid familiarity with the character of Barbara Gordon as herself, Batgirl, Jim Gordon’s daughter, Batman’s crime-fighting ally, etc. This wasn’t Barbara Gordon’s story, and she wasn’t supposed to have an arc in it. Her injury and violation were supposed to have an effect on Jim Gordon, Batman, and the reader, also informing what the reader was to think of Joker in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. I think those familiar with the graphic novel will compartmentalize the Batgirl material as an unorthodox prologue to the “true” Killing Joke story, while those unfamiliar with the graphic novel will be somewhat thrown by the abrupt exit of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl from the story.

      Delete
    2. As for the Batgirl/Batman hookup, I was surprised by it, but I didn’t have a problem with it. Although DC Comics essentially retired Barbara Gordon as Batgirl between “The Killing Joke” and the 2011 New 52 reboot, this Batgirl/Batman romantic/sexual relationship idea was explored in DC Comics in the 1994 “Zero Hour” event, during which an alternate (from mainstream) timeline was revealed to have involved Batman and Batgirl becoming romantically involved with each other. Perhaps not coincidentally, that timeline diverged from mainstream during the events of “The Killing Joke”, whereby Jim Gordon was killed by Joker, and Barbara Gordon was unharmed. Had Barbara Gordon not been paralyzed and retired as Batgirl in mainstream DC Comics continuity during that period, I’d bet that such a relationship would have been explored in mainstream continuity at least once over that period. Some people may object, but they shouldn’t be worried that this is “controlling Batman authority” beyond this movie. To some, it may be bad for the character in this movie, but this movie cannot ruin this character, which, by the way, is as traditionally Batgirl-ish as a lot of people would like, in the comics.

      Regarding misogyny in the Batgirl prologue of the movie, I didn’t see the movie that way. Paris was a misogynist, and it is Paris who delivers the “time of the month” line in the story. He speaks that line as a taunt to Batgirl while she is pummeling his face with her fists, beating the crap out of him. He’s also the main villain, and is explicitly called a sociopathic narcissist by Batman. Paris develops a superficial crush on Batgirl, of which she is aware. But she doesn’t succumb to it. She tries to use it against him, although against Batman’s advice. Barbara Gordon/Batgirl primarily interacts with three characters (all male) in the prologue story: Batman, Paris, and Reese (her friend from the library where she works). Of them, only Paris treats her or regards her at any time in a way that I feel is reflective of lack of a proper respect for women. Reese is depicted as a gay man, who happens to be very interested in workplace discussions with Barbara Gordon concerning her romantic/dating life, or lack thereof. But single men and women often have friends/family/co-workers who like to be all in their business like that, and I didn’t see that as related to Batgirl’s gender. Batman views Batgirl as sort of a junior partner, who’s not sufficiently disciplined, skilled, or experienced enough to have “junior” status lifted. But I didn’t see any indication that his opinion was formed in part by Batgirl’s gender. I would characterize the movie as showing misogyny through one character, but not being a misogynist movie in and of itself.

      Overall, I thought the movie was worth a look. I like Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as voice actors for Batman and the Joker, respectively. However, I think others, such as Jason O’Mara for Batman/Bruce Wayne, have filled in just fine in those roles in other DC animated features. I agree that Ray Wise, who I like as a live actor, didn’t sound very good as Jim Gordon. He sounded too old and frail, even in consideration of what happens to Gordon in the movie. I would rather that Gordon sounded like a Peter Graves type, or something better than what the movie provides. After the Batgirl prologue, the original graphic novel material from “The Killing Joke” is faithfully adapted for the movie, with some minor changes that will only be caught by those with a strong panel recollection of the graphic novel. Despite my disappointment with the artistic quality of the animation, the animation is well-done and interesting to watch. However, I liked the musical number more on the printed page than in the movie, even though the graphic novel leaves the music to the reader’s imagination, and maybe because of that. Hamill performs it well, but it seems too polished for the situation.

      Delete