Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 16 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for some Bloody Images and Disturbing Content
Directed by: Sam Liu
Written by: Brian Azzarello
(based on the graphic novel BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE by Alan Moore & Brian Bolland)
Voices of: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Ray Wise, Robin Atkin Downes, Brian George & Rick D. Wasserman
For all intents and purposes, BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE should be the best animated Batman movie ever. The source material is an equally controversial and celebrated graphic novel from Alan Moore, who also delivered V FOR VENDETTA, WATCHMEN, and FROM HELL. The cast reunites the best Batman and Joker voices with Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. The film was also granted an R rating (a first for the DC Animated Universe), which guaranteed that the dark storyline would be given justice. However, one small detail might be overlooked when walking into this movie. Despite being the best Joker storyline of all-time, Alan Moore’s graphic novel is only 64 pages long. In order to pad out a feature-length KILLING JOKE, the filmmakers were forced to add original material as a prologue to the well-known story. This is where the film’s problems manifest themselves.
After stopping a heist, Batman (Kevin Conroy) and Batgirl (Tara Strong) go head-to-head against dangerous sociopath Paris Franz (Maury Sterling). This particular case causes unexpected tension between the superhero pair, but it’s nothing compared to what lies ahead. The Joker (Mark Hamill) has escaped from Arkham Asylum and wants to prove a point. The psychotic clown’s belief is that “one bad day” is all that separates the rest of the world from himself and his test subject is Commissioner James Gordon (Ray Wise). While Batman scours Gotham City and Joker enacts his evil plan, we are shown the Joker’s origin story through tragic flashbacks.
The KILLING JOKE portion of this KILLING JOKE adaptation is 99% faithful to the original comic. The dialogue is straight from Moore’s pages, while comic panels are replicated on the screen. KILLING JOKE’s animation style occasionally looks too simplistic, but moves fluidly and contains a number of beautifully rendered visuals. The voice performances from Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill add a sense of class/familiarity to the already mature animated film. This Batman cartoon uses its R rating to its advantage, never going into over-the-top bloody territory but covering twisted plot points that just wouldn’t fly in a PG-13 feature.
As I mentioned before though, KILLING JOKE falters in its non-KILLING JOKE first half. Adding a bit more Batgirl to the proceedings could have made the context of this twisted Joker story more powerful and devastating. Batman has always seemed like a bit of a parental figure towards Barbara Gordon and I was expecting the film to take that route, making later plot points into more emotional and depressing moments. Instead, the screenplay opts for an unexpectedly out-of-character, borderline insulting path that paints Batgirl as a love-interest for Batman. Though this idea was also seen in a couple of other Batman storylines (namely a really dumb decision by the otherwise solid BATMAN BEYOND), this “romantic” subplot will likely cause problems for most viewers, especially hardcore Batman fans.
Though this Batgirl being attracted to Batman angle is watchable, one specific scene garnered plenty of unintentional laughter from the theater crowd (myself included). This moment somewhat lessens the context of the entire film. Powerful closing scenes feel slightly hindered by this unexpected, unnecessary spin on the material. Before this already controversial and notorious scene occurs, we have to suffer through one of the blandest villains to ever hit the Batman universe: Paris Franz. This guy is just a rich gangster who’s attracted to Batgirl. That’s it. That’s all there is to this character. Yet, we have to sit through almost 30 minutes of him in order for the plot to move forward.
BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE feels like two very different episodes of a more mature BATMAN animated series. The first half is juvenile, uses forced edgy fan fiction material, and a by-the-numbers plot, somewhat depowering the character of Batgirl. The second half is stellar and follows the mature, gritty Batman story that fans paid to see in the first place. KILLING JOKE’s good qualities overshadow its bad decisions. The animation contains slick visuals. The voice cast is rock solid, even if characters make very stupid decisions in the first half. The R-rating serves the material well. I’m recommending BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE for the actual KILLING JOKE portion of the film, rather than the heavily problematic prologue that seems to be purposely controversial for all the wrong reasons.