I read The Killing Joke graphic novel only a few years ago and with most of the knowledge of the major events that take place. It’s undeniably a great read, telling a simple but highly effective story with panel after panel of memorable art. The number of iconic images that have come from that book is pretty astounding. For years and years, people have wanted to see a film adaptation and it has finally arrived in the form a feature length animated film. I toyed with the idea of seeing it the one night/time it played in my city, but chose to wait the week for the blu ray release. I picked it up this morning and just moments ago finished watching the film version of one of the most famous Batman tales. Annnnnnnd…it was fine.
There’s not going to be a lot of originality here as I’m going to harp on the same thing that many people have when criticizing the film – the new content. The graphic novel is not particularly lengthy (about fifty or so pages if I remember correctly) so it’s not a surprise that they needed to add in some additional story beats in order to get this closer to the run time of an actual movie. The problem is that the route they decided to go is not particularly interesting.
The first half hour of the film is devoted entirely to Batgirl/Barbara Gordon and her relationship with Batman. She feels like he doesn’t fully appreciate her so we get to watch her be angtsy as she takes on a bland villain named Paris Franz, the nephew of a mob boss who becomes infatuated with Batgirl. It’s all entirely separate from any of the events that happen in the latter half (when they pick up with the start of the novel) and the disconnect is jarring. When we do get to the events you are familiar with, it’s almost as though a completely separate movie has started. The Joker doesn’t even factor into this opening half in the slightest.
I get the idea that they wanted to flesh out Batgirl so that when she reaches her inevitable fate later on, our sympathy for her is even greater. I know many people criticized Barbara’s role in the original novel and this looks like it was the writer’s way to try and fix that, but it doesn’t solve the problem at all. If anything if may make things worse. Instead of making Batgirl more of a rounded character, they mostly just reduce her to a single characteristic – she wants to bone Batman. That’s it. She’s mad he doesn’t appreciate her and wants to bone him. There are even scenes at the library where she works in which she complains to her gay co-worker/possible best friend about the man in her life that isn’t as into her as she is into him. She’s become the bland lead character in a romantic comedy. Oh and she does succeed in getting a Batman bone session, and that adds a whole other layer of “ugggggh” to the whole thing. You could honestly skip the first half hour of this movie and lose almost nothing.
Once we get into the events of the novel, things naturally pick up. The core story beats of The Killing Joke remain just as effective on screen as they do on the page, and this is thanks largely to the voice work being done by Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hamill (The Joker). Hamill has consistently proven how phenomenal he is at voicing the character and he puts in one of his best vocal performances here. He really strikes that perfect level of manic menace (I wanted to add more alliteration here but I’m restraining myself).
The trailer for this movie had be worried as the animation seemed of poor quality. I remember thinking it had more the feel of a motion comic than an animated movie. Thankfully, that doesn’t appear to be the case in the actual movie so either I’m misremembering or they since cleaned it up. Regardless, the animation is still only at the level of serviceable, falling somewhere around the quality of Batman The Animated Series. Speaking of, there’s an episode of that included on this blu ray and god damn I forgot how good that show is.
Batman: The Killing Joke is approximately 60% quality and 40% filler. It’s really a shame that the opening doesn’t do a better job of adding to the story, but that was a pretty thankless task to begin with. I’ve always gone on the record of saying that I’m fine when a movie strays from it’s source material as I often prefer to be surprised rather than watch a story play out beat for beat as I expect it to. Here they didn’t pull it off. A fine and fast watch (it’s about 77 minutes long) that could have been more than it is.