Movie Review: The Killing Joke (2016)

Mark Hamill returns as the Joker in this highly anticipated adaptation of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, but is this the adaptation fans needed, or the one that they deserved?

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The Killing Joke, universally regarded as one of the greatest Batman stories ever written, is a twisted tale of rivalry, madness, and tragedy, that pits the Dark Knight once more against his arch-nemesis, the Clown Prince of Crime himself. In its panels, Moore delves deep into the Joker’s twisted psyche, exposing him in a new light, not only as a psychotic criminal, but as a tragic soul, warped – much like Batman – by events beyond his control.

It’s a fantastic read, and one I highly recommend. I wish I could say similar about this adaptation.

Directed by Sam Liu, director of Justice League: Gods and Monsters, Justice League vs. Teen Titans, and co-director of the animated adaptation of Batman: Year One, this animated film attempts to bring to life Alan Moore’s original story, whilst at the same time expanding upon it. This expansion takes the form of a roughly thirty minute long prologue featuring an entirely new story, written by comic book writer Brian Azzarello (Joker, 100 Bullets, Lex Luthor: Man of Steel), revolving around the character of Barbara Gordon aka Batgirl.

As the movie is effectively split into two distinct stories, it seems only fair to review them both individually, and so, without further ado…

Part One aka “The Batgirl Prologue”

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After failing to apprehend a group of robbers, Batgirl (Tara Strong) finds herself the subject of unwanted attention from the villainous Paris Franz (Maury Sterling), rising star in the criminal underworld, nephew to Gotham’s current mob boss, and all around creepy dude.

Fearing for both her safety and her soul, as Paris’s dangerous obsessions turn personal, Batman (Kevin Conroy) orders Batgirl off of the case, causing tensions between the two crime fighters to reach fever pitch and forcing Barbara to make a hard decision about her future as Batgirl.

barbrThe prologue exists entirely to remind the audience of Barbara Gordon’s greater role in DC lore. Doubtless, this was a reaction to concerns regarding the character’s controversial usage in Moore’s The Killing Joke, in which she plays a significant, but minor role.

The Barbara Gordon portrayed in the prologue is a complex being, struggling with insecurities and a growing romantic attraction to Batman/Bruce Wayne. She compares their partnership to a relationship, with Batman playing the part of the distant boyfriend – suitably terrible at communication – and desires to be taken seriously by him.

There is one moment in the prologue that has been the subject of much controversy, so I’d be remiss in my duties as a commentator if I didn’t mention it. I must point out, however, that it could well be considered a spoiler, and so I feel it only fair to give due warning.

[[*HERE COMETH THE SPOILERS*]]

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When tensions reach their highest point, it’s discovered this attraction is not one-sided. Barbara and Bruce consummate their feelings on a darkened rooftop. Yes, they sleep together.

Some consider this scene a violation of the character, claiming it reduces her worth to that of a sex object, while others have labelled it lazy writing, merely an attempt to grant Batman more motivation for events yet to unfold in the story.

My personal take is neither of these, though I do suspect the latter’s claim of intent to be true. The scene works within the context of the prologue, which I personally failed to reconcile with the rest of the story. In this context, it is not a throwaway moment, but an inevitable outcome to the rising tensions between the two characters. It changes their dynamic in an interesting, yet admittedly discomforting way. Batman, once mentor, becomes lover. It would have been interesting to see where the story might go on were it not bound to the inevitable retelling of The Killing Joke.

One last thing, I must commend the makers of this movie for having the gall to “go there”. It is a shocking moment, intentionally so. It’s raw and unexpected, and willingly courts controversy, quite in keeping with Alan Moore’s own style.

[[*HERE ENDETH THE SPOILERS*]]

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Tara Strong’s portrayal of Batgirl is a notable high point. Her take on the character is not as a female Batman – something Batgirl has never been – but instead she is Batman’s foil, youthful, passionate, and able to freely express her emotions in a way that the Dark Knight cannot.

At the time of watching the prologue, my overall opinion of it was one of frustration. It isn’t that the prologue is a terrible piece in and of itself, but that it doesn’t feel as though it is part of the main story. In fact, it feels much more like one of the short movies that plays before a Pixar film. Entertaining in its own right, perhaps, but with no relevance to the main picture.

This disconnect massively damages any attempt to raise the stakes and turn Barbara into a character we should care much more about. By the time the events of The Killing Joke unfold, the prologue is long forgotten.

And with that said…

Part Two aka “The Killing Joke”

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Following the discovery of an old scene of Joker-related carnage, Batman visits Arkham Asylum, hoping to try one last time to bring about a peaceful end to his eternal struggle with the Clown Prince of Crime.

Unfortunately, the Joker (Mark Hamill) has already broken out, and is once again on the loose in Gotham City. His first port of call is the home of Batman’s friend and ally, Commissioner Gordon (Ray Wise), whom he kidnaps after shooting and paralyzing his daughter, Barbara Gordon.

With Gordon in the hands of the criminal mastermind, Batman must work fast to track him down before the Joker’s depraved plan to break the Commissioner’s mind can reach fruition.

gordon_soulrInterspersed are flashbacks of one potential backstory for the Joker. In this, the man who would become the villainous clown is a failed comedian, down on his luck, whose transformation is brought about by the tragic events of a single bad day.

Liu’s adaptation is a markedly faithful retelling of the original graphic novel. In fact, it’s practically translated shot-for-shot (or panel-for-panel?), with the majority of the dialogue lifted directly from the book. There are still a few additional scenes, such as the opening (the novel begins a little later, with Batman already en route to Arkham Asylum), a scene where Batman questions prostitutes about the Joker’s whereabouts, and a mock court room scene where Joker places Batman on trial in absentia as part of his continuing efforts to break Gordon.

Though the additional scenes don’t really feel as though they add very much, they don’t detract either and are fairly in keeping with the story. The only scene that raised eyebrows for me was the one with the prostitutes. Possibly this one is on me, but it just seemed a very strange choice to suggest that the Joker, as twisted as he has become, is still driven by such mundane urges. Possibly though, this was another attempt to “go there” and intentionally shock audiences.

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The movie (left) compared to the novel (right).

The image above should give you an idea of how fiercely loyal the artwork is at times to recreating the panels from the book in animated form. Though the majority is a much more simplified style of animation, more of a nod to the animated series than to the graphic novel, the flashbacks do get much closer at times to Brian Bolland’s work.

What struck me from even quite early on, however, was even though the adaptation is about as loyal an adaptation as you are ever likely to get, that same loyalty much of the time feels to do more harm than good.

Look, I’m definitely more on the side of adaptations staying true to the source material, but this was one occasion where it just didn’t work. The brilliant speeches in the novel, somehow fail to hit the right notes when spoken in this movie. Lines taken directly feel disjointed and unnatural, even when delivered by the likes of Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy, both veteran voice actors in the roles of the Joker and Batman respectively.

It seems unfair to blame the texts for these shortcomings however, and I’m loathed to blame the actors for them either. If you’ve played any of the Arkham games, you’ve heard much better acting from them both than you’ll hear in this movie. The problem seemed to be a lack of direction, as though the actors were encouraged to simply read the lines, with no consideration for the context.

Here’s an example. One of the crowning moments of the graphic novel is Moore’s take on the Joker’s backstory. A man, though deeply flawed, has his life take an unexpectedly dark turn. That man’s no saint. He has failings and he makes mistakes, but it’s never difficult to sympathise with him, because he’s human.

In the movie, that backstory, everything that happens to the man and his eventual transformation into the Joker all feels like just another plot point to be shown and then immediately moved on from. It ought to be a crescendo of emotion, but instead its just kind of mundane. Nothing about it is especially memorable. Hamill’s delivery of the man’s lines are dispassionate, more in the style of someone narrating for an audio book than acting out a character. There’s just no heart to it.joker-batman

It’s not just the lacking delivery that brings the dialogue down, though. It simply isn’t used to effect, and one perfect example of this is when a speech being made by the Joker is rendered almost inaudible by a fight scene.

There’s a robotic feel to the production. It goes through the motions of portraying the events shown in the novel, and it does a fairly good job of that too, but it never seeks to go beyond and capitalise on any of the key moments in the story. It’s not terrible, just empty. For the most part, the action is fine, but the drama and emotion so prevalent in the novel appear to have been lost somewhere in translation.

Conclusion

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The animated adaptation of The Killing Joke is a disappointing ride. It offers fans a plethora of familiar sights, but shies away from offering new thrills.

I suspect much could be said here about wish fulfilment, and how badly that can backfire. This production was very clearly made to cash in on a widespread desire among DC fans to hear Conroy and Hamill return to their roles to read Moore’s immortal lines. It’s certainly something I’d spoken about with friends for a long time, and I must admit to having had high hopes for this movie when I heard it was actually happening. Perhaps the idea itself, with all the expectations attached, was simply more than reality could hope to deliver.

Similarly, the idea of granting Barbara Gordon more screen time as a means to extending her role from a victim to someone of even greater significance in her own right, sounded on paper like a great idea, but its implementation was so haphazard, so tacked on and unnecessary, that ultimately it changed nothing at all.

So there you have it. What might sound good in theory, doesn’t always work out in practice, and this adaptation, in my humble opinion, is a perfect example of this.

Specifications
Rating: R
Runtime: 77 minutes

Links:
Wiki
IMDB
Rotten Tomatoes
Official Website
Metacritic

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