REVIEW: ‘The Killing Joke’ Misses the Mark

Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke was released in 1988 to a hail fire of criticism and praise, instantly becoming a classic among readers and fans. Its film adaption, released in theaters this past Monday, has done the same in leveling a field of complaints. However it has failed to reach the same critical notability as its source material.

Batman: The Killing Joke (directed by Sam Liu) is a film that, on paper, should have been dazzling and yet has found itself with a lack of support among fans and general audiences alike. Not because of the ambiguous and often violent and sexual themes of Moore’s story, but because it’s a tonal trainwreck that was built upon unrealistic expectations for what was intended to be a direct-to-DVD feature film.

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Batman: The Killing Joke (2016, director Sam Liu)

Screenwriter Brian Azzarello has essentially scripted two films in 70 some odd pages. One, which borrows heavily and directly from Moore’s classic, and another… which feels like it was intended to be a 10 minute companion to an animated film more in vein of Batman vs. Robin or Son of Batman. 

The prologue, featuring Batgirl (Tara Strong), plays more like a misguided obligation or an apology to expected complaints from feminists than part of the overall story. The writing is especially weak, the villain is bland and serves as a physical embodiment of misogyny, and the dialogue is so on the nose to the point that it made theatergoers laugh out loud. At one point Batman literally explains to Batgirl, “He’s objectified you,” and it’s painful to see Kevin Conroy’s voice acting talents wasted on drivel like this.

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The Joker, expressing what many theatergoers felt at the end of The Killing Joke. (source: Batman: The Killing Joke, 1988 – written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Brian Bolland)

This isn’t what has gotten the internet all abuzz though. No, male Batman fans aren’t as upset about the tonal inconsistency of the movie — but about Batgirl taking the initiative to fuck Batman on a rooftop. That’s where they draw the line. Then again, comic book fans are almost always unwilling to accept anything beyond ‘their’ version of any given character and are typically initially volatile about major or even minor changes — so this should come as a shock to no one. Female fans and male feminists on the other hand have taken aim at the fact that Batgirl seems to be pining for someone (Batman) and that, as a result of having human romantic feelings, this strips her of her agency as a character. Which is, also, just as pathetic of a criticism. One side has a void of interest in deviating interpretations and character growth, another condemns any characterization of a female character that isn’t, essentially, Rey from Star Wars.

In spite of its titanic flaws, the first half of The Killing Joke manages to make Batgirl a compelling character and someone I want to see more of. The problem is, The Killing Joke isn’t Batgirl’s story. And once we dive into the second half, that becomes all the more apparent. The one redeeming quality of this prologue, a likable and engaging version of Barbara Gordon, is flushed down the drain immediately. What we’re brought into is the ‘real’ movie. We jump from a light PG-13 to a weak and probably unnecessary R, as the story shifts from Batgirl to Batman.

Conroy’s capabilities are really on display here but the star, predictably, is Mark Hamill. Without his performance as The Joker, this entire movie would fall to scraps. Hamill delivers bits of Moore’s dialogue like no one else could and by the end of the movie you’re left sitting there, a little downtrodden, knowing that this seminal material–and these performances from Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, and Ray Wise–have been wasted. Until we get a live action adaption (which we surely will in time), this is all we’ve got.

Paul Dini and Brian Azzarello had everything they needed to create a great Batman film. They had an iconic story, the two definitive Batman voice actors, a Warner Bros. christened R rating, and a theatrical release – and they blew it. It’s not the worst animated Batman film, or even the weakest Batman movie to be released theatrically, but it is a certain disappointment from all sides.
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Jayme Karales is the author of DISORDERLY, the director of WIZARD, and the producer of TRUANT. His work has been published by Thought Catalog, The Rebel, Underground Books, and many others.

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