Batman: The Killing Joke Review

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DC’s most controversial storyline manages to get even more controversial, somehow.

“First of all, I realize this is probably not how you thought the story would start. Not with a big shiny moon or a city that could look stunning in spite of itself…or me.”

Batman: The Killing Joke begins with that narration from Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, and this very meta beginning is pretty spot on–nobody thought this adaptation of The Killing Joke was going to start with a newly created half hour story line featuring Batgirl. Admittedly, there’s a lot of potential with that idea. The Killing Joke graphic novel is notoriously controversial for its treatment of Barbara Gordon, so fleshing out her character in the film and giving her some agency seems like a great idea on paper. It’s a concept that should work but is horrendously mishandled, breathing more controversy into what is already an extremely controversial story.

The first half hour of the movie deals with Batgirl and Batman handling a new villain, Paris Franz (oh yeah, that’s his real name). Paris develops a sexual infatuation with Batgirl; Batman removes Batgirl from the case because of this, claiming Paris has “objectified” her and this can lead to dangerous results. Of course, Batgirl defies him, and this leads to a heated argument on a rooftop that culminates in Batman and Batgirl having sex.

It’s impossible to talk about this movie with talking about how inappropriate this act is, as presented here. Batgirl and Batman entering a sexual relationship could be handled in a way that’s not so gross–they are both consulting adults, after all. Their age difference is inappropriate only subjectively, especially since the exact difference is probably impossible to define.

Where the movie gets into some trouble is by how it handles the mentor/mentee relationship between Bruce and Barbara. Batman is still an older mentor, and Batgirl is his student. To take advantage of that situation sexually is gross and looks very bad on Batman. Worse, moments before they do have sex, Batman says, “We’re partners, but we’re not equals.” Not exactly what should be said right before they’re having sex.

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Batman: The Killing Joke had a chance to address some of the problems the graphic novel had in its treatment of Barbara, and instead it just doubles down in being problematic. Barbara spends almost all of her screen time mulling over her relationship with Batman, and after they have sex, her character is entirely focused and obsessed with the act and its fallout. Batgirl should have her own agency separate from Batman; her character should definitely not be so concerned over a romantic relationship with him.

Paris’ sexual obsession with Batgirl is creepy, and could be effective, if it were attached to a different story. As it stands, it only serves to highlight the insanely inappropriate sexual stigma surrounding Batgirl’s character that the whole movie delivers. It is baffling to me that the writers of this movie looked at the controversy surrounding the sexual violence found in the original graphic novel and thought, “You know what will fix this? More sex.”

Even more baffling to me is the inclusion of this thirty minute story at all. It is essentially devoid of any connection to the remaining forty-five minutes, which serve as an incredibly faithful adaptation of The Killing Joke. The consequences of Batman and Batgirl having sex should be worthy of its own story; likewise, if relegated to its own full length feature film, the Paris Franz material with Batgirl could be interesting stuff. The combination of Batgirl’s sexual encounter with Batman and the villain’s own sexual interest in Barbara need more room to breathe than thirty minutes, and it certainly needs to be handled with more nuance than is done here.

It’s been said that the opening arc is meant to pad out the film’s runtime, as the original graphic novel doesn’t feature enough material to fill out a 75 minute movie. Personally, I’d have preferred getting the final 45 minutes on their own, even if it’s half an hour shorter than the usual DC Universe Original Movie. Because truthfully, The Killing Joke segment of the film is great.

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The latter end of the movie sees an escaped Joker set out to prove a point: that anybody can go mad after one bad day. To prove this, he shoots and cripples Barbara Gordon, kidnaps Jim Gordon, and tortures him with sexually suggestive photos of his wounded daughter. He then holds Gordon as an exhibit in a carnival, baiting Batman to come see the results of his experiment.

The Killing Joke remains one of the darkest Batman stories ever told, but it is rife with great themes. The story has endured as a classic for a reason, and the adaptation really shines when handling these themes.

Among these themes is the cyclical nature and duality of Batman and Joker. Joker sees he and Batman as one and the same: two people who had one bad day and went insane because of it. In of the film’s best scenes, the Joker holds court in a funhouse, demanding that Gordon be the judge of the courtroom. Seemingly, the Joker is on trial. Gordon is asked:

“What should be done with someone who has no regard for the law?”
“Someone who treats people like meat?”
“A man who has no problem brutalizing his fellow man to get his way?”
“What would you do to a man who breaks the laws you are sworn to uphold?”
“A monster who ignores everything you stand for?”

Gordon responds, “If it were up to me, I’d throw the book at him.” Joker tells him it is up to him, and hands him a book that says THE LAW on it. Gordon lifts it and throws it at the Joker, only for a cardboard cutout of Batman to spring up.

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“Truth is, Commissioner, the man on trial here you consider your friend.”

The moment is effective, even if the twist is obvious. It forces us to question the nature of Batman. Even though what Batman does serve justice, it’s absolutely against the law. And the notion that Batman is just as insane as the supervillains he battles is one of the staples of the Batman mythos.

All it takes is one bad day. That’s how far the world is from where I am, just one bad day. You had a bad day once, am I right? Oh, I know I am. I can tell. You had a bad day and everything changed. Dressing up like a flying rat doesn’t hide it, it screams it! You had a bad day and it drove you just as crazy as everyone else only you won’t admit it! 

This monologue from the Joker directed at Batman is so great because he’s right. This kind of psychological and philosophical analysis of Batman and his rogue’s gallery can elevate any Batman story from good to great.

The never ending nature of the battle between Batman and the Joker is also heavily discussed in Batman: The Killing Joke. Hanging over the story is the idea that Batman might finally kill the Joker. He addresses this himself, when he visits the Joker’s cell and asks him, “Who will end up killing who?”

As Batman pursues Joker near the end, Joker asks him, “What does it matter if you send me back to the Asylum if it doesn’t matter to me?” The futility of the back and forth crusade lends credence to the idea that Batman might finally snap and kill the Joker, once and for all.

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The film keeps the comic’s brilliant, ambiguous ending. I won’t spoil it. It should be read or seen.

Batman: The Killing Joke, reunites Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. Hamill had previously retired from voicing the Joker due to the strain it creates on his vocal chords, but always said he’d return if DC adapted The Killing Joke. I’m glad he kept his word. The Joker’s monologues and cackles flourish under Hamill’s acting. Hamill even does superb work during the movie’s flashback scenes. Conroy is just as dependable as ever as Batman. The whole voice cast is really strong.

The movie is rated R, but it doesn’t use the rating to be gratuitous. Extra blood splatters are used when criminals get shot, the violence tends to be a bit more visceral, and there’s the whole deal with Batman and Batgirl having sex. Really though, this is rated R for tone and themes more than anything else, as it should be.

Beyond that, the musical score is great. When the movie was shown last week in theaters, they also showed a brief documentary that focused on the music direction and some of the voice acting. That mini documentary, “Madness Set to Music,” is included with the Blu-ray and is worth the watch. Also included with the Blu-ray is a sneak peek at Justice League Dark, the next animated DC Universe Original Movie, and a featurette titled “The Many Shades of Joker,” that gives an interesting history of the Joker but holds no new information for comic book fans.

Ultimately, Batman: The Killing Joke is a really weird movie. This movie should be a slam dunk for DC Animation. They brought back legendary Batman voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, DC Animation superstar Bruce Timm, and adapted one of the most celebrated Batman graphic novels of all time. And yet, the movie still ends up feeling like a missed opportunity.   The first half of the movie really bogs down the whole package, regardless of how good the last half is. It feels like two separate, distinct films. It’s a shame, really.

Grade: C+

 

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