Batman: The Killing Joke is a 1988 one-shot that reeks of genius; even as you marvel over the perfectly selected words and the masterful art, you find yourself growing very uncomfortable. It’s a provocative book, with the Joker at his most depraved (at least, the most depraved I’ve read him – I’m sure there’s a comic-book fan ready to tell me “if you think that‘s bad…”) and our Dark Knight at his most conflicted. While its status as a masterpiece may be debated, there can be no argument that it is one of the most important and well-known Batman stories ever told.
So, of course, I couldn’t wait to see it. (editor’s note: spoilers below)
Alas, as with most high expectations, I was let down. I shouldn’t be too disappointed; it’s not a bad movie. Better than average, even. It just shouldn’t have been tackled with anything less than the absolute best. I’ve seen the vast majority (probably all, actually) of the animated DC films, and there is no real reason why this couldn’t have been one of the stand outs. You have the iconic, even necessary voices of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, you have Bruce Timm (of Batman: The Animated Series, and several liberties are taken to align the characters more with that universe) producing, and you’re working off an Alan Moore story that’s already written down for you! How do you go wrong with that?
Well, you can start by adding a whole bunch that wasn’t even in there. The entire first act of the film is brand-new. We follow Batman and Batgirl as they work to take down Paris Franz, an admittedly enjoyable villain who adds little to the story and who is never seen again after this tacked-on prologue. The story line of the book doesn’t begin until at least half an hour into the movie, and the Clown Prince of Crime doesn’t show up any earlier either. Instead, we’re treated to Barbara Gordon as our protagonist (a vital character, to be sure, but not at all who the story is about). Considering we don’t see her again after the inciting incident of the story (or at least what should’ve been the inciting incident) this felt like a huge waste of time. The argument could possibly be made that they wanted to give a female character some extra screen-time but I’m not sure the best way to do that was to give her scenes assaulting innocent people in the street when her one-night-stand wouldn’t call her.
And I understand, it’s only a 48-page comic, maybe more needed to be added to pad the run-time. Why, then, was some of the source material omitted? There’s such a wonderful speech given in the film, taken near-verbatim from the book. I found myself speaking the words along with the Joker in my mind. Hamill’s voice built up, he was nearly finished, and I found myself mentally uttering that last, glorious line “Madness… is the emergency exit”. Trouble is, Hamill never said it. Why!? I felt robbed. How do you give that speech but omit the climax? The Joker should know better than to ruin the punchline.
Two big questions that have caused many the debate amongst comic book fans are those of whether the Joker raped Barbara Gordon, and whether Batman killed the Joker.
I’ve always been more in the camp that viewed the Joker as asexual, the man who only undressed Barbara in order to torture the Commissioner, and for no pleasure of his own. However, this film seems to lean more towards the other side of the coin, where a group of prostitutes discuss how strange it is that the Joker hasn’t visited, since they are always his first stop after an Arkham escape. They even go on to suggest that his lack of a visit is due to being with another woman.
The killing, though, the killing I’ve always been on-board with. Batman totally kills the Joker, and this film, while still retaining some sense of ambiguity, leans towards that even further. In the comic, the Caped Crusader begs, pleads with the Joker not to keep up this dance. “I can rehabilitate you”, Batman tells him, and says that if the Joker doesn’t let him, then one of them will die.
The Joker tells him that joke, that wonderful joke, about the two men in the asylum, and says that it’s far too late for him. Batman and the Joker share a laugh, and Batman rests his hands on the Joker’s shoulders. The panels shift to the ground, and the comic ends.
In the film, the same occurs, with one major difference; the Joker stops laughing abruptly, and Batman’s laugh continues over the rain.
Much of the movie did not work. This final scene did.
For the most part, the voice performances are solid. The delivery feels wrong, at times, but that’s bound to happen when they’re reciting from a book that I’ve read and the words of which I’ve imagined being spoken out loud. That can’t be helped, for every reader would hear it differently in their own mind. What can be helped, though, is the noticeable lack of poetry across the piece. The book is about Batman confronting his mirror, the Joker, and letting him know that their dance can’t go on forever. The joke on the final page is referenced on the first, and there’s a distinct sense of ominousness throughout the story as we march to the end.
The movie doesn’t feel right. So much is crammed in that by the time the next piece of the jigsaw puzzle falls into place, aeons have passed and the last piece has been long forgotten. Still, it’s The Killing Joke. It’s all there. It’s Conroy and Hamill, and they’re great. It’s what we’ve been waiting for, and it will never come again. And so, while it was a great experience to finally see the story come to life on the big screen, and while it was executed with efficiency and respect, I can’t help but think to myself that it really could’ve been something more.
What a waste.