Batman: The Killing Joke

 

Batman: The Killing Joke is a 2016 animated psychological thriller superhero film directed by Bruce Timm and Sam Liu and written by Brian Azzarello. It is based upon the legendary 1988 one-shot comic book of the same name by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. It features the voice talents of Batman veterans Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, and Ray Wise. Famous and veteran voice actors such as John DiMaggioRobin Atkin DownesNolan North, and Fred Tatasciore are also featured in the film, as well as the voices of Bruce Timm and Maury Sterling. It is the 26th film to be released under the DC Universe Animated Original Movies banner. It is the first film in the series to have a hard R rating. The Killing Joke had a special two-night only theatrical release on July 25th and 26th (tonight) via Fathom Events (in Fathom’s widest released event thus far) and is scheduled to be released on Blu-Ray and DVD August 2nd. It is currently available to own via Video On Demand, as well.

Alan Moore is known as “the Orson Welles of comics.” That description is rather apt. It seems that everything Moore touches turns to gold. For reference, he is the creator of such series as V for VendettaWatchmenThe League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and From Hell. All mentioned have been adapted to film at various points, to mixed results. The adaptation of Watchmen, though certainly divisive and polarizing, is thought to be generally good, great to certain people, and considering it was once believed to be “unfilmable,” I would say those involved did a pretty good job with the most famous, legendary, well-liked comic ever made, as well as the strangest thing I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I have yet to watch From Hell, but a mystery horror film about Jack the Ripper starring Johnny Depp sounds intriguing at the very least. The 2003 adaptation of Extraordinary Gentlemen enraged Moore and caused him to swear off all further involvement with Hollywood. The 2003 film was an incredibly generic mess which jettisoned the best parts of the series and kept the worst, removing all of the more graphic scenes or mature themes, all of which were inherently essential to the series, for a PG-13 rating. Both Moore, director Stephen Norrington, and star Sean Connery distanced themselves from the film upon its release. 20th Century Fox had plans for a franchise, but the critical and box office bomb was met with no enthusiasm for a sequel, although it was reported in May 2015 that a reboot is planned. Following the release of the film, Moore is quoted as saying: “As long as I could distance myself by not seeing them, enough to keep them separate, take the option money, I could be assured no one would confuse the two. This was probably nave on my part.” This reaction is very extreme, even though I agree the film was bad. He even expressed distaste for V for Vendetta, in my opinion and the opinion of most, a very good film. It took creative liberties with the original source material, but creative licence is necessary to create an adaptation. The verb “adapt” is literally defined as “to make suitable to requirements or conditions; to adjust or modify fittingly.” That means that certain aspects, in the transition from graphic novel to film, will have to inherently change. Moore apparently doesn’t understand that, lamenting: “…after the films came out, I began to feel increasingly uneasy, I have a dwindling respect for cinema as it is currently expressed.” Co-creator David Lloyd enjoyed the film and explained that Moore would only be happy with a complete book-to-screen adaptation, which is nigh impossible and, in my opinion, somewhat pointless. Moore is also known to be a massive jerk in person, and his attitude certainly reflects those claims, I feel. Despite Moore’s general snobbiness and obsessive tendencies regarding film, his contributions to the world of comic books are entirely undeniable. Like A Death in the Family, Moore’s The Killing Joke impacted the Batman mythos and the larger DC universe, but it did so in ways that Jason Todd’s death never could.

The Killing Joke takes place shortly before the events of A Death in the Family. It’s a relatively simple premise that involves the Joker kidnapping Jim Gordon and imprisoning him in a derelict funhouse, attempting to drive the commissioner completely insane. The Killing Joke attempts to give the most famous and enigmatic antagonist of all time some backstory for the first time. Here, the Joker was a struggling stand-up comedian who was also working at a chemical plant in order to make ends meet. He also had a pregnant wife. A group of thugs offer the comedian a substantial amount of money to break into the factory where he works, acting as the inside man. He agrees, and he is given the infamous Red Hood costume to wear.

His wife unfortunately dies by electrocution due to a malfunctioning blender, killing the man’s wife and child. He attempts to back out with the thugs, who threaten to kill him. Acting under duress, during the break-in at the infamous Ace Chemicals, he encounters Batman, then early in his career. The terrified man falls over into a vat of acid. He survives and climbs out completely insane, leading to possibly the most iconic splash page in the history of Batman comics.

Thus is where the central conflict of the story begins. In a very good and well-known monologue, the Joker explains, in poetic yet insane fashion, that he wants to prove that people can turn into him after “one bad day.”

In order to drive Jim Gordon insane, in an action that ripped the status quo of DC Comics to shreds, The Joker shoots and paralyzes Barbara Gordon, Jim’s daughter and, unbeknownst to either Jim or the Joker, Batgirl.

The Joker proceeds to take photographs of Barbara in various states of undress and forces Gordon to view them in order to break his sanity. This whole portion was extremely controversial, and still is today. While most controversies surrounding entertainment are stupid and blown out of proportion in my opinion, I can see why this made many people uncomfortable. I was slightly disturbed while reading this. However, that is the entire point. This is not a fun comic at all. The cool thing about Barbara’s shooting, though, is her transition into Oracle. Oracle serves as Batman’s logistical and support coordinator, operating out of the Gotham Clocktower. Barbara’s wit, determination, as well as her photographic memory and intellect rivalling that of Batman himself, make her freaking awesome. The fact that she’s in a wheelchair rarely ever bothers her (as it doesn’t really bother me), and DC Comics have managed to make her into one of the two iconic wheelchair-bound characters in comics, with the only other one I can think of being Marvel’s Professor X.

The Killing Joke is also famous for delving into the psychology behind the relationship between Batman and the Joker. Neither of them have resorted to killing each other… because they need each other. This is a concept that is explored heavily in other media following this story’s publication, most notably in 2008’s The Dark Knight.

The relationship is sometimes equated to a twisted romance. The relationship, in my opinion, I’m sure to some people’s surprise, is most effectively explored in the Batman: Arkham series of video games. This series is very well-known for having some of the best storytelling in a medium that, to outsiders who don’t play video games, “doesn’t have (good) stories.” In 2011’s Batman: Arkham City, it is revealed that the Joker is dying and schemes for a way to, at first take Batman down with him, and later cure himself. The game ends with the Joker’s death.

The Killing Joke is why Batman stories today explore psychology the way they do. There is an epic exchange between Batman and the Joker in which Batman attempts to reason with his twisted enemy who is intertwined in Batman’s soul.

In the end, Batman foils the Joker’s plan and corners him. Gordon, who maintained his sanity, orders Batman to bring the Joker in by the book. The Clown tells a joke heard previously in the issue.

See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum… And one night, one night they decide they don’t like living in an asylum any more. They decide they’re going to escape! So, like, they get up onto the roof, and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moon light… stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend did not dare make the leap. Y’see… Y’see, he’s afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea… He says ‘Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!’ B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says… He says ‘Wh-what do you think I am? Crazy? You’d turn it off when I was half way across!

The joke is funny enough to make Batman crack a smile. They begin to laugh, and continue to laugh as the police approach. Off panel, Batman proceeds to grab Joker, the laughter abruptly stops, gurgling sounds are made, and the story ends, leaving the Joker’s fate up to interpretation.

This comic was very dark and extremely controversial, with good reason, for once. I’m personally on the side who loves everything about the story. Yes, it’s dark and edgy, and using rape as a narrative tool in a work of fiction will always be an understandably difficult subject to approach, but it works.Everything about The Killing Joke comic works, and I went in hoping that this R-rated adaptation works just as well, if not better. I believe that it could be.

It was pretty great. It did not transcend time and space, but it just might be the best Batman movie behind The Dark Knight for me. There were a lot more nerds out than I originally expected for a one night special engagement, but if you think about it, nerds are normally the ones to go to a limited engagement so I don’t know what I expected. It was a pretty good theater experience, too. Before the film started, the audience was treated to an interview with Mark Hamill discussing his transition from Luke Skywalker to the Joker, a role which has now spanned nearly 25 years. It was very interesting and neat, actually.

One thing I’m very, very happy about: Mark Hamill has been the definitive voice of the Joker for years upon years in countless video games and animation works. In 2011, after Arkham City was released, he announced on Twitter that he was done with the character. He is a dirty liar, returning for the 2015 sequel Arkham Knight and this film. He admits he cannot stay away from the character no matter how hard he tries. It seems from his enthusiasm he might enjoy Joker more than Luke Skywalker, to be honest. Regardless, he still isn’t done and he might be voicing the Joker until he dies, which is what a lot of fans would like.

The movie itself was quite good, as everyone was expecting. It wasn’t legendary like the comic, but it was very entertaining and worth the somewhat expensive price of admission. Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy are the big standouts here, as to be expected. I cannot stop hyping up the epic decades long partnership. Everything there is just perfect. Tara Strong does a great job as Barbara, as well. The animation is near indescribable it’s so good, and the score was also very very good. There was a making of featurette concerning the score after the movie, but we unfortunately didn’t have time to stick around for that.

The Killing Joke is a 48 page one issue comic. Normally, when adapting something to film, you run into the problem of having to compress the original story. Here, they added things to expand the story. The biggest and most notable change was the first half-hour of the film; Timm and company added a very Batgirl-centric prologue to the events of the film that I thought was very well-executed. Even so, the film has sparked major (needless) controversy for mishandling the character of Batgirl. I don’t feel like they did and I don’t understand why people are angry. As the rest of the film closely follows the events of the comic, which I have already summarized, I won’t spoil the new stuff for you. Anyway, as we were leaving, I heard a young woman (who probably came with her nerdy husband) complain that it was kind of short. It was, but they had already added a lot of new stuff, and would rather it be short as it was than have a bunch of useless filler crap.

All in all, I felt The Killing Joke was an admirable, entertaining, and worthwhile adaptation of the best Batman story of all time, with pitch perfect voice acting from fan favorites, interesting original twists on Batman mythos, as well as some pretty awesome animation, it is certainly one of the best entries to the DC Animated Universe, as well as a great Batman movie in general.

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