Film Review: ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’

Starring (voices):  Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Ray Wise

Directed by:  Sam Liu / Written by:  Brian Azzarrello / 76 minutes

What’s it about?

Hunting for an escaped Joker, Batman finds himself in a race against time to rescue Commissioner Gordon form the clutches of the deranged Clown Prince of Crime…

In review

Having already adapted Frank Miller’s seminal Batman: Year One and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, it was always inevitable that Warner Brothers Animation would turn to tackling that other celebrated DC Comics work of the 1980s, writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke.  A dark and psychologically complex tale that’s equally unnerving, The Killing Joke adapted as an adult-rated animated feature would surely be a ready-made success?  Though enjoyable in many areas, Batman: The Killing Joke also proves flawed and never manages to hit the heights of the two-part adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns (which in all fairness is an entirely different story and set on a much larger scale).  The main issue lies with the source material, though Moore and Bolland’s graphic novel is an undisputed and flawless classic, it’s relatively short length would have resulted in too brief a running time had it been adapted ‘as is’.  As a result screenwriter (and fan favourite DC Comics scribe) Brian Azzarello has produced a wholly original 30-minute opening act focusing on Barbara Gordon/Batgirl that ultimately offers less to the overall story than it would hope to add.

There is a positive point to the opening act of The Killing Joke in that it provides Barbara Gordon with a larger role and resultantly a richer character arc in the story as Azzarello draws a complex and controversial relationship between Batman and Batgirl, set against her obsessive quest to bring down gangster Paris Franz (Maury Sterling).  It certainly helps the viewer to establish a deeper connection with Barbara adding some emotional weight to events later on yet it’s the almost jarring transition from this new material to the familiar where things falter, as nothing from the Franz sub-plot and very little from the Batman/Batgirl dynamic carries over into the rest of the film.  It’s appreciated that this would cause further deviation from Moore and Bolland’s original story and thus might have resulted in a messier final product but it’s a shame that even a small attempt to tie the two elements together couldn’t have been made.

The opening Batgirl story aside, the actual adaptation of The Killing Joke works relatively well.  It’s pleasingly faithful, the adult rating ensuring that director Sam Liu is able to depict every gut twisting moment uncensored, with some beautiful animation work utilising a style that sits somewhere between the realistic look of the Batman: Year One (also helmed by Liu) adaptation and the slightly more caricature visuals of The Dark Knight Returns.  Wisely, some of Brian Bolland’s most memorable and evocative panels are replicated perfectly at several key moments in the film which will give many a reason to pull out their copies of the graphic novel.

Of course, one of the greatest joys of The Killing Joke is that it features the return of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill in their respective and much loved Batman: The Animated Series roles as Bruce Wayne/Batman and the Joker.  They’re as great as they’ve ever been, Hamill in particular as he deftly straddles a fine line between serious and outright manic, his evermore gravelly tones delivering a reliably unsettling yet still silly Joker (aided by an odd but nifty musical number).  Tara Strong also reprises her Batgirl role from The New Batman Adventures and makes a decent job of conveying the more layered approach to the character featured here, whereas Robocop’s Ray Wise is a little flat as Commissioner Gordon which is slightly disappointing given what happens to him in the story.

Sweetening the deal are a number of nice little easter eggs for fans to lap up including visual references to Jokers from Tim Burton’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (both of which were heavily influenced by The Killing Joke) and a twist on that iconic cover image from Detective Comics #27.

Despite some positive points, there’s an overriding sense that the animated adaptation of The Killing Joke comes off feeling a little slight and at times lacking the impact of the graphic novel (especially in the often dissected and endlessly debated finale) and the additional material would have arguably been better served expanded into its own feature.  Still, with Conroy and Hamill on hand and some striking visuals and a respectful adherence to the work by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland there’s still enough reason for fans to check out this latest DC Comics venture from Warner Brothers Animation.

The bottom line:  Though flawed, the animated adaptation of The Killing Joke still makes for an enjoyable watch that will ultimately lead fans yearning to revisit Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s original graphic novel.

Batman: The Killing Joke is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download now.

Batman (Kevin Conroy) and the Joker (Mark Hamill) face off in the Warner Brothers Animation adaptation of seminal DC Comics graphic novel 'Batman: The Killing Joke'.

Batman (Kevin Conroy) and the Joker (Mark Hamill) face off in the Warner Brothers Animation adaptation of seminal DC Comics graphic novel ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’.

11 thoughts on “Film Review: ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’

  1. I missed the press screening for this but now that it’s on VOD I’m curious to check it out. Didn’t realize Mark Hamill was involved in this but he does have a good voice for VO work.

    • I definitely recommend it despite some of the flaws it’s still an enjoyable film, so long as you don’t expect it to be as good as the Dark Knight Returns two-parter. The graphic novel is an absolute classic.

  2. I wish I could have made it to the theatrical release of this, but my car broke down literally right before heading down to the theater. It also works well from someone who had never read the comic before, though I knew enough about it to know that the Batgirl prologue was new material. Enjoyable, but flawed.

    • Bummer! I think this would be rather good on the big screen. Ultimately the comic didn’t translate to the screen as well as The Dark Knight Returns but I accept that was more epic a story and had more source material to adapt.

  3. Great review bro! I saw the movie in theaters (what an audience it had!). I have to say that Barbara’s episode felt absolutely unnecessary. Even if it was meant to get viewers to feel something, feel attached to her character before we see the things that happen to her in The Killing Joke. You could tell that this movie had 2 parts, 2 distinct parts. I hated how they ended Barbara’s storyline by basically implying that Barbara had decided to quit as Batgirl on her own will. I prefer the fact that Joker is the one that put an end to Batgirl and gave an opportunity to Barbara to become Oracle.

    The second part of the movie, the part I truly consider as The Killing Joke, as an excellent adaptation of the comic. I’m really glad about the voice cast, cause there wouldn’t have been a better choice for such an iconic adaptation. But even then, I felt like they could’ve done a lot of things better and put in more budget for such a grand movie. I mean, come on. The Killing Joke? Starring Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy? Why couldn’t they have put more work into it to deliver a better masterpiece? I felt like the soundtrack was misused and that some of the more critical scenes (Joker’s iconic scene with his laugh) could’ve been done a lot better.

    Besides all that, I still appreciated the 2nd part of the movie and the performances of Hamill and Conroy. It doesn’t measure up to the other animated movies like you say, but any fan should definitely give this movie a shot. Great review again man!

    – Lashaan

    • Wow, awesome that you caught it on the big screen that must have been rather special! Pretty much agree with your overall thoughts, all in all it was good although somehow lacks much of the affect of the graphic novel. Still, glad they did it! Thanks for checking out the review 🙂

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