Reviewed by John Hussey
Without a doubt this DC tale changed the foundation of not only Batman’s mythology, but also that of the comic book industry in general. Batman: The Killing Joke demonstrated to the wide audience that comic books weren’t just silly tokens for children. They had depth and meaning, and in this example, extremely serious – leaving you questioning what you had just experienced.
So it was a delight to hear in 2016 that director Sam Liu was directing an adaption of the infamous Batman tale for the DC Universe Original Movie line-up. I think at that point in the year we needed our spirits lifted after two disappointing deliveries from DC and Warner Bros. But sadly even The Killing Joke wasn’t given to us without flaws.
For the most part the film adaption was a success. It adapted the source material faithfully, and even went about adding in a few small details to enhance the narrative. However, the downside came with the Batgirl filler.
This entire segment of the film near enough tears apart any positives the adaption has to offer. Is it bad? Not precisely. It’s just riddled with questionable decisions that leaves even the die-hard fans puzzled for an answer. I think the biggest question to be asked is: Was it necessary? I can see the clear reasoning behind having a twenty-eight minute segment dedicated to Batgirl in order to flesh out her character before the fatal incident later on within the story. But the narrative that was presented wasn’t executed properly and left much to be desired.
The initial premise is to give Batgirl some depth, a little look into her life as Batman’s sidekick before she ultimately hangs up her cape. This would’ve been better had the segment not lasted as long and served more as a montage accompanied with voice-over. Instead it takes up nearly half the run-time of the film and makes you forget that you’re supposed to be watching The Killing Joke.
It’s neat in its ideas of comparison. The narrative is supposed to represent Batgirl being faced with a situation similar to Batman and Joker’s conflict, resulting in her being nearly pushed over the edge and realising that being a vigilante isn’t always enjoyable and can have its dark moments. Paris Franz, the villain of the segment, served as a Joker wannabe is his rampage of disruption. Despite feeling one dimensional, and a tool to push the segment forward, Paris had moments where he was creepy and extremely dominating. His obsession with Batgirl was borderline stalking, which was made worse by his unpredictable nature.
So you can clearly see the similarities and the meaning behind this segments’ ideas. But the ideas got pushed aside by pointless, and clumsy, distractions. The segment invented a strange side-story where Batgirl now has a “thing” for Batman. This develops throughout the segment and makes the film feel like a cheesy chick-flick where Batgirl pines over Batman and has multiple bitchy outbursts because of this.
The segment completely falls apart when we have a Bat-sex scene. Now it’s not really surprising to think that Bruce Wayne would sleep around because that’s his persona. But to see Batman “get it on” was a little weird to watch, especially when Batgirl is the person he’s sleeping with. I always imagined their relationship resembled that of a niece and uncle chemistry, nothing sexual. It seemed extremely forced to suit the needs of the filmmakers involved, dissolving into the realm of fan-fiction.
It’s made even worse when the film has scenes dedicated to having awkward aftermath moments where Batman is distancing himself whilst Batgirl proclaims “It was just sex!” in a crude attempt to get the two of them back on good terms. It was embarrassingly written and I really have to question what went through Brian Azzarello‘s head when writing this adaption. Then when it came to Batgirl confronting Paris and being pushed over the edge it all falls apart because her reasoning is completely stupid. She’s essentially mad at him because he ruined hers and Batman’s apparent relationship.
By this point you’re just questioning your sanity and making sure you’re not dreaming, and upon realising you are awake you wonder what you’ve done, as a comic book fan, to deserve such disrespectful treatment. Batgirl’s character is almost ruined by this shoddy fan-fiction rubbish because it took away all her wonderful independence and intelligence in replacement of stereotypical teenage horniness and angst. Then you simply wonder why such a magnificent graphic novel wasn’t given the A+ treatment and instead granted a piss-poor filler to drag out the run time.
At nearly the thirty minute mark the actual film finally starts. And I must say, having read the graphic novel, this adaption is near enough a perfection adaption. It’s almost a panel by panel comparison. And like I said above, the film even adds in a few moments that serve to explore more of the sinister narrative the graphic novel developed. Small details such as Batman visiting the prostitutes for answers to The Joker’s whereabouts leading to the idea that he may have raped Batgirl. That and the sinister opening with the preserved corpses merely adds to the darkened atmosphere of the source material.
The tale is very interesting in terms of exploring The Joker’s character. This was the first time we saw any true development to the Clown Prince of Crime. Alan Moore, the writer of the graphic novel, really went the extra mile to expand upon the infamous villain and make him a serious threat. Not only did he become more dangerous, but also became more complex through his possible backstory.
The Joker may have once been an ordinary man, with a wife and expecting a child. But sadly his career as a comedian wasn’t filling him with laughs but rather embarrassment as he constantly returned to his family empty handed. It was sweet to see that his wife was very understanding and appreciated his efforts, showing how The Joker had a happy existence and had a strong bond with his partner.
Sadly tragedy struck and his life was torn apart after he got involved with mobsters to gain his family some needed cash. Not only did he lose his wife and unborn child to mysterious circumstances (which leaves the question open as to whether or not the mobsters were involved to send a message) but he also lost his sanity after the job went wrong. The mobsters are shot down by security and The Joker falls into a vat of chemicals after an encounter with Batman. Upon seeing his new-self reflected in the water The Joker lost himself in a roar of laughter.
The rest of the narrative follows The Joker’s desperate attempts to prove his philosophy is correct. That “one bad day” can make even the sanest, and best of men, go completely insane. You have to wonder if this is Joker’s way of trying to prove that he wasn’t weak in transforming into a psychotic criminal. That that was a natural response to the cruel circumstances that befell him. To test his theory, The Joker attacks Gotham’s finest, Commissioner Jim Gordon.
In the process of trying to break Gordon Joker attacks his daughter Barbara, aka Batgirl. In a shocking moment, that has haunted comic book fans for nearly thirty years, The Joker turns up at Barbara’s flat and shoots her without warning, or mercy. This unexpected moment leaves poor Barbara paralysed. Gordon is then taken away to be tortured in an abandoned fairground where the freaks aid Joker in pushing the Commissioner over the edge.
It is a grim atmosphere throughout this section. Gordon is literally stripped of his dignity as he is forced onto a terrifying ghost train that has been built to test him in every way possible. I like how the court scene was added to give an extra element in Joker’s scheme of breaking Gordon’s will. It’s very effective in how he uses the scenario to see if Gordon would be willing to break his own rules to deliver justice, similar to Batman.
But Joker flips Gordon’s answer on its head as he makes him question whether or not Batman is so different from Joker, making him have doubts over his own resolve. It’s actually a little annoying there wasn’t more time dedicated to fleshing out Gordon’s decent into madness instead of concentrating effort onto the Batgirl side-plot.
One of my favourite scenes definitely goes to The Joker’s song and dance routine. “I Go Looney” is such a great song and really encompasses The Joker’s personality perfectly. It’s dark and twisted but has a deliverance that still feels crazy and comical. It’s at this moment I have to bring up Mark Hamill and his fantastic voice acting skills. He was born to play The Joker. You can tell every time he dons the infamous villain everything just falls into place. Never will there be anyone who will surpass Hamill’s unique and iconic interpretation of the Clown Prince of Crime.
The end result is a fantastic, and well built-up, confrontation between The Joker and Batman as their entire complicated relationship gets tested and brought to the surface in one of their best showdowns to date. Hamill delivers The Killing Joke‘s iconic monologue to perfection. You can tell how frustrated The Joker is at Batman. He has always thought of Batman as a criminal, no better than himself, and wanted nothing more but to prove this to the Caped Crusader.
It’s fascinating in how these two characters both hate each other whilst at the same time admire one another. Like Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty, Batman and The Joker are each other’s equals and opposites. In many ways they cannot live without the other. The explosive conclusion results in these two enemies confirming their inner feelings for the other, with Batman proclaiming that only The Joker could go mad, pushing them to nearly killing one another.
In an unexpected turn of events they then begin to have a civilised conversation where Batman wants to help The Joker, but the Clown Prince of Crime believes it is far too late for that. They then share a moment of actual understanding when they laugh together over a joke.
This adaption continues to show how brilliant The Joker’s character is, why he is loved so much by fans across the world, and why he is deemed one of the greatest villains of all time. Along with that, the final scene grants us an intriguing insight into the relationship between Batman and The Joker, showcasing how timeless it is and how we constantly return to see how it continues to be pushed, and perhaps how it will finally conclude. It’s just a massive shame that the first twenty-eight minutes are wasted on poor ideas, otherwise I would happily consider this the perfect adaption.