For over 25 years, Batman: The Killing Joke by writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland has been considered on the greatest stories of the Caped Crusader ever told, right up there with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Considered both the definitive Joker tale and the closest the character has to a traditional origin story, Killing Joke’s influence can be felt in Batman related media far and wide. Shen director Tim Burton was famously pitching his version of Batman to Warner Bros. executives in 1988, he waved a copy of The Killing Joke in the air, saying, “This is what I want in this movie to look like!” (…or some phrasing to that effect). Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight also borrowed heavily from the basic plot of this comic, and from the way Alan Moore saw the Joker and the Batman’s complicated relationship.
Now the seminal graphic novel finally has a legit adaptation of its own, thanks to Warner Bros. Animation, which debuted the film to a packed house of over 4,000 fans at Comic-Con in San Diego this year. This adaptation was special for several reasons. First off, it was DC’s first R-rated animated film ever—something that took a lot of convincing, it seems. Secondly, it was a reunion of arguably the two greatest versions of both Batman and the Joker ever, with Batman: The Animated Series’ voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprising their iconic roles. And third, this adaptation corrected one of the great perceived wrongs of the original story, changing Batgirl/Barbara Gordon‘s arc from being about her simply the playing Joker’s victim—as she was portrayed in The Killing Joke—to showing how the character overcame tragedy to become the hero Oracle.
Wonderfully directed by Sam Liu and produced by DC animation legend Bruce Timm, and written by former Wonder Woman scribe Brian Azzarello, The Killing Joke is a very straightforward adaptation. Well, with one major exception: the entire 25-minute opening prologue is an entirely new storyline, created for the film exclusively by the these three gentlemen. The new opening tells the story of how Barbara Gordon and Batman’s professional and personal relationship dissolved amid a complicated and intense case, to the point where Barbara ended up quitting being Batgirl. Barbara is written as complex and interesting here, maybe more so than she ever has before in any animated version. So when tragedy strikes her in the main storyline, it becomes her tragedy, instead of just an exploitation of her pain and misery as a motivating factor for the men in the story. It is a very welcome change, and doesn’t alter what made any of the original work so effective in the slightest.
As for the main storyline, it remains a very faithful adaptation—nearly word for word—of Moore and Bolland’s original. (It should be noted that Alan Moore’s name isn’t seen anywhere on this film, just as it wasn’t in Watchmen). The Joker decides to prove to Batman once and for all that all it takes for a good man to go insane is one very bad day. So he takes it upon himself to torment Commissioner James Gordon (played by Twin Peaks’ Ray Wise) by shooting and crippling his daughter, and forcing him to see the pictures of her degradation—all while singing a jaunty tune in a twisted carnival—the hope being that Gordon will lose his mind and his convictions. All of these actions coincide with Batman realizing that his relationship with the Joker has reached an impasse, and he needs to try and reach whatever humanity still exists in the Joker before the two of them kill one another.
This storyline is also peppered with flashbacks to the Joker’s origin story, or at least his origin “as he remembers it,” suggesting he has different memories of his past (another aspect of the Joker used by Christopher Nolan in The Dark Knight). Just like in Moore’s original story, but maybe more so here because of Mark Hamill’s excellent voice acting, Joker seems to have been a bit unhinged even before personal tragedy struck him. It seems here like he was the type of guy who just needed a nudge to lose his mind, and that maybe a psychopath was simply hiding in him all along.
One of my favorite aspects of the original story is very much preserved here, and it’s Batman’s compassion and willingness to try and help the Joker, despite everything he’s done. Unlike the wanton killer he’s seen as in the recent Batman v Superman, this version of Bruce Wayne desperately wants to help the Joker try to stop the insanity, so to speak. He offers to help him and try and rehabilitate him, which is a very important aspect of Batman’s character that so many writers forget about in favor of focusing on his need to punch bad guys and seek vengeance. Batman wants to take criminals and make them not criminals anymore. I love that this is actually articulated in this story and its adaptation.
Although Moore’s words are faithfully adhered to in this adaptation, Brian Bolland’s very detailed art is another story. And that’s not a complaint. It would have been unwise for Sam Liu to try and recapture the incredibly detailed Bolland artwork, so they took his basic designs from the 1988 original graphic novel and did their best to replicate them, without getting too crazy with the details Bolland is known for. (Joker’s carnival freaks from the OGN remain as creepy as ever in this version though, a tribute to Bolland’s design.) The Batman in this movie has the same ear length in his cowl, and, in maybe my favorite detail, still wears his underwear on the outside, just because that’s how it was in the ’80s comic. But again, this is maybe the only place Bolland’s art style is really copied.
But as great as this all is, this whole production would fall apart without the tremendous voice talent at work here, notably Conroy and Hamill doing career best work. Hamill has wanted to do The Killing Joke for years, and due to his love of the source material, he really brings his A-game to this. This is the Joker as twisted as we’ve ever see him, and it really hammers the point home as to why Mark Hamill is the greatest Joker we’ve ever had on screen. Tara Strong, who voiced Batgirl in Batman: The Animated Series, brings depth and gravitas to to Barbara Gordon that the TV show rarely afforded her. And again, it goes without saying that Conroy is THE Batman.
Originally, this movie was meant to be the swan song to Conroy and Hamill’s versions of these characters, but wiser heads prevailed, and both will reprise their roles for the upcoming show Justice League Action (as tonally different from Killing Joke as one can get). Batman: The Killing Joke is one of the best DC animated adaptations to date, and this old DC fan is happy this classic tale has finally been done justice properly. If you’re a fan of Batman at all, then The Killing Joke comes with the highest recommendation. he film will be released digitally on July 26, and on DVD and Blu-ray on August 2.
RATING: 4.5 OUT OF 5 BURRITOS
Images: DC Comics/Warner Bros. Animation