Batman: The Killing Joke (dir. Sam Liu)

Posted: July 28, 2016 in Uncategorized

“The Killing Joke” was originally a graphic novel published in 1988. In it, the Joker’s origin (or a t least a version of it) is given, as well as one of that villain’s most abhorrent crimes. The Joker wants to prove a point: that anyone can go insane from just one bad day. He shoots and paralyzes Commissioner Gordon’s (Ray Wise) daughter, Barbara Gordon (Tara Strong), then strips her naked and takes pictures. The purpose of this is torment the commissioner with this in the hopes of driving him mad. It features the Joker at his most sad and his most evil, as he tries to prove his world view to others almost as a way of justifying what went wrong in his life.

The paralyzing of Barbara became part of continuity, and Barbara, while no longer able to be Batgirl, became a sort of hacker/surveillance expert extraordinaire called oracle. While her treatment in “The Killing Joke” raised the stakes for the Joker’s plot and added extra darkness to it, it was also criticized. Barbara really does nothing in the story except get shot. Her role, and her tragedy, exist simply as one man’s demonstration (The Joker), one man’s horror (her father) and to push one mane to the edge (Batman). She suffers a sexually –tinged violent event, but is only defined by how that event effects the male characters. While I don’t think that story point was ever, in and of itself, wrong to depict (the Joker indeed would have done this), and the way the DC universe has dealt with the fallout of those actions in multilayered ways by depicting Oracle, I can understand some of the hostility towards the work, especially following the whole women-in-refrigerators controversy over how comics have treated female characters (though that stemmed from a Green Lantern a few years after “The Killing Joke” was published).

The new movie adaptation, “Batman: The Killing Joke” attempts to rectify the Barbara Gordon problem with the original book, but in the attempt they actually make things worse. The film is a scant 76 minutes long, and almost half of it is made up of completely new material not found in the original graphic novel which is not only tonally inconsistent with the second half of the film and with the comic, but actually winds up being more sexist than the original source material. We see Batgirl partnering with Batman (Kevin Conroy, the definitive Batman voice) to take down a sociopathic narcissistic crime boss with the ridiculous name of Paris Franz (Maury Sterling). Paris ends up with an odd crush of sorts on Batgirl, and seeing as how the film depicts her as a hot, busty redhead with glasses, it’s easy to understand why. Batgirl wants to take him down, but is also maybe a tad bit fascinated with his attraction to her, playing into the negative stereotype of good girls falling for assholes, or at least becoming interested in them. Batman brings up a good point that this means Paris is not scared of Batgirl, making her pursuit to bring him down counterproductive. But Batgirl doesn’t listen to the sensible advice and gets herself maybe in over her head.

In addition, Barbara has a crush on Batman. So, the cliché of a woman falling for an older, emotionally unavailable man. The film even gives her a stereotypical gay best friend, where she talks about Batman in code as her “yoga instructor”. It seems that Barbara’s motivation in being Batgirl is that it is fun, and that she has the hots for Batman. That seems pretty shallow. The whole Batgirl sequence wraps up with Batman trying to tell Batgirl to step back from the case, Batgirl being angry, Batgirl initiating sex (in costume, on a public rooftop, despite Batman acting cold to her and not at all reciprocating any possible romantic or sexual attraction), and later Batgirl cornering Paris and almost beating him to death, leading her to the realization that she has to take a step back because she was losing control. With the pining, the bad decisions, and the decision to show Batgirl in various stages of undress (a bra here, panties there), the sequence just reeks of so much sexism it almost feels on purpose. I assume this prologue-of-sorts exists for two reasons: to set up Batgirl as being more than just a bland victim, and to make Batman have personal stakes in his confrontation with the Joker. It comes across as meaningless and unnecessary, since none of this adds to the power of the main story, and merely takes away from it. Plus, the tone doesn’t match at all, so it never feels like an organic part of the movie, but rather a different movie Frankenstein-ed on to “The Killing Joke”. Personally, I don’t think Batman needed more motivation than the original comic gave him, though additional material on Batgirl would have been welcome. However, it needed to make her a non-clichéd, not-sexist caricature, and those scenes should have been cutaways within the narrative of the film as opposed to a frontloaded prologue.  I like some moments of this sequence of the film, and Tara Strong does a good job with what she’s given, but watching this film on video as opposed to in theaters will likely result in my chapter-skipping over the whole thing.

When the story proper begins, however, then we get some really, truly great stuff. With a few exceptions, the film is largely a scene-by-scene, line-by-line recreation of the graphic novel, albeit with lesser quality artwork that is more in line with previous DC animated titles than with the stills of the comic. The animation overall in this film ranges from excellent, to stiff, stilted, and cheap. Some of the camera moves feels so odd that they look like the artificially created camera moves from pan-and-scan VHS tapes when they had to add camera movements to make up for part of image being cut off for square TV screens, before widescreen TVs and watching films in letterbox format became the norm. Despite seeing the film on the big screen, the animation will always betray the direct-to-DVD roots of the project. Still, the fact that we get a super faithful adaptation of the comic is great. I just wish that, instead of the prologue, they had added more material in this part. Open up the scenes a bit more, let them breathe, create more drama, maybe add another setpiece or a B story here. However, I guess with the liberties being taken by adding on the Batgirl stuff to the beginning, they decided to play it relatively safe when it came to the actual comic’s story.

Let’s face it, the best thing about this film is Mark Hamill reprising the role of the Joker. To a generation of fans, including myself, he is the definitive Joker. Others can have the campiness of Nicholson or the overrated derivative Ledger, but Hamill is THE Joker, and the Joker of this film is by far the best portrayal of the Joker I have seen on film. It captures all the qualities of the Joker that I find so fascinating about the character but have never seen brought to life on film: that’s he’s not as crazy as he wants people to think he is, that he is evil but also in pain and obsessed with his adversary, and that he has a strong desire to make people see the world the same way he does. He is an absurdly fictional evil that is also real. He believes he is right, he is evil because he is scarred from his pain, and he wants validation. He’s also as evil and dangerous as they come, because he has nothing more to lose. Hamill finds the right voice for every line from the comic, and even finds a slightly different voice that sounds just right for the pre-Joker Joker, when he was just a failed comedian trying to support his family. The bad puns delivered in such brutal and awful circumstances have the right self-awareness that gives us enough insight into the Joker’s mind without making it explicit. When I hear people praise Ledger as the best Joker, this is the film I will point to and say, “No, you fools! THIS is the Joker”.

Conroy as batman, on the other hand, is terse and restrained. He gives off the air of having given up and being bored. This portrayal of Batman is not how I originally read him in the comic. In the comic I assumed Batman was attempting to be empathetic to the Joker. After all, both batman and the Joker were horribly emotionally scarred by losing their loved ones, and they simply succumbed to their madness in different and opposing ways. I thought he was desperate to try to reach the humanity in the Joker before they both killed each other. In the movie there is that, sure, but mostly it just comes across as Batman being absolutely dead inside after all he has done, and seen, and witnessed. He is almost completely gone, and is maybe looking to save himself by saving the Joker, but he also seems to have little faith that it is possible, and has shut down from the massive amounts of grief and anger he has felt. I’m not sure I prefer this latter choice to the former one I read into the character when reading the comic, but a Batman at the end of his patience and on the verge of no longer caring, a Batman truly dead inside after all of his trials, is an interesting choice and one I’m glad to have seen, since I doubt any live action Batman would have the balls to go to that level.

As a fan of the comic, it was joy to hear the definitive voices of these characters read the lines I knew oh-so-well. It was great to see sequences animated in something more than a motion comic setting. It was great to hear the Joker sing a song from the comic that I could only guess the melody off, since it sat there on the page as just text and all. Also, the dark and oppressively sad tone of the comic is pitch perfect in this section of the film.

Giving this film a grade is tough. I deeply enjoyed the latter half, despite the animation flaws. If the film had just been that portion with better animation and a slightly expanded story that gave batgirl more depth and character, this would easily be an A and the best Batman film of all time. However, that prologue is a huge fucking problem that almost capsizes the film’s accomplishments. How do I reconcile the fact that I loved almost 50 minutes of the film, and hated almost 30? I guess it’s to start with the A of the latter half and only deduct as much as the first half’s effect on my enjoyment of that second half took away as I was watching. In that case, I was able to enjoy the second half at about a B+ level. If I were judging the film as a whole, I would average out the A of the first half, the C- of the second half, and give it a b-. But I’m going with my gut here, and this is a B+ experience.

Note: Since the vast majority of the second half is a verbatim adaptation of the comic, the credit for the writing goes to Alan Moore. The problematic first half, then, belongs solely to screenwriter Brian Azzerello. Azzerello is a writer of comics, and should have really known how to do a better job.

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