We’ve seen our fair share of outstanding Batman movies in the past – I don’t need to tell you how amazing Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is after all these years, do I? – but none have the same level of anticipation as Batman: The Killing Joke. An R-rated animated film that promised initially to not hold back any punches, Joke was promising to stay devoted to the source material, written by Alan Moore and put together by artist Brian Bolland. So, does it?
Well, first off, let’s just address the elephant in the room right now – yes, there is content added, and not everything from the book is reflected. Director Sam Liu, working alongside DC animation’s Bruce Timm and script writer Brian Azzarello, opted to tell more of her backstory, so that when she is attacked by the Joker (not genuinely a surprise, considering the fans of the book), it attempts to gel more with audiences trying to feel something for her.
And in a way, we do, as she struggles to keep up with Batman at the start of the film as they attempt to shut down a smug, confident crime lord – a guy so vicious that he has no trouble offing members of his own family. However, then a sex scene comes out of nowhere – no, you never actually see the sex – but it just feels odd. Like Barbara was trying to build up this genuine toughness, only to give in to raw temptation. It’s a bit jarring, and throws the film for a loop. That’s not to say it completely leaves its existence unjustified, but you gotta wonder why it was thrown in.
Anyway, the rest of the film focuses on the Joker, who takes Commissioner Gordon (Ray Wise, from TV’s cult classic Reaper) for a loop when he kidnaps him and brings him to a twisted carnival. What happens next I won’t spoil, but, yeah, you feel this uneasiness, about on the same level as the book. There are some scenes that feel a little undercut, however, and that’s strange considering the film has an R-rating. Why not just go for it and match the tone of the book, instead of hinting at bits and pieces of it?
Perhaps the most disappointing factor about The Killing Joke is that it’s over too soon. Batgirl’s story added and all, it still barely clocks in at just over an hour. You’re telling me Liu and company couldn’t have added more from the book? Or, at the very least, focused more on the Joker’s backstory, which indeed is just as powerful as you may recall from Moore’s pages?
At least it’s not a loss. For one, the action sequences are tough and gritty, but handled with superb animation style, in a tone that matches with Moore and Bolland’s art style. Seeing the Joker barely crack a smile at the very beginning is quite cool, and watching Batman tear through bad guys is always a pleasure to watch. Also, I enjoyed the ending, though, again, it came too soon. It’s just as cool as you remember from the book, although a nice little bonus scene, at the very least, paves the way for what Batgirl does next. (You comic book fans know.)
Even with the ups and downs of the storytelling style and the short length, there is one thing that’s absolutely appreciated here – the voice acting. As expected, Hamill continues to put on an amazing show as Joker, whether he’s busting into a music number as Gordon goes through hellacious torture, or tries to explain the method of his madness – even if it’s to someone he just offed. Hamill continues to be a shining example of comic book voice acting, and I hope we haven’t heard the last of him.
Likewise, Kevin Conroy is superb as Batman, really diving deep into the character just as he did long ago for the Animated Series and Mask of the Phantasm, with barely any loss in the gusto. He’s awesome. You’ll also appreciate Tara Strong as Batgirl, and feel her angst as she comes up against forces that she can’t possibly control. Wise is good, too, though I wish he was used more in the film.
The Killing Joke left me feeling mixed, mainly because there was too much added in one way, and not enough in another. Regardless, the top-notch voice acting and awesome art style may just be enough to please Batman fans. Just be prepared to get knocked for a loop, and not in the usual way.