The Killing Joke (2016)

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“All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.”
― The Joker, Batman: The Killing Joke

 

 

The Killing Joke graphic novel penned by Alan Moore and illustrated in detail by Brian Bolland is considered by many comic fans to be the definitive Joker story, if not the greatest Batman books ever written. Its author succeeded in psychoanalyzing the Joker, getting deeper into what motivates the super-criminal, and crafted a philosophically rich narrative driven by the psychopath’s urge to prove his point: that the divide between sanity and madness is tissue-paper thin and can be broken with “just one bad day”. This is the seminal encounter between the Joker and the Dark Knight, and depending upon your interpretation of it, it could represent their final encounter.

Given the iconic status of The Killing Joke, there was a ridiculous amount of excitement among the fan-base when an animated adaptation was announced. The addition of the two prime voice talents for the franchise in Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill only fed that flame, along with the attachment of Bruce Timm (spearheader of the DCAU or “Timmverse”) to the project. Anticipation couldn’t have been higher… and then the film saw its release.

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I just had the opportunity to watch it and, though this crimson mage is more accustomed to reviews of the gaming sort, I thought I’d share some thoughts.

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If you plan on watching The Killing Joke, you can skip ahead to about the 30 minute mark. They decided to tack on some kind of DC animated short prior to the actual movie. Actually, jesting aside, this is an all-new, all-awful opening sequence put in place because the original source material not being long enough for a film. So rather than make a short film, they decided to make a short film with another completely different short film attached to the front of it.

Everything after the 30 minute mark is The Killing Joke, often line for line and shot for shot. The rising intensity of the music will even cue you as to when one of the more memorable bits of dialogue from the novel is going to be recited. Handy!

While these moments are great to see in animated form, they’re simplistic and at times even awkward animation ruins some of the power of what’s happening. Only a handful of scenes, like when the Commissioner is riding the roller coaster or when the Joker fills Barbara’s doorway, carry the weight the source material possessed, like being stabbed in the gut. These moments can be genuinely terrifying and captivating.

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But other scenes fall flat. The Joker’s song and even, unfortunately, his magnificently written monologue and the ending. This is mostly due, in my opinion, to the clumsy animation. Animated DC storytelling clearly peaked with the DCAU. In this film, the animation fails to match the ink and coloring work that was put on paper almost thirty years ago. Consider these comparisons.

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Batman goes from furious to mildly annoyed and the Joker goes from crap-your-pants insane to merely “having a good time”. I get that the animators needed a simpler style to work with. I do. But they couldn’t even nail that simpler style sometimes. The novelty of seeing the iconic graphic novel animated this way seems like an unworthy trade-off for sapping away nearly all the intensity of what happens in this story.

Still, the actual Killing Joke half of the movie is light-years ahead of the first act of this movie, and I mean that with all of the mean-spirited hyperbole wielded by the modern movie critic…

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So in case you haven’t guessed from reading the novel, of course the first act is all about Batgirl. I mean, clearly she was the narrator and protagonist of The Killing Joke novel, right? Not right. I mean this happens to her:

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But she’s not the protagonist nor the main character. At the heart of the story is the encounter between Batman and the Joker, and that’s the problem with all of this additional Batgirl stuff is it takes us away from that to some strange place where Batgirl has a bizarre schoolgirl attraction to her own teacher and does it with the Dark Knight. In the words of a schoolgirl: “Like, why?”

I can understand that they needed to add additional material to make this a feature length animated movie but was this the material that needed to be added? Why not add something that would increase the tension between the Joker and the Batman? Why not lift more material from other influential stories like The Laughing Fish, A Death in the Family, or the two’s first encounter in The Man Who Laughs? That seemed to be somewhere on the filmmakers’ radar given the scene where Batman and Detective Bullock investigate a room where cadavers bore the marks of joker-toxin (“smilex” for you Batman ’89 fans).

Instead we’re left with all this Batgirl stuff which I guess was supposed to make her ultimate fate more meaningful to the audience. It reeks of 2016 sensibilities, somehow. We can’t just have a woman being shot. She’s got to be a strong, independent woman who don’t need no Batman. In this film, Batgirl falls in and out of love with her Dark Knight mentor and eventually quits the cape and cowl, resigning from her post.

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But rather than humanizing her or empathizing us with Barbara, the additional footage creates this image of Batgirl who is childish, subordinate, rebellious, obsessed with romantic feelings for Batman. She comes off as annoying, bitter, whiny, like a spoiled brat upset because she was told she couldn’t play with her toys any more. There’s a moment where she grabs a nearby dude arguing with his chick about “needing space” and she chucks him into a nearby planter in a sudden and unwarranted feminist association of guilt with a male she had no business with but who earned her wrath simply because she had man problems herself.

Bruce and Barbara romance has never really worked in anything I’ve read or watched, and it certainly doesn’t here. It’s a kind of unhealthy infatuation that you know won’t work.

So since this tacked on portrayal of Batgirl does nothing for the character, her victimization isn’t impacted, and thus neither is the actual narrative of The Killing Joke once we get to it. It’s still just between Batman and the Joker.

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Worse than that, the transition from the Batgirl stuff to the original story is jarring for another reason. Brian Azzarello is a comic book writer that I’ve seen have some hits and misses. His work on the New 52 Wonder Woman series was phenomenal but his Superman: For Tomorrow is one of the worst Man of Steel books I’ve read. And you can see Azzarello’s writing from miles away, complete with his love for characters interrupting each other. Azzarello is credited with writing this film.

Once The Killing Joke narrative begins and we’re treated to Alan Moore’s original dialogue, then we see the chasm. Azzarello, talented as he is, has writing that just can’t keep pace with Moore’s. That fact further confirms the notion that this is really two short films glued together, written by two very different writers.

This movie just can’t meet the standards of the source material and therefore can’t translate it for us with the same impact. The final scene of the movie and the final scene of the book in contrast are sufficient to make my case. The final scene in the book is vague. We don’t know what Batman does the Joker after he seizes him. But in the film, it’s clear they  went with a single interpretation: that Bats finds the Joker’s joke about two men escaping an asylum funny, an analogy for the relationship between the hero and villain. They share a laugh. It pans away. The end. Roll credits.the-killing-joke-or-the-dark-knight-returns-what-is-the-best-batman-graphic-novel-of-all-475709Ironically, this movie was “made for the fans” yet it disappointed many of us.

The Killing Joke will always be the iconic, influential origin story of the Joker but its animated adaptation will probably suffer the same fate of obscurity as the majority of the DC animated films. The animated Killing Joke is the first R-rated animated Batman movie, but does anyone really care? I mean this is the story where the Joker paralyzes an innocent woman to try to make a philosophical point. That is warped. But it’s treated here with “hoo-hum” commonality.

At least there will always be the book and if it could ever be said, it can be said here: The book was better. Why is that always so?

I’m going to give DC’s animated adaption The Killing Joke a 4 out of 10. Do yourself a favor and buy the graphic novel. Maybe somebody will re-gift you the movie.Well-Red-Mage-Black-
-The Well-Red Mage

 

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22 thoughts on “The Killing Joke (2016)

  1. Hello Well-Red Mage! I am a fan of the Killing Joke comics as it differentiates Batman and the Joker in terms of their motivations. They are the mirror image of each other but what really sets them apart is how they acted upon the tragedy that changed them. The Killing Joke comic is good but making a movie almost identical to the comic with the added first part that has no purpose at all is just a waste of time. Good review man!

    Liked by 1 person

      • I’d give it 6/10 because while it stays true to the comics, it didnt offer anything new and the execution is kinda underwhelming. The voice actors are the saving grace though! Just my thought. Hope to read more of your reviews!

        Liked by 1 person

          • Yeah exactly! Its very flat and I prefer the comic book version more! I’ll do my own review of the movie and I will put all my frustrations there. You should do a review about Suicide Squad!

            Liked by 1 person

            • Hey I’d like to read your thoughts on KJ! As for a SS review, I feel like there are many much better qualified people to write a film review. I’m trying to recruit us a film critic mage from my pool of RL friends, so maybe there will be movie reviews here in the future! I did a sassy review for The Wizard… LOL

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  2. Yes, I’be heard that the first 30 minutes is horrendous and brings down the entire product. Having the Batman and Batgirl pairing is definitely quite bad as well. With this review and others in mind, I definitely don’t plan on watching the film anytime soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I had considered seeing this (never read the graphic novel but I’m a huge DCAU fan)–I haven’t heard of any fans that really liked it though. And I just watched BvS for the first time, so I’m not sure I can take another disappointing Batman film right now haha

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve heard some other rather scathing reviews about it many of them deriding how for some reasons writers think “strong female character” are just women who can physically kick ass and don’t need to have more than one dimension. It’s one of the main critiques I’ve heard about Lightning in FFXIII (I’ve no opinion since I haven’t played it yet) whereas Brienne from GoT/ASOIAF manages to be both physically strong AND a strong character (which I can speak on being as ASOIAF is my second favorite fandom). Batgirl was a plot device. A paradigm that’s unfortunately the fate of many a female character (I’m guilty of doing it myself), and the initially, tacked on thirty minutes didn’t do anything to change that. Now granted this is coming from someone who’s only read a bunch of reviews/critiques not yet seen the movie. I’ve heard of The Killing Joke, but haven’t read it so as always anything I say needs to be well salted.

    I do love the paradigm of “one bad day.” That’s both psychologically fascinating and quite terrifying in its truth. It speaks to the horror that we all might have that hidden catalyst just waiting for the right conditions to come around and set off the ticking time bomb that will shatter all semblance of sanity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So yeah a few things should be said: Batgirl could be a strong female character. She just wasn’t here. Her neediness and obsession with Batman actually made her feel more immature and dependent, which seems contrary to what the filmmakers were trying to do with her. Making her quit the cape and cowl on her own is a good idea. Making her quit the cape and cowl because of her failed romance with her Batman, not a good idea.
      As for the psychology of Killing Joke, I think it demonstrates another difference between when it was written and when this movie came out. I’ll simply say insanity is a closer bedfellow than it was decades ago when this material was more shocking and less glamorous, and I think that’s the difference between the original and its adaptation. In the original, it was horrifying. In the adaptation, it was all in good fun. The scene of Joker’s song is the best example.
      You should still see it, though.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I definitely will check it out. I think when it first came out, mental illness wasn’t something people talked about. Hell even in my youth there was still a huge stigma (I’m not THAT old). Now it’s (needfully) becoming something people discuss (lest they court it more). It’s not so much that it’s more prevalent. It’s more that now it has a name, and making villains sympathetic and more complicated forces us to examines our own often tenuous hold on what we consider sanity. The making it in good fun makes utter sense since comedy (especially dark comedy) has a way of shining a light on the serious.

        Liked by 1 person

    • The Killing Joke is one of the best put together graphic novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading. My favorite happens to be Kingdom Come. I went into watching the adaptation knowing a bit about the Batgirl controversy, but setting that aside, I really found the animation poor and distracting. I hope you do get a chance to see it soon. It’s worth watching. Just fast forward to the 28 minute mark. You won’t miss anything.

      Liked by 1 person

    • If you had to have a first graphic novel, this would be one heck of a choice! It’s one of the best. I’m certain there was no need to perfectly emulate Bolland’s artwork, but the style they chose wasn’t successful because it wasn’t good, not because it didn’t match the original. There were many times it looked like the Timmverse, and then several other times it didn’t, several times when chins and eyes and faces were skewed and didn’t match up. It was distracting and I think, given the status of the novel, this film could’ve benefited from spending more time on the animation to make it even just a little more detailed. The Saturday morning aesthetic we watched in the late 90’s and early 00’s seems incapable of translating the power of this story. I don’t think it needs to be Bolland’s, but it needed a little more “oomph”. My opinion of course. Here’s a grain of salt.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow, a really good review and commentary on the movie. I have yet to see it, or read the graphic novel, but I think this is one I’m going to hunt down and try out. Also, excellent targeting on the “you go grrrl” slant to Batgirl. It seems that every movie, tv show and book has to have a prerequisite kick-ass, bad attitude chick that doesn’t really add anything to the story, but merely exists because reasons. I see the same thing happening with the Star Wars universe and that’s why I stopped caring about it. Really glad to have read your review. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey thank you very much for your kind words! Writing a movie review (though we jokingly did one for The Wizard) is something I wasn’t comfortable with but it was fun to write, especially right after watching the film. “Because reasons” may just define nearly everything about modern movie making. Take the recent Ghostbusters controversy for example: I can’t believe we were discussing the merits of a film and whether to watch it or not based on whether we are feminist or misogynistic, whether we liked the all female cast or not, and not whether we found the trailers funny or wanted to see it or not. It’s a funny world we live in now where we have to talk about these things, where contemporary topics are shoe-horned into movies and ultimately derail the narrative/presentation for the sake of “more important” 2016 social sensibilities.
      It’s actually shocking when you think about the difference between the 2010’s and the 1980’s, and how the different treatment of Batgirl says a lot about how storytelling has changed.
      Thank you for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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