The Good: Set-up, Much of the animation, Moments of character
The Bad: Second half feels like an entirely different work, Lack of satisfying resolution, Light on character development, Inconsistent animation
The Basics: The establishing story for Batman: The Killing Joke is much more interesting and satisfying than where the film goes.
When it comes to major superheroes, there are few that have the mainstream popularity of Batman. He is, almost undeniably, cool. Perhaps because Batman is so popular, the contrarian in me has never truly allowed myself to love the character . . . at least on the page. Of DC Comics characters, the only major character I have read less from than Batman is Superman (I'm not into monolithic good characters). But, when Warner Brothers decided to release Batman: The Killing Joke as an animated film, I was uncharacteristically intrigued. The Killing Joke (reviewed here!) is one of the few Batman books I have actually read and reviewed and I was interested to see just how Warner Brothers would deal with making it into an animated film.
The Killing Joke is an exceptionally dark graphic novel and I read it back in the day because of my interest in Barbara Gordon (I was on a Birds Of Prey kick thanks to the writing of Gail Simone!). Batman: The Killing Joke is appropriately dark and adult, which fits the source material. While I have read the source material, this is a review of the animated film alone.
Barbara Gordon, in her alter ego of Batgirl, is on a hunt through Gotham City with Batman when she draws the attention of the criminal Paris Franz. Paris is the nephew of a major mob boss in Gotham and he starts to rob his uncle in an attempt to draw out Batgirl after he gets a crush on her. When Paris sends an invitation to Batgirl through the police, Batman demands his protege not have anything more to do with the case. Gordon follows the clues, however, to hunt Paris and discovers his attempts to impress her have led him to kill his uncle and take over the mob himself. When Batman rescues Batgirl from the mobster's forces, they have a falling out and a fling.
When Batman discovers a three year-old collection of victims of The Joker in a storage locker, he visits the prison to attempt to talk to The Joker. There, he discovers The Joker has been set free. The Joker acquires an abandoned carnival in Gotham while Batman begins the hunt for the psychopath. While Barbara is visiting her father, Police Commissioner Gordon, The Joker arrives and shoots Barbara. Barbara is paralyzed and when Batman visits, she tells him her father has been abducted by the Joker. Commissioner Gordon is tortured by The Joker and he acts as bait to draw Batman out in his latest attempt to torment his adversary.
The first half of Batman: The Killing Joke is solidly a Batgirl story and the story of the dissolution of the working relationship between Batgirl and Batman has a lot going for it. How one mistake in the relationship causes a fracture grounds the fantastical world of Gotham City, with its crazed villain The Joker quite well. Barbara having a crush on Batman is actually a decent character trait for this version of Batgirl and would be perfectly age appropriate for her. While the romantic attachment between Gordon and Batman is not established in the book, it adds an interesting dimension to Batman: The Killing Joke by lending consequences to the two main protagonists of the film.
Batman: The Killing Joke is taking a lot of heat for containing a sex scene between Barbara Gordon and Batman and, more than the problem of infidelity to the source material, that moment of bad character judgement stands out in the film. That act leads to a sensible level of estrangement between Batman and Batgirl and that works exceptionally well for what the film is trying to do. By spending so much time building up the schism between Batman and Batgirl, the post-Paris scenes have an urgency to them on the character front that a self-contained work like Batman: The Killing Joke might not have otherwise possessed.
The Joker is also fleshed out in Batman: The Killing Joke through a series of flashbacks. At the carnival, The Joker recalls his mundane life before he was transformed, preparing for life as a father. He turns to the mob for financial help and is hired to do a score for them before it goes bad. The somewhat tragic backstory of The Joker is interesting and makes The Joker into something other than a monolithic adversary. Unfortunately, by giving him backstory, it makes the character feel inconsistent. The Joker is treated as absolutely insane - in fact singing about the joys of being crazy - but his methodology in trying to push Gordon and Batman into insanity is incredibly organized and rationally-constructed.
Batman's desire to have a rational conversation with the Joker makes the sometimes brutal character seem nicely ethical. In a film as dark as Batman: The Killing Joke that is necessary. When Commissioner Gordon challenges Batman to bring in The Joker "by the book" the movie takes a slight detour into being preposterous; using a vigilante to stop a criminal is not "by the book."
The animation in Batman: The Killing Joke is decidedly mixed. Early in the film, the quality is decent, but the style begins to get sloppy shortly after the prison scene with the not-Joker. While lead characters like Batman and The Joker are consistently well-animated, background characters start to move far less realistically and are rendered much more simplistically. The backgrounds, similarly, alternate between exceptionally well-detailed and troublingly simplistic.
Ultimately, in fleshing out the Barbara Gordon storyline at the beginning of Batman: The Killing Joke, the film creates its biggest problem. The storyline with a criminal having a crush on Batgirl is interesting and gives her such a substantive role in the film that where the story ends is remarkably unsatisfying. The difference is that the book was very much a Batman and Joker story; the film spends so much focus on Barbara Gordon that the fact there is no wrap-up with her storyline makes the movie seem anticlimactic and fractured. The result is a film intended for adults that is split in such a way that, despite the darkness of it,is difficult for an adult to truly love.
For other animated films based on comic books, please check out my reviews of:
Watchmen: Tales Of The Black Freighter
Batman: Gotham Knight
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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