Movie Review: ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’
Plot: “All it takes is one bad day.” That’s the premise behind director Sam Liu’s animated film Batman: The Killing Joke. Based on the seminal 1988 graphic novel by writer Alan Moore, The Killing Joke follows the exploits of adversaries Batman (Kevin Conroy) and The Joker (Mark Hamill). After The Joker shoots Barbara Gordon (Tara Strong) and kidnaps Commissioner James Gordon (Ray Wise), he retreats to a dilapidated amusement park. There The Joker hopes to prove that even an average man can go mad by driving Commissioner Gordon insane. And like countless times before, only Batman can stop him. As Batman attempts to save Gordon’s sanity in time, he also struggles with the very real possibility that he may be just as crazy as The Joker.
Review: Let’s start with the good news. Batman: The Killing Joke* is a good film. I know that seems like a very reductive thing for a movie critic to say, however I feel it a necessary statement because of the bad news: it could have been great.
When I first heard Warner Bros. was adapting creators Alan Moore, John Higgins, and Richard Starking’s 1988 graphic novel into a film, I knew what the problem was going to be: time. The Killing Joke is a very short graphic novel. It’s not like No Man’s Land, Hush, or even The Dark Knight returns, all of which are rather substantial in length. Consequently, we wind up with what I feared most, which is a filler back story, in this case centered around Batgirl.
Batgirl has always been a bit of an outlier in DC history. She was often used as a plot device and popped up rarely. Barbara Gordon’s alter ego had the distinct characteristic of becoming Batgirl on her own. In fact Batman actively discouraged her from becoming Batgirl because she was a woman. (How times have changed!) Not to be deterred, Batgirl openly defies Batman and goes on to fight crime.
Barbara Gordon in the original graphic novel features in only six pages and is again used as a plot device for The Joker to drive her father mad. She’s violently and sexually objectified (The Joker shoots and rapes her, something which also happens in the movie) and given virtually no character development. You’d think that with a Batgirl back story to open The Killing Joke, it would be a prime opportunity to create an empowering feminist subplot.
You couldn’t be more wrong.
Despite having considerably much more airtime in the movie than the graphic novel, director Sam Liu fails Barbara Gordon/Batgirl’s character utterly. The first thirty minutes of The Killing Joke, revolves around Batman and Batgirl tracking down Paris Franz (Maury Sterling and YES that is the character’s real name) the nephew of crime boss Francesco (Don DiMaggio). Paris develops an unhealthy stalker obsession with Batgirl.
While Batman and Batgirl inevitably catch Paris, the storyline comes at the cost of undermining Batgirl/Barbara Gordon’s character. Rather than becoming Batgirl on her own, Barbara for this version was taken under Batman’s wing and trained. Yet (according to Batman) she still sees it as a thrill and not anything serious. Things get complicated when the two end up having sex and eventually Barbara quits being Batgirl altogether after beating Paris within an inch of his life.
The misogynistic clichés that abound in the first thirty minutes of The Killing Joke border on insulting. Batman is constantly condescending and chauvinistic towards Barbara. Barbara acts out as the stereotypical “emotional woman” multiple times, once blowing up at her co-worker in the library causing a scene, while unleashing her bitterness at Batman by brutally beating Franz. Worse still, when Batman essentially “dumps” Batgirl as a partner, she attacks him but eventually ends up kissing him and then having sex with him. Not only is this cliché (seriously how many times has this happened in cinema?), but it’s dangerous. While the interconnection between sex and violence has always been prevalent in pop culture, this scene is a terrible example of what a good romantic relationship is supposed to be. Sex should not flow from violence, at least in a healthy relationship. Liu and screenwriter Brian Azzarello take it one step further however. Batman avoids Barbara in the typical I’m-a-guy-and-got-sex-from-you-so-now-you’re-dead-to-me fashion and when Barbara finally calls Batman, she breaks into hysterics claiming that it was just sex and it didn’t mean anything when clearly it did. At least for her. Again not only does this set a bad example for young women, but Batman’s actions are a tacit message for young men that this type of behavior is commonplace and OK. As the father of an almost two-year old son, I guarantee you this is not the message I’m going to teach him.
While the first thirty minutes of the film are somewhat reprehensible, when the subplot ends and the real crux of the events in the graphic novel begins, that’s where The Killing Joke hits its stride. Every plot point until the end of the movie holds true to the original tale. Where Azzarello fails at the original Batgirl lead up, he absolutely crushes the adaptation of the source material. Christopher D. Lozinski’s editing intertwines the Joker’s flashbacks perfectly with the events of the present. The animation is phenomenal employing a gritty and dark motif. The animators captured the ominous nature of the amusement park particularly well. I must admit I did not like Batman’s ears in the film however. They came off more like curled horns and were distracting.
As for the voice actors, all three are at the top of their game. Kevin Conroy eases into the Dark Knight like an old glove, and Tara Strong is as reliable as ever, even if her story is lacking. But the real show stopper is Mark Hamill. He’s just THE BEST in this movie. Not only does he convey an excellent sense of malice through the character, but he almost provokes a certain level of sympathy based on the circumstances that drove him to madness. Yes he’s sadistic and enjoys being cruel, but he’s inflicting pain because he wants others to experience the pain he’s felt. It’s a supremely fucked up way to garner understanding, as only The Joker can. His dynamic with Batman just sings across the screen. The Joker sees Batman as just as mad as he is, that the Batman at some point must have had a really bad too (obviously) and that his madness, while different, is no less real. Life is a joke to The Joker and we are all just victims of circumstance.
It’s funny that in less than half a year I’ve seen two Batman movies I’m extremely conflicted about. The Killing Joke is definitely the better of the two however. This review has been a tale of two movies. When The Killing Joke stays true to the source material it’s phenomenal. However it is weighed down in the first act by a chauvinistic and sexist portrayal of Batgirl that cuts as deep as a Batarang. The film would have been much better served by creating a story revolving around wheelchair bound Oracle (Barbara Gordon’s later alter ego and Batman compatriot) and telling The Killing Joke in flashback form. Not only would it have made for a more female empowering (and disability empowering) tale, it would have made the moment Barbara’s shooting and subsequent rape occurs that much more impactful. It would have made audiences care much more about what happened to Barbara.
Alas Liu and company miss the Batboat on this one, regulating The Killing Joke to good status rather than masterful. It’s a cruel joke that I don’t even think the Clown Prince of Crime would find funny.
*For the life of me I can’t figure out why this was rated R. Minimal swearing, no f-bombs, no sex, violence wasn’t anything worse than you’d see on The Walking Dead, and they never actually showed Barbara Gordon getting raped. At worst this movie was a hard PG-13. THAT’S IT.
My rating: 7/10
Would I A) Buy this movie B) Accept as a gift or C) Burn on sight ? Answer: B) Accept as a gift
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