Before starting a discussion of the movie proper, I have to give the obligatory warning that there will be spoilers in this review. Granted this film is (nearly) a frame by frame adaptation of the iconic graphic novel, Batman: The Killing Joke, and this essentially means that this story is not unknown. Long time DC fans have read and re-read this particular adventure of the caped crusader so there is nothing new here, at least at first glance.
I’ll begin by talking about the portion of the film that actually follows the plot of the graphic novel, which begins a good 20 to 30 minutes into the movie (more on that later). In terms of faithfulness to the source material, this section of the movie shines. We see a dynamic relationship between Batman and the Joker that is very familiar to anyone who has read Batman comics, but considering how utterly dark this story already is, we are unsettled and disturbed. This isn’t a bad thing, by any stretch. We are supposed to be scared of the Joker as he is the literal embodiment of insanity, but The Killing Joke takes things to new heights.
I very much enjoyed the second and third acts of this film. Kevin Conroy coming back as Batman is always a pleasure, and, of course, Mark Hamill as The Joker is the only way WB Animation could have done justice to the source material. There are people, however, who do not like the graphic novel at all, but I, for one, am not one of them.
There are some who do not like The Killing Joke book and I can understand why — I just do not agree with their reasons. The ending is why many people have less than positive things to say about the property, but I believe it gives a lot of weight to the Batman/Joker relationship.
When they finish fighting, Batman tells the Joker that he (Batman) won’t just beat him up this time and take him to Arkham. Batman tries to tell the Joker that rehabilitation is possible and that throwing oneself further and further from sanity is not the answer. The Joker responds by saying that it is too late for him, telling a joke about two inmates in an asylum.
We listen to the punchline and while the Joker is laughing at his comedy, Batman smirks and starts to laugh. The camera/frame pans down and we conclude with these two enemies laughing at a silly anecdote. I am a fan of this ending for a couple of reasons.
First, it solidifies the idea that Batman really is “one bad day” away from being just like the Joker. We all know that the Joker and Batman perfectly balance each other out and that is because they are complete opposites of one another. If Batman were to ever lose his mind he would become the Joker. Seeing Batman laughing with his nemesis shows us just how close he can be to this state of insanity, and it is disconcerting, chilling and, ultimately, alarming. Batman is supposed to be this solid bedrock to cling to — a man with nerves of steel and a highly disciplined mind — and yet here he is, sharing a laugh with someone he has no business fraternizing with.
The second reason I like the ending is because I am not of the opinion that every single conclusion needs to be a tight bow where all problems are resolved and everything can be bright and happy going forward. I am a huge fan of dystopian future properties, like Orwell’s 1984, and of sci-fi novels like Arthur C. Clark’s Childhood’s End, and not all of these storylines have happy endings. Every once in a while it is nice to break up the monotony of predicting how things are going to, “be just fine,” and get hit with a finale that leaves things up in the air. Walking away from this film with Batman guffawing with the Joker is perfectly justified.
And now we get into the negatives of this film. In order to make this a feature length movie, WB Animation had to add a good 20-30 minutes of more content because, truth be told, The Killing Joke as a graphic novel is fairly short when compared to other DC storylines. So, they opted to add some plot-lines with Barbara Gordon a.k.a. Batgirl a.k.a. Commissioner Gordon’s daughter.
While I don’t necessarily disagree with the decision to put this sub-plot into film, I highly disagree with the way it was done. It was added, I can only imagine, in order to give more weight and brevity to the final act when Gordon is forced to look upon pictures of his naked daughter while going through a sadistic carnival ride. In the book, the first time Barbara makes an appearance is when the Joker knocks on her door, puts a gun against her stomach and blasts a hole through her spine. This is how she becomes paralyzed and eventually becomes Oracle in later Batman stories.
The difference here is that Barbara is given the entire first act of the movie to establish her as a character, which as I said above is fine for them to do, but I believe the way they did it was sloppy. The controversy everyone is talking about is that she is essentially transformed into a sex symbol. The bad guy during this first portion, named Paris, is obsessed with her, to the point of getting a prostitute to wear a Batgirl inspired mask during their night of fun to fulfill his fantasy. The issue isn’t so much that Paris has turned her into a sexual object in his mind, the issue is that Batgirl acts like a petulant child when she is told by Batman that she is off the case because things have gotten too personal between her and her admirer.
Instead of backing off and realizing that Paris is more dangerous to her than she suspects, she throws a temper tantrum on two separate occasions, nearly gets herself killed because she falls into a trap set by Paris and then throws another tantrum that ends up with Batman and Batgirl having sex on a rooftop.
The entire auditorium gave an audible gasp of disbelief, disappointment and frustration when this scene happened, and for good reason. The relationship between Batman and Batgirl isn’t supposed to be sexual; Batman is protective of her as a father would be to his daughter, and it blows my mind that the creative team behind this addition to the story decided that it would be a good idea that Batman, friend of Jim Gordon for decades, would break down his discipline and sleep with Barbara.
Frankly, this entire section could have been a huge positive for the film had her objectification had been done only from Paris’ perspective as the bad guy — at least then it could be argued that she isn’t a sex symbol, only a fantasy in the mind of a criminal. Yet we get a Barbara who can’t control her physical attractions to Batman, and so she gives in. Even more upsetting is the fact that Batman himself didn’t put an end to it before she was able to mount him and throw off her shirt.
Overall, the majority of this movie is good because its short runtime is taken up by The Killing Joke material. I very much enjoyed how absolutely insane the Joker has become in this one. There is a lot of deep psychological and philosophical nuances that can be covered here, but for the sake of keeping this review under 1,500 words, I will simply say that it fascinating to tap into that part of the human psyche.
Would I recommend this movie? Yes, if only because the second and third acts more than make up for the folly that is the first act. If you liked the graphic novel, you will like the majority of this movie. If you hated the graphic novel, then maybe this is one to avoid because it will do nothing to change your mind about this particular Batman story.