Batman: The Killing Joke direct-to-video animated film
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Voice actors: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Ray Wise, Maury Sterling & Nolan North
Directors: Sam Liu
Producer: Warner Bros. Animation
I know I’m well behind the times in turning my attention to this 2016 video release, but a few nights ago, I found myself with some time on my hands, alone at home, and I spotted this listing on Netflix. I suppose with the recent news of a Joker flick starring Joaquin Phoenix, I was open to delving into another piece of work that touches on a possible origin for the Clown Prince of Crime. I read the original graphic novella by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland when it was released in the 1980s, during my teen years, and I remember being impressed with it. But given the evolution in culture today, I’m not sure it holds up. One thing of which I am certain, though, is that this attempt to adapt that iconic comic book is wrong-headed, given that the first act, added to pad out the story, warps a key relationship in the Batman family and adds a pointless villain to the mix.
An ambitious, resourceful and sociopathic young gangster sets his sights on his uncle’s criminal empire, and on the woman of his dreams: Batgirl. These days, she’s operating as the Batman’s prime partner, but she’s frustrated that the arrangement isn’t an equal one. Meanwhile, the Joker has escaped from Arkham Asylum yet again, and this time, he’s determined to show the world he’s no monster, that he’s a regular guy who was transformed into a madman by one bad day. The subject of his latest experiment will be none other than Commissioner Jim Gordon, and as such, his daughter, Barbara, AKA Batgirl, has a major role to play as well.
For the most part, this animated film boasts a similar look as the Bruce Timm-designed Batman: The Animated Series of the 1990s, albeit with a slightly more realistic approach, but whenever the focus is on Batgirl (as it is almost exclusively in the first act), that Timm influence really comes through. Of course, given that the Batman and Joker are voiced by the Timm era voice actors, the whole thing feels as though it flows from that show. Of course, there’s a much more mature tone to the storytelling here, given the sexual encounter in the new material and the extreme violence and cruelty of the latter part of the story. The filmmakers clearly strive to evoke the look Brian Bolland brought to The Killing Joke, and there are fleeting moments — iconic closeups of the Joker from that book — in which they succeed. But overall, there’s a mixed bag of the simpler look of the Timm influence and the effort to capture the more detailed and unsettling elements of the source material. The result is animation that looks uneven.
I understand what writer Brian Azzarello — whose work I typically relish — was trying to accomplish with the first act of the film. Whereas the Killing Joke comic had decades of DC history as a backdrop against which the story unfolded, this film is something of a standalone entity, evoking the 1990s cartoon but not quite following it. Clearly, the filmmakers felt we needed to care about Batgirl/Barbara Gordon for the horror that befalls her to deliver the gut-punch desired. It wasn’t successful, though, as that opening plotline feels completely disconnected from the Joker story. I think there’s potential in a story about a criminal who becomes obsessed with Batgirl and in the unhealthy relationship between her and her inspiration, but Azzarello’s exploration of those ideas is far too fleeting here.
I don’t believe animation is solely the domain of children’s programming. There are cartoon shows and animated films that are clearly designed for children alone, those for adults and some that all ages can enjoy. This effort toward an R-rated animated Batman movie doesn’t work. Honestly, considering how many links this project has to Batman: The Animated Series, the harsher elements just never sat right with me. And even more distracting was the fact the filmmakers, despite the label this was for mature audiences only, still appear to be shackled by limits on what can be depicted; whether those limits were self-imposed and came from without, I don’t know. I felt as though if they were going to go for the R rating, they should commit to it, to tell the story they wanted to tell instead of constantly hinting at it.
The script wasn’t there, the sense of design wasn’t there, and the level of performance one has come to expect from these voice actors wasn’t there either. Now, I thought Tara Strong did well as Batgirl/Barbara Gordon, with a solid blend of strength and naivete, but to my surprise, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill just didn’t deliver the same compelling presences they have in the same roles in the past. Hamill’s portrayal of a weak-willed Pre-Joker wasn’t convincing at all; he just didn’t seem human or pathetic enough. And Conroy failed to convey any emotion here, even in the scene with Batman at Barbara’s bedside. That felt flat, and his effort at laughter in the closing scene, pulled right from the comic, was completely unconvincing.
Everyone involved in this project was capable of so much better, and I suppose that knowledge made it all the more disappointing. 4/10