VOD film review: The Killing Joke
Ned Newberry | On 10, Aug 2016
Director: Sam Liu
Cast: Kevin Konroy, Tara Strong, Mark Hamill
The Killing Joke is a seminal comic, which depicted the relationship between Batman and the Joker like never before. This new animated adaptation fails to capture the cerebral nature of the book, adding in some unnecessary exposition in an attempt to make this feel like a feature-length movie, but its cobbled-together narrative lacks the psychological maturity required.
The film starts with Batgirl, played by Tara Strong (who, notably, has played Harley Quinn in various iterations), giving a monologue that addresses the audience’s confusion about the movie beginning this way. It seems like the film’s creators are acutely aware of who is going to watch this film – primarily, of course, fans of the comic. It’s therefore a baffling decision to tack a Batgirl tale on the front of a story whose focus is Batman and the Joker. It’s understandable that this narrative device is included to make Batgirl a more fleshed-out character in the story, making what happens to her at the hands of the Joker more impactful, but this means that the build-up in tension, from the Joker’s escape from Arkham to him enacting his gruesome plan, is completely lost as the Clown Prince of Crime doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through.
Additionally, the Joker’s origins, told at the beginning of the book, are reduced to flashbacks dotted around the action, which completely destroys their impact and cheapens the intrigue derived from the ambiguity that they could, despite the reveal, just be deranged delusions in his mind.
At least the animation, courtesy of the exemplary DC Animation team, and drawing heavy inspiration from Bruce Timm’s (taking a back seat as executive producer) original work, is top notch, although keeping the look of Batman from the original book seems to be a misstep, as Brian Bolland’s design doesn’t lend itself to motion very well. That is one of the real issues at the centre of this; comics are read at the reader’s own pace and they are left to fill in the gaps in logic themselves, while the book’s story is supported by internal monologues, which are entirely absent here.
There is one sex scene in the film that wasn’t part of the original story, its inclusion most likely an attempt to make the added story elements seem more mature. It shouldn’t really be considered a spoiler, as it’s been one of the multitude of moral panics sweeping the Internet lately, but it’s neither a very interesting plot point nor is it overt. The whole point seems to be that it is messed-up, but it isn’t that sinister; Batgirl is depicted as a college student and, given she’s working as a librarian, she’s probably been there a while. She may even have finished college. This puts her at least north of 18 and it makes Barbara Gordon being crippled at the hands of the Joker more poignant; after sleeping with her idol, Batgirl loses her nerve as a caped crime fighter.
Either way, the tacked-on Batgirl half of this film means that ultimately The Killing Joke does not edify or celebrate the source material and the ending that was so thought-provoking in the original becomes a flat ending to a flat experience, followed by an unnecessary post-credit scene that leaves Warner Bros. in a bad spot.
What this feature does have going for it is the wealth of voice-acting talent. Kevin Konroy returns as the definitive Batman, with a voice like silk on marble, able to snap from calm to rage in a moment. Tara Strong was a fine choice for Barbara and Batgirl; there’s strength in her voice but there’s also a vulnerability to her that makes her three-dimensional, despite her poorly-written role. But, of course, the main event is Mark Hamill’s Joker, which is, arguably, one of the sole reasons this film was made. Hamill swore off voicing Joking in any animated outings, unless it was for The Killing Joke. As usual, his Joker is equal parts creepy and comedic – he even gives an authentic pre-vat of acid performance. It’s nice to see he still loves this character, it’s just a shame his chosen adaptation does so poorly in other areas.
That being said, the music and sound design are a notable feature. The team of composers show their experience (all veterans of Warner Bros. productions), delivering a classic orchestral score that belts along with the action sequences and smoulders in the slower scenes. Guns crack, punches boom and Batarangs sing through the air, which certainly lends a kinetic texture to the audio.
The Killing Joke is an enjoyable romp, but it pales in comparison to the pantheon of animated excellence that usually comes from DC. While trying to tell original stories with well-known characters in live action and missing the mark, it seems Warner Bros. has done the same with a well-known story in animated form, something that has been a fallback for many fans defending DC. This is another example of the company failing to treat Batman and his lore with care and respect, which should cause grave concerns for future efforts. Hopefully, LEGO Batman delivers in 2017 – otherwise, 2016 may be the year of Batman’s Killing Joke, for all the wrong reasons.
Photo: Warner Bros