Batman: The Killing Joke (2016) / Animation-Action
MPAA Rated: R for some bloody images and disturbing content
Running Time: 76 min.
Cast (voices): Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Maury Sterling, Ray Wise
Director: Sam Liu
Screenplay: Brian Azzarello (based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland)
Review published July 24, 2016
Batman: The Killing Joke is a DC Animated Universe film that (finally) adapts the heavily revered, Eisner-award winning 1988 Alan Moore/Brian Bolland one-shot graphic novel detailing the dark and twisted origin of Batman's main nemesis, The Joker. As with other DCAU releases, it is not aiming at kids, so parents should take note off its R rating (all of the rest of their titles have been PG-13). Along these lines, it isn't trying to push the envelope (it isn't as adult as, say, the original comic), but the implication of the rape of one of the characters in the story pushes it over the line to not being something the MPAA would want your children watching, even if, the way it is framed, younger viewers probably won't really understand this aspect due to it never being shown or the word even mentioned.
In this outing, Batman (voiced by Conroy, Batman vs. Robin), after some introductory scenes in which he battles some bad guys with the help of Barbara Gordon (Strong, Jay and Silent Bob's Super Groovy Cartoon Movie) as Batgirl, goes to confront The Joker (Hamill, Kingsman: The Secret Service) at Arkham Asylum, only to discover he has made his escape and is out and about causing havoc. The Joker, out to prove that anyone can go as mad as he has given the right (or wrong) circumstances ("All it takes is one bad day", so he says), sets about committing some truly heinous acts toward some of the people who are fighting on the side of good. In between the contemporary story scenes, we get flashbacks to Joker's past as a failing comedian who ended up turning to a life of crime in order to support his wife and unborn child, resulting in tragedy that cracks his psyche, and physically transforms his appearance to look as maniacal on the outside as he feels on the inside.
On board for The Killing Joke are the most defining actors to voice Batman and The Joker, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, respectively. It should be noted here that Hamill said in 2015 he would retire from voicing the Joker, due to strain on his vocal chords, with the exception of a possible return to voice him in an adaptation of "The Killing Joke." (Hamill has since reconsidered his retirement after his return here.) The animation is passable, very much in tune with the rest of the DCAU released straight to Blu-Ray and streaming services, mostly done mainly by a Japanese animation studio. The use of matching shots to transition between scenes is phenomenal, and definitely is well worth watching for those who appreciate the time it takes to put together a story through visual cues.
One thing that's missing from The Killing Joke is an emotional payoff for some of the character arcs that occur within the film. As this is a self-contained story, and one that is out of the current continuity, the only connection we have with the main characters is from any fondness for them and their history in comics and other mediums going into it. Thus, if a character is going to get brutally assaulted, tortured or killed, we just don't have time within the course of an 80-minute movie that covers so much ground to actually feel the weight of the horror these developments imply, especially since what happens won't necessarily carry over into a permanent ongoing series.
Those who are big fans of the Alan Moore comic will also be disappointed in the way the story deviates from the original work in several significant ways, few of them for the better, especially in inventing an introductory story in which Batman and Batgirl attempt to take down a loony mob boss. While it isn't a bad story jaunt on its own, it doesn't fit as comfortably thematically with the main tale that follows, and takes away precious time that could have gone to bolstering the actual story that fans have been anticipating to see realized for decades. If the attempt is to shore up sympathy for these characters, it doesn't quite achieve this, as we don't have adequate backstory to care for them beyond their costumed personas to truly get invested. Also, while it is an R-rated film, it seems likely that the makers of this animated version of The Killing Joke were trying as best they can to get the material down to a PG-13 level, as some of the strongest elements of its print counterpart as watered down to near nonexistence and still try to keep the gravity of the situations intact.
Outside of this, knowing it is not the 100% faithful adaptation of Moore's work (Alan Moore, yet again, has his name removed from the credits as a source material), this is still top-shelf stuff for the DC Animated Universe, and it is definitely recommended for all fans of the Batman animated features over the last several years. Purists may scoff, but those DCAU Batman fans with less familiarity to the source, or with a more open mind toward movie adaptations, will find the entertainment they're seeking.
-- There is a post-credits scene that may set up a newly transformed character in the DC Animated Universe.
©2016 Vince Leo