The joke’s on us.
The Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill) intends to prove once and for all that even the most stable person is merely “one bad day” away from madness, so kidnaps Commissioner Gordon whilst maiming his daughter Barbara in front of him, and runs the Commissioner through a gamut of torture designed to tip him into lunacy, thus explicating the Joker’s own mindset, mayhaps mitigating his past crimes.
At the same time, The Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) is on a mission to reach out a guiding hand to Joker, knowing that their decades of sparring will only lead to one of their deaths, seeking to save them both psychologically and physically.
The Killing Joke is a celebrated 1988 graphic novel (it fueled the thematic grist behind Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT). Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland, it offers an empathetic origin tale for the Joker, also portraying Batman as self-aware of the endgame of being pitted against the same irreconcilable foe for so long. Rather than going through the futile motions of apprehending The Joker through bat-punching, he tries to bring closure to what has become an ongoing, irrational feud.
The writing is terse and layered, the artistry gripping. 28 years later, comes the animated movie based on the graphic novel…
The story is here, word for word, but the rancid cartooning shamefully shits all over the blood and sweat that Moore and Bolland put into their art.
“First of all, I realize this is probably not how you thought this story would start…”
You got that right, girlie! A female narrator opens BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE, the 2016 animated film of the graphic novel. It becomes apparent immediately that the female is Batgirl/Barbara Gordon (voiced by Tara Strong), as she glides into view over Gotham rooftops… So, uh, this movie is from her point of view? Already, any fan of the comicbook will have their doubts. Because Barbara is merely a victim cameo in The Killing Joke, a story specifically told from the Joker’s point of view…
Batgirl narrates, “I’ve been with Batman for three years…” Okaaaay…
Seems that KILLING JOKE mashes together the titular graphic novel and Batgirl Special #1 (also published 1988). Two reasons: Killing Joke was not long enough for a feature film, and adding backstory to Barbara Gordon gives her brutal assault by the Joker more weight. Trouble is, the Batgirl throughline is not integrated very – ahem – artfully. Writer Brian Azzarello is the man tasked to mesh these two comics, and he spends the whole first half-hour on Batgirl getting her panties in a knot over the men in her life – Paris (Maury Sterling), a dreamboat criminal who objectifies her, and Batman, who bosses her around until she’s dizzy with sexual repression. There is no foreshadowing at all that the Joker will take up the narrative later, not one shot of what he is doing or how he is connected to this tale, all our attention focused on Batgirl’s perfectly-rounded tey-teys and the sexual tension building like a tsunami between her and Batman, so thick you could boing it with a batarang.
And then the wave breaks, as Batgirl fights Batman and finds herself inadvertently on top of him… She looks down at him angrily, while his face is impassive as he lets himself be held down. Suddenly, her eyes go from fury to slight shock – I’m presuming that’s when she feels his erection beneath her bat-lap? Because she leans down swiftly and kisses him – and there’s a shot of Batman’s hand almost-caressing her tight little behind. Then she pulls off her top – dammit, there’s a bra! – and goes to town as the camera pans away.
It is definitely an adult-themed story, not just for its graphic violence, but for its humanizing, layered themes – and it somehow comes off as more brutal in animated form than the printed panels. The first R-rated Batman movie in the United States… but sorry, boyz – still no Bat-titties…
As soon as The Joker appears, the focus skews to his backstory. It’s like a bucket of cold water to our laps, as it comes at a strange right angle to Batgirl’s quickly-resolved prurient arc.
The Joker has escaped from Arkham Asylum – just as Batman visits to talk sense to him – and sets his morbid plan into action by killing a roomful of people, and purchasing an amusement park by killing the owner. We see flashbacks at regular intervals (in ochre tones, like the graphic novel), of Joker’s origins as a young failing standup comic, trying to provide for his wife and unborn daughter. Meanwhile Batman is on his trail, bat-punching and terrorizing perps for info, at one point shouting at a perp, “Swear to me!” in direct homage to Christian Bale’s dark knight. Kevin Conroy is a well-loved Batman voice. But Bale’s shout made me wet ‘em.
Film follows the comic panels religiously (to its credit), showing Barbara at home with Commissioner Gordon (Ray Wise), as he pastes Batman clippings into a scrapbook. He holds up the supposed newspaper photo of Batman’s first arrest and – like the graphic novel – it is a picture of the first ever Batman comic (nice Easter Egg!).
Joker appears and shoots Barbara point-blank, while his minions bash and kidnap Gordon – these are the heavy scenes that earn this movie’s R-rating. Although, I can never figure the MPAA’s gutlessness: the Joker strips Barbara and takes lewd photos of her while she is bleeding from her gut wound (and it is intimated he rapes her as well), yet later, when he shows these photos to Gordon to exacerbate his madness, we see only elbow, thigh, terrified eyes, some ankle, etc. – I mean, what is this? Porn from the 1820s? Even the comic panels never reveal anything actually lewd. It really makes we wonder why it’s termed “adult” at all!
Flashbacks reveal the Joker’s wife and child died, just as he was conned into a robbery where his accomplices are killed, leaving him to take the fall. Which he does – directly into a vat of chemicals, while being pursued by Batman. He emerges disfigured and transformed psychopathically.
His one bad day…
Alan Moore opted to go the route of one of the Joker’s fabled origins (remember, this was before Tim Burton solidified this origin with 1989’s BATMAN). Yet the Joker himself maintains, “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes I remember it another; my point is, if I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice,” which has become the underlying credo with all Joker media. Alan Moore – you genius thing, you!
After naked Gordon is dragged, collared and beaten through the amusement park (and shown those photos from 1820), with Joker taunting, “There is no sanity clause!” – Batman arrives to rescue Gordon, who has not tipped into insanity, disproving the Joker’s thesis. Gordon implores Batman to take the Joker in “by the book – to prove our way works!”
Unlike the modern run of Batman movies (starting in 1989), Batman’s costume is not armor – it’s pretty much simply a cloth cossie, so all his foes must necessarily use knives and fists and axes rather than sniping at him from afar (which would end all their agita). In comics panels he can get away with bat-punching, and bat-diving to avoid bullets, but these actions start to register as unrealistic in this animated context, when all these henchmen who were just shooting at him then come at him with their fists, as if that’s a last resort after their guns failed to work because he was taking cover behind the armoire. Wait till he leaves cover, then shoot at him again, dummies!
After some perfunctory bat-punching (in which the Joker pulls down on Batman’s cloth cowl to discombobulate him – can you believe this plot point ever happening today?!), the resolution of this story is at once both quirky and cerebral. Batman tells Joker, “I don’t want either of us to end up killing the other, but we’re running out of alternatives.” After admitting they share a common trauma in their past, Batman offers to rehabilitate the Joker and puts out a gloved hand, “Let me help you.”
Joker thinks for a moment, replies, “No.”
Then he relates a joke about two guys escaping a lunatic asylum. Making it up to the roof, they see rooftops stretching away to freedom; all they had to do was make one jump across a gap. The first guy does it, while the second hesitates. First guy has an idea: “Hey, I’ll shine my flashlight across the gap and you can walk across the beam!” Second guy says, “Whadaya think I am – crazy?! You’d just turn it off when I’m halfway across!”
Joker guffaws. Batman is grim, then starts to chortle, and then full-on laughs. Fade to black on The Joker and Batman laughing.
A perfect joke to connect to the current scenario: In the Joker’s perception, Batman is the one who “jumped across the roof,” freeing himself. And Batman is putting his hand out to help. But to the Joker’s perception, Batman’s offer is as insubstantial as the flashlight beam; he is so deep in his paranoia that he’s not even worried about the insubstantiality of the beam – instead, he’s so distrusting, that he thinks Batman will RESCIND his offer of help if the Joker starts to walk in that direction (“turn off the beam when I’m halfway across”), and leave the Joker rudderless as usual, falling to his doom.
With so much depth in this main story, the epilogue is unnecessary, showing Barbara in a wheelchair, rolling to a bank of monitors, “Back to work.” Whatevs, Babs.
I wonder if I’m being too hard on DC, complaining about the cartooning/animation? Is this the best that can be produced within budgets and economic projections?… Hell, no! This is Warner Cartooning, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. And you know who the two best proponents of old-school, two-dimensional cartooning were from the 1950s onwards? Disney and Warner Bros! We know what great cartooning is – from this very company that brought us LOONEY TUNES (Sylvester and Bugs and Daffy and Porky and Elmer) 60 years ago! You mean to tell me this company that lavished such love and laughter on their product can’t do better than this choppy, jerky, low-frame-rate crap? Fans were crying out that this classic comicbook movie needed a theatrical release – in fact, its theatrical run was on July 25 and 26, 2016 – but you don’t put this low level dreck in theaters. And why did its run last only two days? Was it word-of-mouth that the nasty canasta cartooning was not up to scratch? Or financial reasons?
(For the youngsters: You may have become acquainted with LOONEY TUNES in the 80s or 90s through the airing of their classic episodes joined together with cheap, newly-created animated bumpers, to make them seem like one long storyline, or you might be scratching your head thinking I speak of those lame cheap NEW episodes that feature the beloved characters and crappy repetitive public domain soundtrack, which destroyed their legacy into the 2000s. No! I speak of the original 10 minute shorts with the orchestral backing that were originally aired in movie theaters before feature films, that were collected in the 60s and 70s into half-hour shows of 3 cartoons each. They stand as immortal treatises to animation!)
DC/Warner, don’t try to hide behind good storylines. You don’t do the storylines any justice by schlepping this lackluster cartooning onto them. Economics wins out. How low can we make the quality before people will stop buying it? And then we wonder why Alan Moore refuses to be credited on any of his work that goes beyond the medium in which he originally created his art. (True to form, the film does not credit Moore – *I* credit him because I want people to know his greatness, and I also include all the disclaimers that he would want his fans to be aware of.)
Kevin Conroy voices a stoic stern Batman, and is widely regarded as one of the best for the role. And Mark Hamill’s Joker? What can one say about the guffaw that launched a thousand psychoanalyses? Hamill was tempted back to the role after he complained of blowing his voice out during his previous Joker gig. After seeing the finished version of KILLING JOKE, even Hamill admits the movie is not up to par. So sad for Hamill to always be associated with these giant projects that promise the universe and deliver cold pizza.
I mean, DC, is it too much to ask that our darkest knight be animated at least as well as our cwaziest wabbit?