Without a doubt, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s “Batman: The Killing Joke” has been one of the most acclaimed graphic novels in the history of the medium ever since its release all the way back in 1988. It’s received praise for its handling of The Joker’s backstory, presenting him as a regular guy forced into extreme circumstances (as opposed to being a straight-up criminal like in 1989’s “Batman”), and Bolland’s excellent noir art style. With its popular place in “Batman” history, it always seemed inevitable that we would be getting an adaptation of the novel in one form or another, and though it may have taken nearly 30 years since its publication, an animated film has finally emerged, but could it possibly do justice to what many consider one of the greatest “Batman” stories ever written?
The film actually starts off with a prologue that isn’t part of the original novel in which Batman (Voice of Kevin Conroy) and Batgirl (Voice of Tara Strong) are on the hunt for a thief looking to take over his uncle’s criminal empire. Batman tries to keep Batgirl off the case, especially when the thief becomes attracted to her, but she insists on continuing. This confrontation between the caped heroes eventually leads to a romantic entanglement, and after she helps nab the crook, she decides that it’s best to retire.
Here’s where the novel’s story actually begins. Batman decides to visit The Joker (Voice of Mark Hamill) at Arkham Asylum in an attempt to talk things over, but finds that he has actually escaped once again. As it turns out, he’s busy purchasing an amusement park, which he plans to use for his next dastardly deed, but first he needs to acquire his main attraction. This leads him to the home of Jim (Voice of Ray Wise) and Barbara Gordon, where he kidnaps the former and leaves the latter for dead. Batman leads a desperate search across Gotham City in an effort to find where The Joker is keeping Jim, but The Clown Prince of Crime eventually sends him an invitation to join him at the park, leading to a confrontation in which The Joker tries to prove a highly-questionable point. All of this is intercut with The Joker’s backstory, showing us how he went from a normal man trying to provide for his family to the criminal lunatic we know and love today.
It was probably around ten years ago that I first read Moore and Bolland’s graphic novel. I remember thinking that it was ok, but nothing particularly special, and it was somewhat telling that I couldn’t remember much in the way of details when it came time to start doing research for the upcoming film. This, of course, included rereading the short novel, which came with the realization that there wasn’t really anything to it, at least nothing that explains the high levels of praise it’s received over the years. Sure, it includes The Joker’s intriguing backstory, but other than that, it was a mostly-forgettable “Batman” tale that didn’t have much in the way of substance. It may be blasphemous to say this, especially given the novel’s reputation, but it is interesting to note that even Moore himself is on record as saying that he doesn’t think it’s that great.
This made it somewhat of a concern when approaching the film, for if the novel didn’t have that much to offer, how was an adaptation going to take it and make it into a worthwhile movie? For starters, the filmmakers felt the need to add in the completely pointless Batgirl prologue, which ends up having very little to do with anything. It goes on for about 30 minutes, and only serves to make you wait for the story proper to begin. This is not even to mention how awkwardly placed it is next to “The Killing Joke,” turning this into a pair of stories that makes you go from a random relationship between Batman and Batgirl to a gruesome tale dealing with The Joker trying to break down Commissioner Gordon’s mental state. It’s true that a straight adaptation of the graphic novel would probably only run about 45 minutes, but it would have been preferable to being forced to sit through the unnecessary, tacked-on fluff.
As for the adaptation of the novel itself goes, it has to be said that it was done very faithfully. It’s done practically scene for scene, and while it uses a slightly different script in places, it still sticks to the story very well. While purists may find that to be satisfying, it also has to be said that this is what ends up being one of the film’s big weaknesses, for as I mentioned earlier, the story itself is nothing particularly special. It focuses primarily on two areas: The Joker’s origin and his present-day attempt to drive Jim Gordon insane, thereby proving his point that even the sanest of people can crack after having one bad day. The former is a pretty interesting take on the material, showing us that The Joker wasn’t always a bad person, and has actually been a tragic character all along, but the latter merely comes off as one of the lesser episodes of the classic animated show.
Speaking of which, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, both of whom return to voice their characters from the animated series, are both in top form here. Conroy always had an amazing talent from bringing out the dark, brooding nature of Batman and Bruce Wayne, a talent which continues into this animated film. Even more praise must be piled on top of Hamill’s excellent portrayal of The Joker. His skillful handling of The Joker’s loony monologues, on top of that incredible laugh, continue to show why his interpretation of The Clown Prince of Crime is so highly-regarded. In terms of continuity from one animated adaptation to another, it was great to see that they at least got the best of the best to bring it back to life.
Unfortunately, overall, “Batman: The Killing Joke” is a disappointment, though not an entirely unexpected one. If the filmmakers had just stuck to the graphic novel instead of adding in the unneeded prologue, then there’s a chance it could have pulled through, but given the nature of the story, there’s a high probability that it still wouldn’t have worked very well. It’s not a bad graphic novel by any means. It just doesn’t come across as one that’s particularly worthy of having a feature film made from it. It’s not without its moments, and it was certainly great to hear Conroy and Hamill at it again, but in the end, it just doesn’t leave much of an impact.
“Batman: The Killing Joke” comes to Blu-ray in a 1.78:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of outstanding quality. The image is perfectly sharp and clear throughout the film, which does a great job of showing off all of the hard work that went into the great animation. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is also top-notch, delivering the vocal performances, score, and sound effects in excellent quality. Overall, the film looks and sounds terrific, which will no doubt please the multitude of “Batman” fans.
Batman: The Killing Joke: The Many Shades of The Joker (18 Minutes): A fascinating featurette that examines The Joker.
Madness Set to Music (12 Minutes): An interesting look at the music composed for “Batman: The Killing Joke.”
From the DC Comics Vault - “Christmas with the Joker” and “Old Wounds": A pair of animated Batman adventures from “The Animated Series” and “The New Batman Adventures.”
A Sneak Peak at DC’s Next Animated Movie (8 Minutes): A look behind the scenes at the upcoming “Justice League Dark.”
Sneak Peeks at Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Parts One (13 Minutes) and Two (7 Minutes): A pair of behind the scenes looks at more upcoming “Batman” animated films.
A Sneak Peak at DCU Batman: Assault on Arkham (7 Minutes): Yet another look behind the scenes at a new “Batman” animated film.
“Batman: The Killing Joke” certainly has its moments, and it’s always great to hear Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill return to their classic characters, but ultimately the film adaptation of the graphic novel suffers from a completely unnecessary prologue and a main story that was rather forgettable in the first place. However, for those who are massive fans of Moore and Bolland’s novel, it must be said that the adaptation is undoubtedly faithful.
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