By Jarrod Jones. It was a one-shot. Prestige format, hallucinatory narrative, adult-oriented material. A far cry from the Comics Code-approved superhero dustups from the era. It never should have had a place in the wider Batman mythos, and yet, somehow, its legacy (and notoriety) remains a hot-button issue in the comics industry nearly thirty years later. But why? Why are we still talking about The Killing Joke?
There are a few reasons, the blandest one being that since it was published back in 1988, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke has been widely considered to be the definitive Batman vs. Joker story, one that attempted to add a third dimension to the Clown Prince of Crime without wholly committing to the idea. A sea’s worth of articles and think pieces have come out since about the book, declaring it as either one of the greatest comics of the 20th Century or one of the most problematic stories that has ever blighted the industry. Let it never be said that comic book fans aren’t guilty of hyperbole.
A more sensible reason is that it’s an example of how exquisite sequential art can elevate even the more troubling and downright frightening stories. Brian Bolland’s nearly photo-realistic linework gave an Alan Moore B-side more sophistication than the story probably merited, and the lurid, neon-soaked colors provided by John Higgins ensured that the reader was caught in the muck of it all. Through Moore’s constructed sociopathy, Bolland’s artistic grace, and Higgins’ garish hues, The Killing Joke became a touchstone in comics instead of a footnote.
Bolland went and undid Higgins’ insane colors years later, giving the book a painfully banal aesthetic that was more in keeping with what comic books look like “today” as opposed to “The Eighties.” And that gave DC Comics an excuse to keep The Killing Joke in print. Not that it ever needed a reason, mind you; decades have passed since DC began to double down on its adult themes (thus casting a pall over its line-wide continuity that exists to this day), and yet the publisher remains hellbent on stripmining the era for all it’s worth, even though most of the stories that came during this time have aged well past their sell-by date.
That these stories still sell — I don’t know if it says more about the rabid, also-aging readership who deify such works or the publisher who is only too happy to give that audience what they want at the expense of good taste. Regardless, if Batman: The Killing Joke isn’t the worst idea parent company Warner Bros let loose on audiences this year, that’s only because Zack Snyder’s orgiastic amalgamation of The Dark Knight Returns and The Death of Superman has already happened. And we already know how well that went over.
DC Entertainment’s latest endeavor has been put together by a small group of men who have famously worked on expanding the DC brand: The Killing Joke has a screenplay by Eisner winner Brian Azzarello (who wrote two miniseries for Before Watchmen), it’s directed by Sam Liu (who made a watered-down version of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman), and it’s produced by Sam Register, Alan Burnett, and Bruce Timm (the latter two gave us the now-legendary Batman: The Animated Series).
If their intention was to celebrate The Killing Joke, you have to ask: are they celebrating the story itself or its well-documented infamy? In the years since, Barbara Gordon has stepped back into the yellow boots of Batgirl, and her comic has since become an example of how progressive and fun superhero books can be in spite of themselves. (Need an example of how raw some people feel about The Killing Joke these days? Ask Rafael Alburquerque.) Is there a demand for a movie version of this story? Its 3.8 million dollar theatrical run suggests yes. But who was demanding it, and why?
Whoever it was, this couldn’t have been what they had in mind. Batman: The Killing Joke is a peculiar, unfocused, lifeless thing to behold. (Even Kevin Conroy — the definitive Batman to some — can scarcely conjure the enthusiasm to be here.) It expands on the story with an entirely tacked-on first act that attempts to blend its contention — that Batgirl is a woefully inadequate superhero at the mercy of both a criminal admirer and her infatuation with the Batman — with the lyrical ins and outs of Moore and Bolland’s work. Why Liu, Timm, and Azzarello felt this was a good idea is anyone’s guess, but by the end of this first act Batgirl is reduced to a fretting fangirl whose only outlet for emotional support is a queer male character whose own depiction is so comically disrespectful and out of touch that it’s best we leave the implications of that to another article.
It’s not incomprehensible why the storytellers decided to take this route: including Barbara Gordon in the story — beyond animating the reprehensible things that happen to her, that is — demands that we have more of a backstory here. In a more carefully structured screenplay, Batman’s romantic interest with Batgirl might have been used to emotionally galvanize the Dark Knight to action against his foe later in the film. Instead, after Barbara and Batman have their rooftop tryst (which looks and sounds just as awkward as you’d imagine), we’re treated to a straight-faced, panel-to-frame adaptation of the original graphic novel that doesn’t leave much room for the filmmaker’s dubious narrative decisions to actually take root. Its famously ambiguous ending has no punch, the connective tissue between the new sequences and the original material aren’t there, and the fumbling attempts to give Barbara Gordon (the victim of the story) any agency at all is painful at best and egregiously fetishized at worst.
Liu puts together few artfully constructed shots here, but all of them are owed to the iconography of Brian Bolland, whose Joker is arguably the most recognizable version of the character ever committed to popular media: his lean, vicious, and indescribably mad Clown Prince is up there in the echelons of Jerry Robinson and Bruce Timm, but in The Killing Joke, Liu’s animation rarely stays on model (the amount of teeth in the killer clown’s mouth vary from shot to shot), with the noted exception of the light outlines that cup Batgirl’s breasts in a shade of blue, drawing the eyes right to her chest even when she’s cloaked in darkness.
If we were to hold The Killing Joke to the standards of similar shlocky fare — for the sake of argument, let’s say it shares the same shelf space as most of Joe Eszterhas’ nauseating oeuvre — Sam Liu’s animated film fails at what it set out to do, which is to create an R-rated superhero story imbued with psychosexual content. (That is why they made an R-rated Batman cartoon, yes?) It’s abhorrent slashfic with a multi-million dollar budget. It says nothing of value, it doesn’t do anything the graphic novel didn’t do already, and it’s another dreary example of Warner Bros Animation at its most uninspired. Put simply, it’s a film that never needed to be made.
Directed by Sam Liu.
Produced by Bruce Timm, Alan Burnett and Sam Register.
Written by Brian Azzarello.
Starring Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong and Ray Wise.
Rated R because… have you read ‘The Killing Joke’? Also now there’s a sex scene.
2 out of 10