Adapting Source Material
Release Date: July 25, 2016
Director: Sam Liu
Writers: Bob Kane & Bill Finger (character created by: Batman), Alan Moore & Brian Bolland (graphic novel), Brian Azzarello (screenplay)
Stars: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong
MPAA Rating: R
Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke is iconic. It was one of the key influences for the Batman-Joker relationship presented in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. It offers an intriguing possible backstory for the Joker and delves deep into the nature of his relationship with Batman.
But, unfortunately, the graphic novel is also known for another infamous reason – the story’s cavalier physical and sexual assault of Barbara Gordon (a.k.a. Batgirl), which is used solely as a way to push her father, police commissioner Jim Gordon, over the edge. It was a controversial decision, one that plays into the “women in refrigerators” trope of torturing or killing women as a plot device in comics.
It clear watching this film that writer Brian Azzarello and director Sam Liu realized they had to address this elephant in the room. And, nobly, they beef up Barbara Gordon’s role in the story. Unfortunately, while it seems like their heart was in the right place, they only make things worse, not better.
While the final 45 minutes of the film are a fairly faithful retelling of the original story, the first 30 minutes are an all-new story that loosely ties into it. In this new opening, we see Batgirl (Tara Strong) fighting crime alongside Batman (Kevin Conroy). That seems like a good start, but things quickly go off the rails.
Batman and Batgirl have a mentor/protégé relationship. But then that line is muddled when the two end up sleeping together. This causes Batgirl to second guess herself, wait by a phone for Batman to call and vent to her sassy gay best friend. So basically, in an attempt to give Batgirl agency, they turn her into the most clichéd rom-com character ever. It’s hard to imagine why they thought this was the best way to go.
Making matters worse, the villain the two fight – Paris Franz (Maury Sterling) – is a date-rapey frat boy type (think a more violent Joe Francis). His twisted obsession with Batgirl further victimizes her and reduces her to a sexual object. Perhaps there could have been some symbolic joy in Batgirl defeating him, but the film dwells too long on the torturing her part and not long enough on the redemption/victory part. Again, whatever Azzarello and Liu hoped to accomplish with this new intro, it felt like it completely missed the mark.
Things do pick up considerably when the Joker (Mark Hamill) shows up and they settle into the source material. I am a sucker for the Conroy-Hamill Batman-Joker pairing and it’s fun to hear Moore’s dialogue come out of the two seasoned voice actors mouths. All of the voice acting is really great, particularly Tara Strong’s Barbara Gordon, Ray Wise’s Commissioner Gordon and Maury Sterling’s Paris Franz. But it’s Conroy and Hamill that truly shine.
But as enjoyable as the voice acting is, there is another big problem with the source material – the story doesn’t translate well to the big screen. The Killing Joke is a very dialogue-heavy comic. It’s interested in getting inside the heads of the Joker and Batman and really studying the nature of their unique relationship. It’s a psychological examination of the two that has made the work so enduring, but those long, intellectual speeches aren’t particularly cinematic.
The story is fairly light on action. There aren’t a lot of big set pieces or memorable battles. There’s no big climactic showdown. In fact, the finale is almost defiantly anticlimactic. It almost seems like a waste to have all these animators working their asses off to show us two characters standing around talking.
Ultimately, while I respect the original work and love so many of the people involved in this adaptation, I just couldn’t really enjoy this version of The Killing Joke. The prologue only makes the treatment of Barbara Gordon worse. And, even with great voice talent delivering the lines, watching the story unfold felt underwhelming.
But maybe I’m overthinking it. Maybe we all are. After all, Alan Moore hasn’t been shy about telling everyone he thinks the original story is overrated. As Moore’s quoted as saying in The Extraordinary Works Of Alan Moore:
The Killing Joke is a story about Batman and the Joker; it isn’t about anything that you’re ever going to encounter in real life, because Batman and the Joker are not like any human beings that have ever lived. So there’s no important human information being imparted … it was something that I thought was clumsy, misjudged and had no real human importance. It was just about a couple of licensed DC characters that didn’t really relate to the real world in any way.
Written by Joel Murphy. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org