All it takes is one bad year. DC are definitely having that filmically speaking. First BvS split audiences right down the middle, then Suicide Squad, which looked so promising, had a fairly negative reception amongst both audiences and critics. The DCEU is stumbling right when it should be getting us excited for the main event; the Justice League movie. Still, while their universe might be wobbly in the live action realm, DC’s animated efforts have always been consistently top-notch. From Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, to Batman: Year One, to Under the Red Hood, they’ve regularly produced films built around quality storytelling, spot-on characterisation, and impressive action time and time again. It’s the one area in which they undeniably have superiority over Marvel.
So even with their tentpole blockbusters underperforming this year , DC could still rely on the animated team to pull another masterpiece bag. Right? Especially when they’re adapting the Killing Joke of all things! Not just one of the greatest Batman graphic novels, but one of the best stories in all of comics, the Killing Joke should be a guaranteed hit. All of the elements are there; it’s got a fantastic atmosphere, superb dialogue and a compelling narrative. All the filmmakers really needed to do was adapt it panel for panel and it would be a sure-fire hit! Add to this the fact that they roped in the unrivalled talents of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, to voice Batman and The Joker respectively, and you’re looking at one of the best superhero films of all time. Or so you’d think.
Alas, 2016 continues to confront DC with disappointed fans and critical controversy. Yes, even the Mark Hamill starring, R-Rated, uncompromising, Alan Moore adaptation has been a letdown for the company. How the hell do they keep doing this? How can they have all of these elements and still piss the fanboys off? It’s rather impressive at this point.
If you’ve been following the reception of the film at all, you’ll know that it’s been criticised for including an unnecessary prologue, for its subpar animation and for channelling supposedly misogynist undertones. In reference to the first point, many have speculated that the new material (revolving around Batgirl’s mission to defeat a gangster who comes to develop an attraction to her) was simply added in order to bolster the runtime of what was originally a very short story. They’ve argued that it feels forced, largely disconnected from The Killing Joke portion of the film, and that it’s not up to the standard of the original story. All of this is true. But is it enough to label this film a ‘failure’?
Yes, this prologue does little to expand upon The Killing Joke itself, expect to ostensibly flesh out Batgirl’s character in anticipation of what happens in the graphic novel. But for the average viewer, this might actually be necessary. The original graphic novel was written for comic-book readers, thus a certain narrative event involving Barbara Gordon was always guaranteed to have the intended dramatic weight. But for people who haven’t read the comics, they’ll be left wondering why they should even care. They don’t really know Batgirl (unless they remember her inclusion in Batman and Robin, in which case, they’ll wish that they didn’t), so a lot of The Killing Joke’s power will be lost on them. They need an introduction to the character, and frankly it makes sense to establish her anyway. Otherwise, she just shows up for one brief moment in the story, and then practically disappears. This new prologue emphasises that this is partly her story too. Without it, she’s just a tool that’s used to advance other character arcs, and given what happens to her, that’s quite inappropriate.
Perhaps we didn’t need a full 30 minutes dedicated to her separate storyline, but we did need something. It’s definitely true that the prologue is of a lower quality than Alan Moore’s masterpiece, but firstly, so is nearly every Batman story, and secondly that doesn’t make it bad. What is a little bizarre, is how little it actually connects to the main event. There’s no moment later on where the events of the prologue are explicitly referenced or called back to, because the whole thing is a very stringent adaptation of the graphic novel. Said source material had no prologue to call back to, and seeing as the second half makes very few changes to that source, there’s no moment where Batgirl’s separate adventure really comes into play. As aforementioned, it feels like it’s mostly there to introduce her character to newbies and elicit some sympathy for her too (as well as to admittedly pad out the runtime).
The second major controversy storywise, was to do with a very specific moment in the prologue. Part of Batgirl’s subplot revolves around her attraction to her mentor figure Batman. For a good chunk of the first 30 minutes, we watch her pine and obsess over her crime-fighting partner, until eventually, after a heated argument, they have sex on a rooftop. This single moment set the internet ablaze with fervent discussion. ‘How could they?’ ‘They’re defiling a classic story!’ ‘This is out of character!’ ‘Why would Batman sleep with his friend’s daughter?’
Half of these criticisms are perfectly valid, however one frankly ridiculous discourse prevailed over all others; ‘this is misogynist’. It seems like no anticipated release can escape the claws of pseudo-feminist outrage nowadays. And make no mistake, this is pseudo-feminism. Because the gist of it is that the film objectifies Batgirl by showing her to be a woman with sexual desires. The common argument here, is that Batgirl is exclusively defined by her lust for Batman, which is absolutely untrue. She’s shown to be impulsive, slightly reckless, unable to regulate her anger, but ultimately strong, and independent enough to take out her target without (indeed in spite of) Batman. That’s a lot of characterisation to cram into 30 minutes. She’s not just a sex object. In fact, did it occur to you, that if you think a female having sex or sexual urges reduces her to an object, then maybe you’re the misogynist?
The other complaints are all fairly justifiable. It is odd that Batman would have sex with Commissioner Gordon’s daughter. There is something strangely out of character about his and Batgirl’s relationship here . It doesn’t really seem to have much to do with The Killing Joke either. But, ‘misogynist’? Some people really need to look up the meaning of that word, and while they’re at it, they should also look up ‘objectification’, and also ‘hypocrisy’. Female characters can have sex and still be people. Get over it!
Anyway, now that that unpleasantness is out of the way, let’s take a look at what actually works here. Firstly the voice cast is impeccable, as is to be expected. Hamill has always been the definitive version of the classic, old-school Joker, and here he is at his very best. The Killing Joke is first and foremost a Joker story, providing the character’s origin, his darkest moments and some of his most heinous acts, all of which Hamill revels in beautifully. He manages to tap into both the most charismatic and hateful aspects of the character and even elicits a little pathos at times. It’s an absolute joy to hear him work his way through Moore’s complex and memorable dialogue, and he’s equally adept at some of the more meaty, philosophical monologues, dancing his way through the elaborate speech with ease. He even does a solid musical number at one point.
Conroy is equally on good form, however he has less to work with here. He does nevertheless sell the idea that Batman is close to his breaking point rather well, and towards the end he becomes almost as disturbing as his enemy. Additionally, the rest of the voice cast are all great, bringing heart and emotion to this disturbing tale.
As for the story itself, it’s obviously brilliant. Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel set the tone for everything Joker related that came after it, from Tim Burton’s Batman, to The Dark Knight. It’s psychologically intricate, dark, unsettling and raises interesting ideas about the symbiotic relationship that The Joker and Batman seem to share. It’s fully deserving of its iconic status, and is filled with fantastic images, moments, and dialogue. With this film being a mostly faithful adaptation, all of that carries over to the screen. How much you can praise the film for that is debatable, after all, a Shakespeare adaptation is always going to have a great narrative and strong characters. Moore may have laid the foundations, but it is important to note that this film doesn’t royally screw it up like it could have done. Outside of the prologue, it’s restrained and respectful to its legendary source and translates its troubling tone perfectly.
Generally the technical elements are all great too. The sound design is fantastic, the score is good and so is the direction. They do a particularly strong job with the defining moment of the story. You know, the bit with the Hawaiian shirt. It’s suspenseful, shocking and truly tragic. However, whilst the cast, story and technical execution is all pretty fantastic, there’s one thing that lets the whole thing down; the animation itself.
It’s unfortunate that this particular adaptation had to feel so cheap. There’s a peculiar lack of detail in certain shots, and character movement is often lacking in fluidity. It basically feels like an episode of a TV show, not a feature film. Why the animation team dropped the ball on this project when it’s always been fine in the past is unclear. You’d think if anything, that this would be the time to bring the A-game.
Still, The Killing Joke in no way deserves the hate that it’s been getting, and in fact, it’s easily DC’s best film of the year. But go on, throw some aggregate scores at me.