Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers
It is hard to quantify the impact that The Killing Joke has had on the culture of comic books. It represents many things, a massive change to the Batman mythos, the ultimate end of light hearted science fiction adventures that had dominated the Silver Age of comic books, inspiration for the gritty realism that was to dominate the 90s (for better or for worse), and a major controversy regarding how female characters were treated in comic books.
In the same vein this review could be many things, I could make it a subtle look at the diversity in comic books and talk about Gail Simone and “women in refrigerators”, I could write a love letter to the legend that is Alan Moore, I could do a heavy handed discussion on continuity and character in Batman canon (although, while this would be satisfying to write, it may alienate non-comic book readers), and I could even discuss what it takes to adapt comic books onto the big screen.
Simply put, The Killing Joke is a masterpiece and one of my favourite graphic novels. Which is why it was a delight on Sunday to see it on the silver screen as a full length animation.
It was an inevitability really, since DC animations started adapting classic story lines and one shots into features. After they had done Dark Knight returns and Under the Red Hood, the only place really left to go was The Killing Joke. I am happy to say that I was not disappointed, this film pays utter respect to the source material, and even improves on some ideas from the original work.
The original served as an origin for the Joker, a psychological thriller and a classic battle of ideologies between Batman and the Joker, hinging on the idea that “one bad day” can turn a normal man insane. The Joker kidnaps commissioner Jim Gordon and subjects him to mental torture in order to prove this claim. Meanwhile Batman is on a mission to save both himself and the Joker from killing each other, and despite all the bad the Joker has done he does his best to extend the olive branch and be the bigger man.
The film is much the same, however it expands a major event that occurs in the original work, the shooting and paralyzing of Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl).
This adaptation expands this aspect of the story, the first half of the film fleshes out Barbara’s character and her relationship with Batman in an action filled story in which they track down an aspiring mobster who has developed a crush on Batgirl.
This was an excellent change as it increased the impact of what was to come later, and the emotional response to the Joker’s brutal act of shooting her in the spine. It was also 100% required as comic book readers had plenty of time to get to know this character as she was developed on the pages of comic book issues, but an audience at a feature length film do not have that option.
This change also meant that the film could also serve as an origin of Oracle, which was Barbara’s new alter ego after the incident, becoming the central network for every hero in the DC universe and probably one of the most important assets that the Justice League had on hand (this of course was nullified by the new 52, with Barbara having her back fixed and returned to the mantle of Batgirl, which I have plenty of opinions on, perhaps another time).
This film was an absolute delight, the animation was brilliant and it was absolutely fantastic to see the art style of Brian Bolland in full movement. It was also a joy to see cast members from Batman: The Animated Series reprise their roles from the show with Mark Hamill as the Joker, Tara Strong as Batgirl and Kevin Conroy as Batman, although admittedly it was a little jarring due to the tonal difference between the tv series and this film.
If I haven’t gotten this point across already, The Killing Joke is a very dark story, with emotional pitfalls and a bleak outlook, it is also a great Batman story, a character steeped in darkness, trying to avoid the abyss and stay in just enough of the light.