Originally posted 7/28/16
Usually writing movie reviews are easy for me. I can come up with concise statement to launch an essay from by the halfway mark of the film. But other times…other times I’m fully aware that I have a lot of feelings to process but I have absolutely no idea where to start. So excuse me as I work my way through my issues with DC animated film, The Killing Joke (2016).
The first and most glaring issue The Killing Joke has is structure. It’s clear that in an attempt to curtail the criticism the original graphic novel received for being a prime example of a “Woman in a Refrigerator” (female comic book characters who have been injured, killed, or depowered as a plot device ) Barbara Gordon was given an expanded backstory and agency in the first half of the film. I’ll address the story itself in a bit, but the tonal shift between this straight forward plot about Batgirl realizing she might not cut out for the job and the complex themes of The Killing Joke is jarring to say the least. Alan Moore likes to pontificate in his stories and that wordy, existential style doesn’t exist in the first half.
Conversely, Alan Moore’s literally style doesn’t seem to work well in the cinematic world. For every V for Vendetta, there are, well, literally every other film adaptation inspired by Moore’s work (which yes, includes Watchmen. Fight me). There’s a Justice League Unlimited episode called For the Man Who Has Everything that Moore willingly approved, which is about as close to praise as you will get from him. In V for Vendetta and Justice League Unlimited, the source material was a spring board for the production team. Both the film and tv show strayed away from a literal transcription of the story to instead explored the themes expressed through the use of visuals. Show, don’t tell - the cardinal rule of film. The Killing Joke does a great job recreating the visuals presented in the graphic novel but it clearly fears to step outside those bounds and that self-imposed restriction chokes what the film could have been.
And this film certainly needed to breathe. With such a minimal plot, the focus should have been on creating atmosphere and stronger sense of dread. Comics allow for time to take in the details in each panel, film can only mimic that effect by spending time to drive home the terror. At 76 minutes, the film ends up rushing through the most pivotal moments, like the Joker admitting he is very loose with his view of his past.
Which leads into the second issue (and full credit goes to my brother for articulating this for me when we talked yesterday) The Killing Joke isn’t about Barbara becoming Oracle or the simple plot of the Joker’s assault and kidnapping. It’s about the relationship between the Batman and the Joker and whether or not their ultimate fate -death- is unavoidable. It’s a story about extremes and parallels. The Joker’s hypothesis that one bad day is what keeps everyone from going mad like himself and Batman. The audience already knows all about Batman’s one bad day and how he reacted to it. In The Killing Joke we are presented with flashbacks of the Joker’s one bad day as well (maybe). A down and out family man just trying to provide ends up loosing it all due to circumstances outside his control. And in the present Gordon is caught in the middle of this debate, he’s the case study the Joker plans on proving his point with. Barbara Gordon is just an afterthought in all of this. Making the first story all about her feels disjointed because it is, she’s not the focus of the original story. Batman and the Joker are. If the production team really wanted to make the addition work, it should have told from Batman’s perspective and the one bad day theme should have been expanded on. (Maybe that’s what they tried to do with the whole “looking into the abyss” line but since it’s not the same metaphor it really doesn’t connect. Also that line worked better when Batman said he didn’t blink in Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths ). Instead the story is about a naive girl that’s in a bad relationship working a job she’s not quite ready for who then gets shot and isn’t seen again until the very end. Shifting the narrative to Batman creates a parallel where he sees that Barbara can’t follow in his footsteps because she’s never had that one bad day and the Joker sees Jim doesn’t follow in the his footsteps despite having one horrible day. Batman becomes the architect and observer of Barbara’s journey as the Joker is for Jim’s.
Finally, and actual spoiler alert here, I have to mention the sex scene. It’s been covered to death in other think pieces so I’ll keep it brief and within the world of other DC animated works. The idea of a Batgirl/Batman pairing has already been referenced twice in the DCAU, (and it’s particularly hilarious here: https://youtu.be/l51dZBSs12w) so this isn’t exactly new territory. But the difference between those subtle references and the added scene in The Killing Joke is that here they aren’t equals. Batman says that point blank. Their relationship is very much teacher and student, and while that might be a welcomed fan service for some, it’s certainly a skeevy thing for Batman to do for most fans. On top of that, despite her being old enough to consent, the entire plot is based on her being naive and easily manipulated, which just makes Batman look that much worse. It’s an already questionable pairing to begin with and these factors don’t help it at all.
Now, with all of that said, I didn’t hate the film. It’s not great but it’s not horrible either. It just kind of exists. The second half was really just a motion comic, it was almost too loyal. So maybe I didn’t hate it because I didn’t hate the book. Or maybe my love for the DC animated team is clouding my judgement. But the characters were strong, the animation was gorgeous and the voice acting was pitch perfect. On those standards, it lives up to every other DC animated production. I am glad it got to be in theaters and I hope that trend continues. It’s just that when it comes to the story what the film has going for it is that Alan Moore’s words are strong and his themes are interesting. Everything that works in the film worked in the original story, nothing the film did enhanced or explored that. The fact that (spoiler?) Batman and the Joker just stop fighting and end their climactic battle with a joke is effective and memorable but is only a spoiler if you’ve never read the book. What was added didn’t fit because it didn’t fit the original story.
It was a fine, if perhaps thoroughly unnecessary, experience