There’s a lot to be said about Batman: The Killing Joke, both the comic book and its animated adaptation. It’s another of Alan Moore’s unintentional curses on mainstream comics; listening to his dialogue spoken… it’s clear he was hurrying through the Batman stuff. Or Kevin Conroy just doesn’t do it right. I don’t know. Because Killing Joke is also the big deal reuniting of Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker. These two guys helped legitimize voice acting in animation. It became a thing. So is Conroy supposed to be doing his traditional Batman or is he supposed to be doing what the movie needs? I know my answer, but I’m not an “Animated Series” fan. Batman: The Killing Joke is a precarious proposition.
So what’s inexplicable is why there’s this misogynistic “Batgirl” short stuck on the front. It was obviously intended to be a special feature and not part of the movie proper because Liu’s downright ambitious with the Hamill Joker stuff. The flashback stuff is all crap and Liu screws it up worse, but the Joker stuff is awesome. The Batman stuff sucks. It’s earnest though, it earnestly sucks. The Batgirl opening, with dreadfully cheap animation (especially compared to the “feature” portion of the film), clearly has a story behind it. Like it was entirely farmed out and there’s some terrible overseas meninist who wanted to tell this frankly disgusting story about Batgirl being incapable as a superhero because she’s a woman. The dialogue’s real bad too. Screenwriter Brian Azzarello has some almost quite good lines in the feature, so it probably wasn’t him. It’s very cartoony, very simple language, short sentences. I’m not even sure it’s really Conroy voicing Batman, he doesn’t talk enough. And then in the feature, he can’t shut up.
Batman: The Killing Joke is far more controversial out of stupidity than anything else. If the “Batgirl” short really was something crappy your overseas studio’s C unit threw together in two weeks and the first draft of the script actually features a period joke, hire someone else. Hire anyone else to rewrite it. Because it’s really nasty and if it were actually what Killing Joke were doing–reconfiguring the entire Batman mythology in a really cheap animation style, which is what the “prologue” implies, Killing Joke would be worth talking about seriously as a film, as an adaptation of a watershed (intentional or not) moment for comic book brands. It’d be important. But it’s not. It’s a crappy, cheap, terrible prologue. And the producers don’t even have the stones to lay blame. They actually let Liu and Azzarello on the hook for it. I mean, the opening twenty-eight minutes of Killing Joke are some of the worst minutes of animation I’ve seen. There’s no visual rhythm. There’s objectification of Batgirl, who’s a cartoon. There’s a gay stereotype sidekick. There’s no narrative rhythm either. It’s like there’s an app for randomly generated screenplays with nods to social relevance and buzzwords and sex (oh, yeah, the opening slut shames Batgirl).
But there’s no apology in the “feature.” There’s no acknowledgement. There’s a bridging sequence set years after the prologue where the director (Liu?) again objectifies a cartoon character and Batman then gets to ruin her night without actually talking to her because she is a slut after all. She slept with him. And he’s old enough to be her dad. What’s so strange about the prologue is it knows what it’s doing. It knows how it’s condemning her, demeaning her. It’s intentional. And gross. And not part of the actual Killing Joke adaptation. But it’s forced upon viewers as such. These DC animated movies started out with ninety minute runtimes in hopes of syndication sales down the line and they never broke that mold. Killing Joke was going to run too short. There’s an explanation for why they made these choices, but it’s not an excuse. They don’t get a pass. It’s about not taking those adaptations seriously enough. They’ve had standouts over the years, but they’ve missed a lot of opportunities in some cases and just made terrible films in others. Would The Killing Joke be worth it as a short? No. Hamill’s great. The animation is pretty good with too many exceptions, particularly the boring Batman. Conroy’s not my thing. He’s not good with the dialogue. It’s not the right casting or not the right direction, which means commercial wins over artistic there too.
Real quick–the “feature” characterization of Strong’s Batgirl (but just alter ego Barbara Gordon) is pretty lame. Azzarello doesn’t care. But he’s not hostile. She actually gets something of an arc. And Strong is worse in the feature part than she is in the opening. In the opening she’s just got a crap script. In the feature, she’s got a less crappy script but more dramatic necessity and she doesn’t bring it. Though she’s not good. Even with Azzarello’s writerly misadventures trying to ape the original comic writer’s dialogue style; she should get to chew on those lines, but she doesn’t. It wouldn’t be such a big deal except she started the damn movie as narrator–the “prologue” has very nice bookends–which doesn’t figure into the rest of the film. It hangs Strong out to dry. She went from being dumb high energy to smart low energy. I mean, as is, The Killing Joke just begs for discussion–the movie kind of one-ups Superman II, which ethically castrates the Man of Steel for eternity, by ending up implying Batgirl making Batman acknowledge his sexual attraction for her meant she should end up paralyzed so she could never know similar male affections, and never again from him. It’s weird how intentionally gross it all works. It’s like someone at Warner Animation hates Liu and Azzarello and loves they’re credited on all this nastiness. Because the feature part does all right by Strong’s character. It doesn’t do well, but it does all right. Liu does have some missteps with the implied nudity (because it’s not a cartoon if it doesn’t have nudity, you know, for kids), but he finds his footing. He’s not doing cheap butt shots like in the prologue. He’s not interested in the female character enough to do anything, positive or negative; he’s there for Hamill.
When The Killing Joke was announced, I assumed it’d be crappy. When it started, with that super-cheap animation, I wasn’t surprised. DC animated movies never surprise me with their cheapness. But the “feature” portion is better than I would’ve thought, but it’s still not good. Liu’s enthusiastic but he’s not good. He’s not creative enough, especially not considering you’re taking the super-realism of Brian Bolland and turning it into a not at all super-real cartoon. It’s all supposed to be good enough because the idea of Killing Joke as an animated movie with Conroy and Hamill is cool. That prologue is supposed to get a pass because they just had to make the movie a certain length for the theatrical screenings or something. It’s Killing Joke as a cartoon, give it a pass.
It doesn’t not get a pass because of the prologue. I mean, it won’t get a pass with that prologue, I’m not going to argue for that kind of Vanilla Sky appeasement. But its fail is in Liu’s limited imagination and fundamentally weak rendering of the story. He’s too static, he’s too faithful to the original panels and he’s utterly tone deaf with this characterization of Batman.
Directed by Sam Liu; screenplay by Brian Azzarello, based on a comic book by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland and characters created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger; edited by Christopher D. Lozinski; music by Kristopher Carter, Michael McCuistion and Lolita Ritmanis; produced by Bruce Timm, Alan Burnett and Sam Register; released by Warner Home Video.
Starring Kevin Conroy (Batman), Mark Hamill (The Joker), Tara Strong (Barbara Gordon / Batgirl), Ray Wise (Commissioner Gordon), Maury Sterling (Paris Franz), Brian George (Alfred) and Robin Atkin Downes (Detective Bullock).