Home Video Hovel: The Killing Joke, by Tyler Smith
Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke is practically a hallowed text in the Batman universe. His one-off laid the groundwork for the Joker being taken seriously as one of the most complex villains in the history of comics. Since then, we’ve seen the character become darker and more lethal; a man whose insanity seems to be deeply rooted in a philosophy of nihilism. The Joker has become a larger than life figure in general pop culture, appearing on television, video games, and movies. So, when DC’s animation wing started to crank out consistently high quality films that retained many of the darker elements of the comic books, it seemed to be just a matter of time before they would arrive at The Killing Joke. And when it was announced that the film would feature the voice talents of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill (the definitive animated Batman and Joker, respectively), and that the film would be rated R, anticipation grew and grew. But, sadly, through an unfortunate and unlikely mix of loyalty to and deviation from its source material, Batman: The Killing Joke is a pale imitation of Alan Moore’s masterful comic, and deeply unsatisfying.
The primary story is of the Joker breaking out of Arkham Asylum, paralyzing Barbara Gordon (otherwise known as Batgirl), and kidnapping Commissioner Gordon. Why? Because he wants to prove a point. What that point will be is rooted in the Joker’s origin story, in which he is a struggling young comedian, striving to provide for his pregnant wife. In an attempt to get a little extra cash, he is recruited by the mob to help with a heist. On the day of the caper, he is informed that there has been a horrible accident and that his wife has died. As he stares in disbelief, the mob remind him of his commitment to them, telling him that he can grieve tomorrow. So, the heist commences, but goes terribly wrong, and our young man falls into a vat of chemicals that bleaches his skin and turns his hair green. The young man eventually goes mad from grief and injury.
With this firmly in mind, the Joker tortures Commissioner Gordon, both physically and psychologically. He forces him to look at photos of his now-paralyzed daughter, naked and bleeding. All of this in hopes that Gordon will go insane, just as the Joker did. Because, according to the Joker, all it takes is “one bad day” for the world to lose its mind.
This story remains intact, and the inherent power still comes through, particularly in its impactful final scene between Joker and Batman. However, the film ultimately fails due to a lack of understanding on the part of writer Brian Azzarello and director Sam Liu of how to translate a story effectively from one medium to another. While many have commented on the storyboard-like nature of comic books, that doesn’t mean that a comic book is automatically an effective blueprint for a movie. Film requires emotional transitions from one scene to the next, while comic books can shift jarringly from one to another. Liu and Azzarello, in trying to adapt the material as faithfully as possible, fail to make the film cinematic. To do so would require adding or subtracting material from the story to create a stronger sense of flow. Without that, the Joker’s flashbacks are abrupt and his tragic origin story feels rushed and unemotional.
In a comic, each panel can be lovingly studied by the reader, each detail taken in. This isn’t the case with film, which moves at its own pace and requires the viewer to keep up. So, in the comic, when the Joker as a young man is told that his wife has died in an accident, the reader can pause for a moment and study the young man’s face as the impact of this statement sinks in. In a film, however, the story just keeps on moving. If the director wants this revelation to have the same emotional impact, he must briefly stop the forward momentum and linger for a bit. This would be a deviation from the source material, but not a thoughtless deviation. In fact, in making certain changes from book to film, the director can actually be more faithful to the tone of the comic than if he had simply adapted it more directly.
So, in the telling of the story, what should be poignant and impactful feels more perfunctory and matter-of-fact; two words that really shouldn’t be associated with an in-depth Joker story. However, in an attempt to pad out the story to feature length – and to help beef up the Barbara Gordon character – the filmmakers add a sort of prologue, in which Batman and Batgirl attempt to stop a dangerous young mob boss. As Batgirl gets emotionally close to the case, Batman tries to pull her back, causing resentment and rebellion (two traits more commonly associated with an adolescent Robin). This building tension culminates in Batman and Batgirl unexpectedly having sex on a rooftop, resulting in awkwardness and an emotional connection that neither party is prepared for.
This story isn’t bad in and of itself. While some might wince at the idea of Batman having sex with a younger woman, who also happens to be the daughter of a friend, I think that it adds to the emotional landscape of Batman and his cohorts. However, to add it as padding to The Killing Joke seems misguided. While it does effectively give us more connection with Barbara, it’s hard to be invested in any of this story when we’re so anxiously anticipating what’s coming after. Here, the filmmakers have crafted an emotionally complex story that many will feel is superfluous and unnecessary, thus robbing it of its inherent power. This story deserves better. Oddly enough, by combining these two powerful shorter stories – one wholly original and the other a classic – they actually manage to create a feature that is notably less powerful than either one.
So, while Batman: The Killing Joke still packs the occasional punch – mostly as a function of Moore’s effective characterizations brought to life by a strong voice cast – it never achieves the almost instantly mythic status that the comic did. Perhaps that is its biggest crime. It takes a very popular, iconic story that has retained its power over the decades and adapts it into a film that is, at best, only mildly engaging and, at worst, wholly forgettable.