Sex and violence gets headlines, but it sure doesn’t guarantee a good movie. Warner Bros. Animation comes up woefully short in their R-rated adaptation of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s classic comic, Batman: The Killing Joke. The disturbing origin story of the Joker is muddled with soap opera level melodrama. Batgirl is conceptualized as smitten and unsophisticated. This was a poor arc to introduce in the boundary breaking narrative of her character. An opportunity was wasted to tell this grim tale with gravitas.
The Killing Joke opens with Barbara Gordon (Tara Strong) three years into her ‘relationship’ with Batman (Kevin Conroy). She works as a librarian by day, shunning suitors, and dishing to her gay bestie/coworker. She’s infatuated with her yoga teacher, aka the Dark Knight, who likes to be in control. She’s fine with that, most of the time. They haven’t gone all the way yet. It’s not that kind of relationship, so far.
As the vigilante teacher and student dance around their feelings, a young Mafioso (Maury Sterling) wants to get personal with Batgirl and take over the family business. Batman forbids her involvement in this case. Who is he to tell her what crimes to fight? The romance takes several twists and turns before tragedy. The Joker (Mark Hamill) escapes from Arkham Asylum with a sinister agenda. He wants to show Batman that people will choose madness over reality to hide their pain. His own sad creation has echoed that nihilistic philosophy.
The first part of the film is told from Batgirl’s point of view. It’s as if you’re watching a Lifetime movie of the week. Batman, as he’s wearing the cowl, looks much older than her. In fact, if it wasn’t specifically shown that she was a librarian, her character looks like a young college student. The entire beginning is essentially an enamored coed desperate for her hunky professor’s affections. He has feelings for her as well, but is afraid to show it. A romantic subplot between these two characters does make sense, but the execution is just terrible. Batgirl, who’s put through hell in this film, does not get the respect she deserves.
There is a choppy feeling to the Killing Joke as it transitions to Batman’s point of view. All of a sudden we’re back to the source material verbatim. The Joker begins his horrific lesson and we learn his back story. This part of the film is handled the best comparatively. The filmmakers should have focused here all along. The Joker’s journey into a homicidal clown, his grim fascination with Batman, did we need to have a sappy, distasteful romance? The angles taken to adapt this story were off base from the start.
The Killing Joke is meant for adults. There is sex, sort of, loads of violence, and graphic victimization. It is a dark tale, but not unlike other, far superior Warner Animation films. Justice League: Doom, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 are thematically similar and much better across the board. The difference here is the specific treatment of Batgirl. It makes The Killing Joke feel tawdry and sensationalistic.
The R-rated buzz for Batman: The Killing Joke was not deserved. It is not a worthy reflection of an iconic story. I think it will also leave a negative shadow on the filmmakers choices. They’ve done a disservice to Batgirl’s character here.