I’m not a big fan of animation, and I think it shows on the scarcity of animation-related review in this article. But The Killing Joke was my first ever comic book, and it left such a deep impression I didn’t pick up any other comic book for another few months. Because I was scarred for life. That’s how good Alan Moore was. So when the news hit that they’re adapting it to an animation movie, I was hyped. Hey, it got Mark Hamill and as far as I know, DC’s animations got better track record that its silver-screen counterparts. Nothing could go wrong, right?
Naturally, it did.
The Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill) has escaped and is now free to roam the street of Gotham again. As Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) hunts for him, Joker set out to prove his point by attacking Barbara Gordon-slash-Batgirl (voiced by Tara Strong) and Commissioner Gordon (voiced by Ray Wise).
To say that I’m conflicted would be an understatement. I hate the first 30 minutes and love the rest of the movie with the same intensity. I was raving during the time I watched this movie and few minutes after, but now I no longer feel as strongly. It was great, that’s for sure, but it didn’t left a mark. At least not as scarring as the comic book was. And, well, a comparison with the comic book is inevitable, right? Even if I’ve forgotten quite a lot from the book and won’t be going into a detailed scene-by-scene juxtaposition, it’s impossible to not talk about their similarities and differences. Especially because their similarities is why this movie soared and the differences were the reason why this movie sucks.
I’m not trying to be an elitist who claims that the original source is always the best and can do no wrong. Even back then, I felt conflicted about the comic books because the effort to humanized The Joker lessen his larger-than-world appeal to me. But there’s no doubt that Alan Moore’s writing was indisputably good and his The Killing Joke was, for lack of a better word, life-changing for me. So Brian Azzarello got a very high bar to jump over and, despite his best effort, he barreled on to that bar headfirst. Admittedly, he did quite good in bringing the essence, overall feel, and The Joker’s terrific characterization to the silver screen. Unfortunately, I think it’s more because he practically made a carbon copy of Moore’s works – which, of course, made this movie works. And then there’s the matter of the 30 long minutes prologue. The “original” part he wrote for this movie. Which was a total screw up. Seriously. I hate those 30 minutes with such fervor. If I had no prior contact with The Killing Joke, I would probably quit watching this movie about ten minutes in.
I have no problem with the Batman/Batgirl ship. Sure, it breaks god-knows-how-many-family-teacher-and-bro codes, but if it’s done right it could be good. Maybe a tad problematic, but given a proper build up, context, dynamics, and characterization, the ship could actually sail smoothly. But in this movie, you literally have none of those. Instead, it depict Barbara as a girl with issues who fights crime and does everything just because she wants her teacher a.k.a Bruce to notice her and have sex with her. Not only that makes this relationship wrong on so many level (because then it’s more of an one-sided obsession and less of healthy romantic-or-sexual encounter), it also degrades Barbara as a character. You took away what’s good about this crime-fighter, and diminished her into a character driven solely by the needs to be “loved”, “appreciated”, and “wanted” by one person: The Batman. I might not know a lot about BatFam who are not Damian Wayne, but this is not the Batgirl and Barbara Gordon that I knew. It also portray Batman as a shitty human being. Not only he order Batgirl around because he doesn’t regards her as his equal, he then proceed to have sex with her and then cut off ties. Seriously. If it’s an actual work environment, he could probably be sued for sexual harassment and improper work ethic.
The “we’re adding more controversy” reason made the prologue even worse. If it was for the sake of humanizing the Bats and give additional layers to their characters, I would understand. It backfired spectacularly, but I’d understand the attempt and reasoning. If The Joker got that treatment, why can’t the Bats? It could also prompt the audience to sympathized further with Barbara and support Batman’s cause. It didn’t work, but I’d understand that line of thought and it could at least give some context to those needless scenes. But creating such prologue just to add more controversy is downright exasperating. It’s like saying you’re dousing fire with oil because you want more spectacle. This argument basically viewed the prologue as conversation starter, a vehicle to ignite a dispute. Sure it means the prologue does what it intended to do, but it’s also meaningless. And adding needless scenes for the sake of controversy is a worse sin than shoving unimportant scenes for the sake of aesthetic.
Thankfully, after the movie hits the 30 minutes mark, things are looking up. As I said before, the rest of the movie delivers what Alan Moore previously wrote to the silver screen. It was nostalgic, in the sense it reminds me of how good the comic book was, but it could still stand alone as a good story. You’d probably enjoy it more, even, if you haven’t read or is unfamiliar with Moore’s original work. Because then the twist and turn of this story would be refreshingly new, and you can enjoy the exhilarating surprise of seeing Joker’s next move unfolds to the fullest. The Joker truly is the star of this movie. He carry it with all his large ham actions and heartfelt flashback. The contrast between present-Joker and past-Joker was so stark it hurts, until I no longer just admire him: I feel for him. And if it’s just one of the lie he spun, one of the multiple choices’ answers, then all the better because he’s both that larger than life figure I found intriguing and someone I can feel for. It’s all thanks to Alan Moore’s beautiful writing and Sam Liu’s coherent delivery of Azzarello’s adept adaptation, but I wouldn’t enjoy him in this movie if not for Mark Hamill.
You see, my gripes with animation is the lack of emotions it conveyed. Often I don’t feel the emotions as intensely as I should thanks to the lack of subtle changes. Like small gestures, or the lack of feelings in their facial expressions and eyes. And those are the things that matters the most when it comes to characters like The Joker. Yet, through only his voice, Mark Hamill brought Joker to life. He was so fucking good I got goosebumps. When he’s the present Joker, he’s a large ham who is off the rocker yet so intelligent. Terrifying and admirable, cynical and charming, he’s the best one could ask for to be The Joker. He delivers each and every line perfectly, with pausing and tone that’s worth dying for, making all those lines even more beautiful than they already are. But when he’s portraying The Joker in past, he’s like a drenched sad cat. Mostly pitiful and compelling, with a little mad and spiteful streak. It’s a 180 degree reversal, and regardless of whether or not it’s The Joker’s actual past, Mark Hamill deserves a kudos for his top notch delivery in both portrayal. Not to mention his laugh! That Joker’s laugh in one particular scene was so damn creepy and it’s a money shot. Hands down.
Compared to Hamill’s The Joker though, every other characters pale. Kevin Conroy was good, he got subtle emotions behind Batman’s otherwise cold words and tone. He’s heartfelt when needed to, and I’m still haunted by Batman’s equally creepy laugh. But thanks to that god-forsaken 30 first minutes, Batman was set to be a douchebag and even Conroy couldn’t save that. He’s good, but thanks to the writing, his Batman come across as a self-righteous douchebag. Even more so than he usually is. Ray wise’s Gordon unfortunately was also unable to shine and he felt more like a plot device rather than an actual character. He’s just there for Joker to have his fun and for Batman as a way to support his argument. His breakdown wasn’t as heart-stopping as I expected to be. While Tara Strong’s Batgirl and Barbara is, well, what can I say? She was supposed to be this deep character but eventually wound up as sexualized and two dimensional barbie girl. Yeah well she does delivered on those aspect but there really is nothing about the Batgirl in this movie that I like. None. At. All.
As both my first comic book and first comic book based animation movie, The Killing Joke will always have a special place in my heart. They are, for better or worse, my gateway to their respective universe. Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke stunned me and left me with lingering needs to read further and someday, once I’ve learned more about the Batfam, revisit the story. But Sam Liu and Azzarello’s The Killing Joke was… a letdown. It didn’t blew my mind, it prompted me to watch other DC Animation simply because I believe there must be something better, and the best thing it does to me is rekindling my flame to re-read Moore’s Killing Joke. I might be raving when I watched the movie, but now, I can barely recall anything other than Hamill’s Joker’s chilling laugh and the last scene. Where he delivers his joke and Batman responded in kind. All in all, it’s safe to say that the original source is this movie’s saving grace because, otherwise, it would be a bland animation movie.
Director: Sam Liu. Writer: Brian Azzarello. Released on: 25 July 2016. Casts: Mark Hamill, Kevin Conroy. Tara Strong, Ray Wise.