I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but there’s been a lot said about how damn amazing The Killing Joke animated film was… and it’s time someone defended how damn amazing it isn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s an incredibly faithful adaptation – when it sticks to the source material – and as such it was pretty well. It was certainly better than I’d hoped, after seeing all the woeful adaptations of Alan Moore’s works over the years.
In fact, when DC first announced that they were turning it into an animated film I feared the worst. Then, when it was announced that changes would be made to it and that the film would be given an R-rating, I was mortified.
Still, logically I knew they’d have to make changes since the original comic book isn’t even fifty pages long. They’d have to find some way to pad it out in order to have a decent running time. After all, look at the rip-off that was the Batman: Year One film.
So don’t get me wrong here. Before watching this, I was biased against it. In spite of that, I still found it a surprisingly faithful adaptation and a decent film. However, it really isn’t the masterpiece some people might claim it is, and it certainly isn’t one of the best-animated movies ever.
More than that, The Killing Joke doesn’t deserve any kind of critical acclaim whatsoever.
Yes, there’s some good in it. The cast does a great job, and, on the surface of it, the Batgirl-centric storyline at the start is alright. Paris Franz’s obsession with Batgirl and her subsequent obsession with him serves as a mirror-image of Batman and the Joker’s obsession with one other. The tag scene showing her as Oracle is smart, giving viewers a brief glimpse of how she remained a hero after the tragic events of the main story. Plus there’s the actual adaptation itself, which is handled with almost slavish devotion.
Now let’s get to those pesky elephants in the room…
One of the first problems is that, as much as the Batgirl storyline thematically pairs up with the main plot, it’s still just padding no matter how you look at it. Besides which, The Killing Joke in its original incarnation wasn’t Batgirl’s story but the Joker’s (his supposed origin and his bizarre eternal dance with Batman).
The Batgirl plot was supposedly intended to round Barbara Gordon out as a character in this film – a character who served as little more than a plot device and cannon fodder in the original comic – but it’s padding and detracts from this being the Joker’s story.
The portrayal of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl in this movie may attempt to make the Joker’s attack on her have more emotional resonance with the viewers, but the characterization is weak at best. As Batgirl she appears to barely hold her own in fights, and even has to be rescued by Batman several times. She’s objectified by the villain, which may be understandable, yet as Barbara Gordon she spends most of her time fixated on her relationship with Batman. In turn, Batman doesn’t respect her as an equal and even says so. Her response? To rebel, which is probably meant to appear like she’s got a spirited, independent attitude. Instead, it makes her comes across like a spoiled child lacking in common sense.
And why does she do what she does? Is it to make the streets safer? No. It’s to gain Batman’s approval and attention.
Interestingly, Batman has the same attitude towards Batgirl that he has with all his partners, and it’s one of the reasons Dick Grayson quit being Robin. So he’s consistent in that regard and does seem to view her as an equal to Robin, even if not to himself. But then, that’s Batman for you. This is a guy who barely views Superman as an equal, so what did you expect?
Worse, the “sex” scene shown between Batgirl and Batman simply doesn’t make sense. Yes, according to continuity, Barbara did harbour feelings for Bruce/Batman and it’s possible that something could have happened between them… but it didn’t. Batman (for all his poor taste in romantic partners over the years) has no reason in this film to respond to Barbara’s sexual advances. In fact, more likely he would have rejected her for one fact alone: Barbara is his best friend’s daughter, and he’s a man of strong principles. But, instead, he goes along with it, while she gets to look like a young woman with a silly crush who’s finally hit the jackpot. It makes both of them look like weak characters.
Then, for Barbara to later pine away because Batman hasn’t called her, and then chase after him and explain that it was “just sex” makes her look even weaker. If anything, it makes her appear desperate to cling on to him by explaining away her actions. Finally, when she takes her subsequent aggression out on Paris, she blames Paris for ruining things between herself and Batman, as opposed to blaming herself. She doesn’t accept any consequences for her actions and doesn’t grow from it.
This may be a natural human response and the intention may have been to make Barbara more than the helpless victim of the Joker, but it does little to serve her character. This is not strong writing of a female character, or strong writing of a character in general, because there’s nothing which tells us about who she is beyond trying to be Batman’s lover and inferior sidekick.
Granted, Brian Azzarello does deserve credit for telling a solid Batgirl adventure in terms of events mirroring the main plot beyond this section. It does explain Barbara Gordon’s presence later on, although she’s still not integral to the plot in any terms other than as a victim. As a solo Batgirl story this works to some extent. However, it doesn’t make her a particularly strong, independent character.
Also, it isn’t The Killing Joke. It’s filler. And now on to a bigger problem…
The Killing Joke in its original format – which certainly isn’t a graphic novel, but rather an annual-length one-shot prestige format comic book with a glossy cover and heavy-handed colouring – is a decent read and easily the best Joker story ever told. However, it isn’t one of Alan Moore’s best pieces of writing. If anything, it’s one which the writer himself doesn’t rate highly and has referred to it as “clumsy” and “misjudged”.
While he did a great job writing it, the original idea was artist Brian Bolland’s and it’s tragic that he doesn’t receive greater praise for it. But some people still cling to the notion that it’s Moore’s and as such deserves some kind of reverence.
It’s a bit like a carnival attraction. Alan Moore’s name, reputation and work are regularly brought out by DC to do the job of a dancing bear, drawing attention and being paraded as a mark of instant quality with few questioning its value or the treatment going on behind the scenes. In this case, the part of the film which is an adaptation is handled surprisingly well. Of course, Moore would probably argue that if anybody wanted to experience the actual story properly then they would be better-served reading the comic book.
Still, this is pretty damn close to the original. The Killing Joke is a great Joker story, and one of the best. Unfortunately, even its original format, that doesn’t make it a great story in general. Even in movie format it’s still a thought-provoking piece of work and full of intriguing symbolism. But for all the success of the original comic book, this isn’t the sort of tale which makes for an entertaining film. It’s interesting to look at but it’s hard to enjoy.
Strangely, if the core of the movie had been released as a short film, included in a collection with the Batgirl tale separately along with some other thematically-related stories, the collection itself could have been a masterpiece. However, as a full Batman movie it’s average at best, regardless of the source material. It’s two films disjointedly tacked together, and the end result is uneven and unsatisfying as entertainment.
The Rotten Tomatoes rating has hovered around the 50% mark and divided audiences and critics, and it’s understandable. People have argued that it’s either too loyal to the source material, or that the half hour introduction corrupts the original’s purity. In a way, that rating ironically mirrors one of the most intriguing aspects of the work, which is the nature of duality between the characters themselves. The Joker’s tale is told as two existences, (possible) past and present; Batman and the Joker being (as the cliché has it) flip-sides of the same coin, one being order and the other chaos.
Unfortunately, some miss the point of that idea.
Both characters are equally insane but express it in different ways. There’s nothing sane about a man seeing his parents murdered in front of him and then choosing to dress up as a bat. The difference between Batman and the Joker isn’t that one has cracked and the other hasn’t, but rather that one lives in denial about being insane while the other acknowledges it freely. The Joker’s plan in this story is not to force Batman to kill, but rather to face the reality that he’s insane too. He isn’t trying to make Batman crack, he’s proving that Batman already has cracked. If they’re flip-sides of a coin, both sides are scarred but in different ways.
In the comic, when Gordon and Batman walk past Two-Face’s cell, Gordon is framed on Harvey Dent’s “normal” side while Batman is on the scarred side. Is that symbolic of Batman’s own insanity? In the film, Batman faces his own distorted images in the hall of mirrors and promptly shatters them, enforcing the idea that he’s in denial. Maybe that’s symbolic too?
If neither of those sounded like proof of this concept, then the Joker’s final joke about the two escaped asylum inmates should be simple enough for anyone to understand. The punchline being that one believes a person can walk across a torch beam, while the other fears what will happen if the torch beam is switched off in mid-journey. In his own way, it explains everything:
They’re both crazy, but it’s manifested in different ways for each of them.
For Batman to say that “ordinary people don’t crack” is as ironic and telling a statement as any, and the ultimate proof of his own denial. Batman, as fans know, is far from ordinary and so therefore he must have cracked. Cracking isn’t about weakness, it’s about experiencing that one bad day which the Joker knows is what made Batman the way he is.
It’s true that there are many interpretations of the story, as there are with all of Alan Moore’s writing. It isn’t surprising. His work can be complex and operate on a multitude of levels, and because of that it’s easy to get it all wrong. Like the ending of The Killing Joke, there are so many grey areas that it’s easy to imagine what may have been. Did the Joker rape Barbara Gordon? In this film it’s implied that he may have, but never clearly stated. Did the Joker rape Commissioner Gordon? Nothing is shown, but it’s possible. Is this the Joker’s actual origin? It’s hard to tell. Even the Joker admits that this may not be how he came to be like he is.
And then there’s that “controversial” ending. To put it simply:
Batman did not snap the Joker’s neck.
If he did, it’s in the mind of the individual viewing (or, in the case of the comic book, reading) the story. It isn’t shown, and until Alan Moore or Brian Bolland say otherwise then it simply did not happen. The popular theory claimed by Grant Morrison and others is that Batman killed the Joker, but none of these people actually created this story. Brian Bolland has even played up this aspect, writing that he’ll explain what really happened next only to run out of space before actually finishing his statement. The ending is vague at best, and while theories abound the actual truth of the matter is that no neck-snapping is shown and so it’s just a theory with no evidence to back it up.
And that’s the real killing joke of the story for the audience. The joke is on us and the punchline is a twisted one, because it keeps us guessing. Do the characters kill each other? Does one kill the other? Like so many things here it’s open to debate, but since the story ends and both characters are alive when the credits roll, both characters survive this story and are once more locked in their endless struggle.
This is another problem with The Killing Joke film though.
This ending isn’t controversial in any way; it’s simply what happened in the original story. In the comic book format, this ending works with a sense of mood and artistic symmetry as the rain strikes the ground in the last panel, just as it did in the first. It adds weight to the idea that both characters survive and that their dance has come full-circle. Yet in the film, the ending feels hollow as the screen fades to black, and there’s no sense of that symmetry.
Instead, we then get Oracle’s appearance on screen. Suddenly, the Joker’s story is usurped by Barbara Gordon once more. If anything, that’s far more controversial than the non-existent strangling of the Joker.
As an adaptation, Batman: The Killing Joke is rather accurate for the most part. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it a great film because the original comic book was a highly-flawed masterpiece. On its own merits this film isn’t engaging and is far from entertaining. And last time I checked, most people watch movies to be entertained. It’s watchable and interesting, but the Batgirl segment means that half an hour focusing on a one-dimensional character is shoehorned into the core story, and it adds little value. If anything, it distracts from what the actual story is. It isn’t a bad movie, but it really isn’t anything special.