rant · review · Writing

Batman: The Killing Joke review

Through serendipity—serendipity here having the meaning of a friend winning tickets, and then unfortunately not being able to go—my wife and I found ourselves in a resplendent theater last night for one of the special screenings of the latest DC animation feature, Batman: The Killing Joke.

We played Pokémon Go while we waited, as some enterprising soul at the theater had turned the area into two Poké-stops, complete with lures. We had but to sit back, relax, and wait as those desirable little digital seizure-monsters wandered in. Well, mostly. To be frank I simply spent a lot of time trying to get past the loading screen. But once I did- oh, oh man. So many poke-ee-mans, man.

What does this have to do with the cartoon? Nothing.

Fun fact: My first Joker was Caesar Romero, painfully obvious caked-over mustache and all. That was when I was a kid, and the local station at the time had Adam West’s camp-fest version of the Bat going on afternoon re-runs before the cartoon block. It was my introduction to weird camera angles and onomatopoeia.

Bam. Whap. Kid-nip for an impressionable geek larvae.

What does this have to do with the cartoon? Nothing.

The movie was supposed to start at 7:30. It didn’t. Instead we were treated to a loop of Fathom Events promos, including the same two Killing Joke trivia questions, and interspersed randomly with one live-action ad of some guy espousing what was to come for the service. By the 5th time the trivia questions rolled around, the audience was shouting the most bizarre answers they could come up with. By the second time the dude showed up, you would think the audience thought he was Hitler.

“Go to hell” was the phrase used. Loudly. We laughed.

You guessed it- nothing to do with the cartoon itself.

We were then treated to a mini-doc starring Mark Hamill, reminiscing about his early days of acting all the way through him being tapped to be the voice of the Clown Prince of Crime, replete with his respect for the many actors that have taken on the same mantle over the years. It was a highlight-reel of the Animated Series, mostly, as if to prime us for the feature to follow with splashes of “Ooh! Remember this?” and “Man, wasn’t this cool?”

Good times, man. *sniff* Good times.

You’re right, weird pre-show documentary. It was damn cool. In point of fact, it’s what had most of us chomping at the bit when it was announced that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill had graciously returned to the roles for what has been incessantly argued as “the greatest Batman/Joker story ever told”, now in animated form as only the wunderkinds at DC could manage, and helmed by the incomparable Bruce Timm himself.

Yep. Still nothing to do with the cartoon.

I didn’t have popcorn, which was a damn shame, honestly. But was things were tight and—what? Oh.

I can imagine some of you out there that have made it this far are a heartbeat away from slapping your monitor around in the hopes that Digital Voodoo is a real thing, and therefore I will magically feel your fury for having delayed so long with nonsense that has nothing to do with the review itself.

Now you know how this audience member felt going into the showing.

Once the feature kicked off in earnest, what we were treated to was a nearly word-for-word translation of Alan Moore’s lauded script, and imagery that hewed as closely as it could in certain moments to those iconic panels from the hand of Brian Bolland. Stylistic changes were applied for modern sensibilities and the limitations of moving imagery, of course, but this really was The Killing Joke. On screen, writ large and sonorous with the fans’ definitive Bats and Mr. J giving life to Mr. Moore’s narrative.

joker yay
YAAAAAAAAAAY! Finally! Oh this is going to be SO AWESO—

No wonder it felt so clumsy and hollow from the get-go.

batman sad

Listen: The Killing Joke is a landmark story for a damn good reason. But it’s hardly sacrosanct. It didn’t age well. Hell, crazy though he arguably is, even Moore’s not fond of it upon reflection. The reason it had any impact at all was two fold: it tried to establish a definitive back story for an iconic villain, and it took the hero and villain to new places beyond slug-fests and joybuzzers. It went grimdark in an era where the phrase wasn’t around yet. It was a unique take that gave gravitas and stakes back to a franchise that had been losing them, and became the primer for Batman stories to come.

But that, as momentous as an accomplishment as it can be, isn’t really saying all that much.

But I’ll certainly step in and say it. The Killing Joke is to Batman what The Cabinet of Dr. Calligari is to Horror Cinema. There’s good stuff there. There’s important stuff there. There’s stuff that became the fodder for everything that followed. That doesn’t mean it’s unassailable, or continuously enjoyable for anyone beyond die-hards and pop culture archaeologists.

“Do you happen to have this in, say, a life-sized body pillow? What? No reason…”

Or those that consider Hot Topic a second home.

And perhaps here that’s the most apt brand name to use, because when you hear some of Moore’s dated purple prose come tumbling out of Batman’s mouth with Conroy’s voice, he comes off less “I am Vengeance! I am the Night!” and more “Do you carry this satin cape in a color darker than sorrow?”

Even Hamill’s masterful weaving of nuanced vocal work is at times diluted by the material he’s laboring with. What read as unnerving on the page in the 80’s turns into an exercise in scenery-chewing when put to the screen. Nothing resonates. Nothing grips. Hamill’s Joker had punch because there was an obvious delight in the blending of comic and sadistic. Here? That soul seems faded, and it’s down to lines that are hardly the stuff of Shakespeare. Mostly we get the sadistic. Or the whiny. Or the “before” of those anti-depressant commercials.

Consult your doctor. Side effects may include mild tears-in-rain monologuing.

That’s the core issue. I saw the cast, I knew the book. It had to be peanut butter and chocolate, right? Or whatever your preferred edible pairing is. I can’t make that distinction for all of you. But what’s fun and exciting in theory went flavorless in execution.

As we left the theater, my first reaction when discussing the movie with my wife was along the lines of “I really thought I wanted it.”

I wonder if that was the premise for making it. It feels that way at times. Beyond the clunky copy issues, maybe this would have been better served with other actors? Maybe not. There’s a host of pacing issues, animation quirks that break continuity when not simply shattering immersion, and enough ham on display at times to constitute an art-performance piece on food porn. What we’ve been delivered isn’t even up to the standards of the usual DC animation, let alone the hype that infused the collective from the moment it was announced.

There’s choice bits there, but again they are so few and sparing that it left me detached.

But there’s something else here. Something that I seem to be missing. Something that is just on the edge of my vision that I—


Oh. right. THAT.

I haven’t been tiptoeing around the elephant in the room, I promise. More diligent, and certainly more patient writers than I have already discussed the almost thirty minutes devoted to Batgirl in this film’s prologue sequence.

So I don’t have to ride roughshod over the character’s treatment here. I don’t have to prize open the recesses of the director’s, or by extension the writer’s mind, to figure out what in the holy fuck they were thinking when this was greenlit. I’m free from the burdens of the deconstruction of misogyny, heavy handed fan service, or psychoanalyzing the baggage dear Barbara is saddled with for reasons I’m still trying to find.

Others can, will, and have, fought that battle for me. Thanks. Sincerely, me.

I can skip out on that, because the entire sequence, like all those vignettes I began the article with, are pointless to the story that followed.

What does the Batgirl prologue story have to do with the cartoon? Nothing. I didn’t say anything until now because I figured you were sick of padding and bits that were superfluous.

That’s this prologue. It’s bloat. Cut and dried, pure and simple bloat. Usually, editing scenes out is a matter of course to tighten a film. Writers will hack off entire passages when they repeat information, or when the story plays out much the same regardless of inclusion. Hell, I whacked an entire chapter out of my first novel even after it had been published, because upon reflection I realized that it did nothing for the narrative as a whole.

This, this prologue right here? It’s twenty-six minutes that someone spent far too much time fighting for to inflate screen time and pin yet another layer of angst onto our hero’s story. Not her’s. His.

Because, y’know, what happens to her is in and of itself clearly not enough to resonate.

The comic exists. Love it, hate it, or too hip to care, this is a fact that won’t change. You can walk into almost any comic shop or Barnes & Noble and pick it up. But the fact that it exists isn’t really saying all that much, is it? It’s a statement of fact; tasteless, drab, and only interesting enough to pursue for the curious.

The film version exists, too.


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