While DC is struggling to get critical approval with its live-action films, as the (partly) undeserved roasting of BatmanvSuperman and Suicide Squad demonstrate, they have an impressive record of success with their animated features. In my opinion, the quality of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies (DCUAOM) has declined in recent years with Justice League: War and Son of Batman. However, there have been some bright spots such as Gods and Monsters, Assault on Arkham and Batman vs. Robin. I was hoping that The Killing Joke would continue that trend. It isn’t a bad film, but as a whole, it does not measure up to some of the aforementioned bright spots.
As a spoiler- free summary, this story involves The Joker escaping from Arkham Asylum and kidnapping Barbara Gordon (Batgirl). There will be some relatively minor spoilers throughout this review. I haven’t read the graphic novel in years and I wanted to do so before seeing this film. However, I ended up rushing ahead and watching the film first. For that reason, I won’t be able to compare this film to the finer details of the comic.
I was told by friends that the film added a prelude that explained more of Barbara Gordon’s backstory, prior to her kidnapping. A little research online also showed that this section also resulted in most of the criticism for the film. I tried to ignore these critiques and form my own opinions so that I wouldn’t unfairly bash the film. I have to say that some of the criticism is justified.
The most valuable insights that come from this prelude are:
- Barbara still views crime-fighting as a thrill, not an unhealthy obsession the way Batman does
- Conflict over this issue is what led to Barbara ending her role as Batgirl
These two insights are valuable, but my issue is some of the execution. The Batgirl prelude centers around a single criminal, Paris Franz, who becomes obsessed with Batgirl. However, Franz’s obsession is more like a delusional and arrogant fanboy, as opposed to the twisted dependency we see with The Joker and Batman. Franz ends up being a very forgettable villain and the writing for his character is mainly what makes the prelude unwelcome.
Another issue, is the infamous sex scene. Sorry if it is a spoiler but it is a part of the story that I can’t review this film without mentioning. If I simply said there is a sex scene, then it would still be pretty easy to figure out which characters I am referring to. Although I am not personally a fan of a Batman/Batgirl relationship, I know it exists in some of the comics. What annoys me most about the sex scene isn’t the fact that a relationship I like to think of as father-daughter is changed; I just hated the fact that it was precipitated by a slap-slap-kiss trope. I didn’t even know that this was a trope until a year ago, but seeing it time after time led me to believe that other people must have noticed how often it pops up in romantic situations. Two people are fighting; they often start pushing or come to blows. Then they suddenly stop, stare into each other’s eyes, and kiss. It is hack writing at its best.
With that said, the rest of The Killing Joke is much better. Firstly, we have a better villain. Mark Hamill plays The Prince of Crime, and also plays The Joker in flashbacks that reveal how he became The Joker. The graphic novel is famous partly for introducing a tragic Joker origin story and the transformation from Jack Napier to the Prince of Crime is one of the film’s most haunting.
The Joker’s actions in this film make you hate him, but you also can’t deny his charisma and his skills as a wordsmith. I enjoyed John DiMaggio as The Joker in Under the Red Hood but it is great to have Hamill back for this role, alongside Kevin Conroy. One of my favourite parts of the film is a Batman monologue near the beginning. While Conroy is famous for portraying Batman’s menace, his ability to convey the character’s (often hidden) warmth was also a treat to watch.
Joker’s kidnapping of Barbara is the central crux of the story, and the scene is a tough one to watch. The animation, the music (or lack thereof) and the voice acting make it one of my favourite scenes among all the DC animated films. Hamill brings a blend of menace and humour to the role, while navigating his way through one of the most pivotal moments in Batman’s history.
The kidnapping also represents a high-point in the film, which is followed by the final showdown between Batman and The Joker. From what I remember, the kidnapping of Commissioner Gordon was more enthralling in the graphic novel. Here, the voice acting from Gordon and Joker’s gang of freaks brought this section of the film down.
Overall, I enjoyed The Killing Joke. However, the faults I’ve mentioned prevent it from being among the top-tier of the DCUAOM films. As it stands, it is a decent entry that had a lot of potential.