The month’s only halfway over, and when it comes to movies, one company’s in the crosshairs of public worry: DC. Between Suicide Squad and The Killing Joke, they were set to sweep the stage and dominate the summer’s end—but unfortunately, neither has quite lived up to expectation. I’ll explain my feelings on Suicide Squad at a later date, but today I’ve a few things to say about The Killing Joke, in all its problematic animated flailing.
For those familiar with the source material (rather than those simply enthused to see Mark Hamill returning as the Joker), this was already set to be a controversial piece—it’s certainly one of the Dark Knight’s grimmer outings, and it’s a train wreck beat down of Batgirl and her father from start to finish. That, at least, holds true. Unfortunately, the film makes it even MORE of a Batgirl beat down, with a first act that is quite simply insulting for anyone in the modern age.
The Killing Joke is a short story by any definition—as such, DC added around 30 minutes worth of material to the story for what they thought of as helping us “get to know” Batgirl.
Huzzah! Character development! A character abused as a set piece getting to be human!
Tragically, whoever set that train ride in motion rapidly wheeled it off the tracks.
Yes, Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) is our narrator. She comes across like a whining teen lamenting to a diary about the man she has bizarrely decided to sidekick beside (sorry Robin, you’re out of this picture). Rather than adopt the father-child or big brother role for which Batman’s most characteristically known with his sidekicks, however, Batman maintains a sort of ice and fire thing with Barbara.
He’s purposefully cold-shouldering and aloof, but that only seems to make Barb more attached. She exists for him. She is focused on him. She talks about him in not-so-specific terms to a bff when maintaining her normie job. If this is character development, all I’m seeing is a message that women build their lives around the strong men in them. Gross, DC. Gross.
Cue Paris Franz! Mafia fellow and as obsessed with Barb as Barb is with Batman. Alright, a bit more obsessed—he tries to drug her and stalk her, and genuinely exists so Batman can give Batgirl stern lectures about how crime works and why she, despite having no doubt been at this a while, is not cut out for the life. Leave him to his tortured martyrdom—little girls trying to play superhero shouldn’t be in this part of the playground. She screams, but not in a way that gives her any feeling—she screams like a child denied a cookie, made to look petulant and illogical despite the fact that this is the woman who LATER BECOMES ORACLE AND KNOWS ALL AND SEES ALL.
And after all this yelling, the plot is propelled forward through…sex. Because yelling and shouting and violence is all but foreplay, don’t you know? They strip. Camera pans away. Bat nookie is made on a rooftop. Public indecency is apparently not one of the things vigilante-bats police.
Holy crap, I thought at this point, what is going on in this script?
Batman smart. Batgirl dumb. Sex for everybody.
After she causes Batman to get jumped by Franz, and after Barbara overcomes Franz, she comes to the conclusion that—wait for it—Batman was right all along. This just isn’t the life for her; time to call it quits. Naturally, this comes after showing her wailing on Franz and displaying her full feminine madness, her overly emotional nature, and—
Wait, did they just make a Time of the Month joke? Seriously?
Okay. Maybe she SHOULD have killed the gangster.
Please note the “emotional instability” also comes to head after Batman doesn’t call her back after their less than sexy dance in the moonlight, and there is general whining about said less than sexy times.
Essentially, DC worked very hard to take Batgirl from a victim working to move set pieces between a duel of Batman and Joker and turned her into an emotionally unstable, petulant every-teen trope who dreamed beyond her ken.
And still is a set piece. Because obviously the actual Killing Joke story still has to happen. Which makes the two acts seem more than a bit…disjointed.
Batman, now operating solo, finds evidence of a crime in the city with all the hallmarks of the Joker—who’s supposed to be locked up. When he goes to lecture Joker (he really likes to lecture, it turns out), he goes on for a bit before he discovers an old friend and not the Joker. Cue Joker appearing in Gotham, cackling with mad Mark Hamill glee, shooting Barbara in front of her dad and making off with the addled policeman.
Then come the flashbacks from a flawed narrator—the Joker’s not even sure if the origin story he’s peddling is true. Don’t get me wrong: this whole section is true to comic, almost painfully so. However, what works in one medium doesn’t necessarily work in another, and in this case, the pacing becomes sluggish and dialogue heavy, and the tempo heaves to a crawl. Yet here is where DC might have considered making some of its additions—we don’t see what the Joker saw, we don’t experience any personability to his origins; we find out everything from him heaving more dialogue onto his criminal partners. It’s like reading flavor text in an RPG—it comes, we process it, the story trudges onward. It has little impact.
Back to the present day, we get to observe Jim Gordon’s awful, terrible, really bad day. He’s stripped and collared and haunted by pictures of his naked and gunned down daughter, though the passage of time is somewhat unclear here as opposed to the long, torturous procession demonstrated in the comic. This section feels oddly rushed—but still, Batman inevitably comes, plucks his old friend from a cage, and finds the father figure unbroken by Joker’s plea to madness. It gives him strength to find and subdue Joker.
Throughout, what we are greeted with is a movie of uneven pacing but dedicated delivery. Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy are, by now, masters of their characters and on point with delivery—even if the lines themselves can, at points, seem rather off. Some animation hiccups arise here and there which are definitely distracting and a bit odd, while the acts of the movie feel as if two separate teams sat down at the end of the day and handed in their respective homework.
The first act is a mess that leaves us stumbling into the actual story—and, in truth, seems to have no effect on that story at all. The second act suffers from stop-and-go momentum, at times barreling forward out of control and at some points drifting lazily down a river of monologue. For all that, the second act is at least faithful to its source material, with some truly killer lines and marvelous interactions between Batman and Joker, but adds nothing to the tale—though it’s the part that certainly could have stood to have bits added, played around with, adopted to modern times.
One thing that does stand out and stand up to the test of time, though: that ending scene. It really showcases the acting power Hamill and Conroy bring to the table and the dialogue gleams like a polished knife. It captivates and makes perfect its final thrust—the joke on which the whole story rests.
Yet as much as I dislike the opening act, I should have liked to see it given some sort of connection and resolution here, before the show wraps. Batman saves Gordon from his bad day and offers to save the Joker from his perpetual one, but he doesn’t mention all that has happened to Barbara. For all that they apparently shared and his harshness to her throughout, he doesn’t make things right between them or take all that she has suffered and make an effort to atone. She ceases to exist—making the whole point of examining her character, playing up the emotional quality between them, leveling her human playing field…absolutely moot. It’s a baffling oversight that should leave more than merely casual watchers scratching their heads.
My conclusion? This one should’ve been left to the pages, even if it would’ve deprived us of one more chance to bask in voice acting perfection.