“Change of Scenery” is a series in which Nathan and Jordan watch something that neither of them has seen before, and write their reactions to it. This week’s subject is Batman: The Killing Joke. Click here to read Jordan’s thoughts.
Holy blog posts, Batman! It’s my turn to share my thoughts on the newest DC animated film: The Killing Joke! Hopefully they’ll be slightly less corny than the reference I just made.
For those that don’t know, this film is an animated adaptation of the titular 1988 graphic novel by Alan Moore, a chilling psychological thriller about Batman’s most iconic villain: The Joker. “To prove a point,” Joker tries to bring Commissioner Gordon to his breaking point by violently attacking his daughter (a.k.a Batgirl), kidnapping him, and torturing him.
It’s the kind of unsettling story that can—and did—polarize audiences. A quick Google search will tell you there’s a lot of controversy surrounding the original comic. Some love how the story grants insight into the Joker, adding some humanizing tragedy to his character, while others hate how Batgirl, a beloved female hero, is relegated to cannon-fodder solely to make other characters look good. From the reception I’ve seen online, that controversy lives on in this film, opening old wounds for some while creating new ones for others. I agree with a fair amount of the criticisms, but it’s not enough to devalue the film’s merits in my eyes, possibly just because of my love for Batman.
Like many, Batman is my childhood staple, mostly through the animated shows I watched (and still do!) with a passion while growing up, starting with Batman: The Animated Series. So I was excited to watch the first ever animated, R-rated Batman film, excited enough to pay to see a special showing in theaters, and I walked out completely satisfied. Good art, fun action, and excellent voice acting (Kevin Conroy, Tara Strong, and Mark Hamill were all on point). But, though it pains me to admit it, the film has some definite flaws, and I wouldn’t be doing my favorite caped crusader any justice by not mentioning them. Overall, I’d say the movie makes some semi-awkward choices in relation to the original Killing Joke that could grate die-hard fans of the comic or its characters (bear in mind: this is all coming from a guy who saw the movie before finally reading the comic afterwards).
To start with, the movie has plenty of fluff, extra scenes and dialogue that pad out its run-time, which can be hit-or-miss. In the best cases, they add to the film’s overall tone or give glimpses into a character’s psyche, complementing the original story by fleshing out its themes. There’s a good moment where Batman, clearly speaking from experience, lectures Barbra on the dangers of the abyss: that dark place in a mind “where you don’t care anymore, where all hope dies.” In the worst cases, however, the padding can hinder the story’s pacing and direction, the most obvious example being the 30 minute prologue about Batgirl.
Set before TKJ’s actual plot, the prologue features Batgirl battling mobster Paris Franz (seriously), who develops a dangerous obsession with her, while struggling with the growing tension between her and Batman. It’s good by itself but doesn’t help the overall story that much. According to the film’s creators, it’s their attempt to add more depth to Batgirl, who got a bit role in the original story, theoretically adding more dramatic weight to the brutal scene where Joker shoots and humiliates her. The problem, like it or not, is that the main story never requires her to have much depth to begin with, making a prologue told solely from her perspective slightly jarring. Her story makes me want to watch a Batgirl movie, making it all the more distracting when the movie goes on to a Batman/Joker story instead, hardly ever referring to her again. Holistically, I do think that the prologue succeeds in granting some small glimpses into Batman’s character, such as the abyss scene, and I like how the Fatal Attraction-esque relationship between Batgirl and Paris Franz acts as a clear parallel to Batman and Joker (just, you know, with less sexual tension…I think).
Despite it all, I still think the film is a pretty faithful retelling of the comic that rightly takes a few creative liberties. Sure, it has fluff and takes a different direction from the comic with certain scenes and sequences, but changes like that are practically inevitable with medium changes like this, as each medium tells stories differently. It still succeeds in making the source material look good while putting its own spin on it, which should be the goal of any adaptation. The Killing Joke may not be the best Batman story, but this film reminds why it’s considered a definitive Batman story.
On that note, one of the things I appreciate most about The Killing Joke, in both mediums, is that it presents the theme of “one bad day,” what connects Batman to the Joker as well as nearly any other heroic or villainous character. At the climax, Joker correctly posits that Batman, just like him, had a tragic day when someone/something he cared about was cruelly taken from him, forever skewing his worldview. It’s a theme that acknowledges how our lives are affected by the calamities that befall us but also reminds us that our lives are only defined by how we respond to them. Dead relatives, ruined career, destroyed planet. That sort of brutal loss underscores the lives of just about every hero and villain, but it’s how they choose to press on that marks them as such. For instance, on his bad day, Joker snaps and plunges himself into the abyss, smiling as he becomes like the erratic chaos that broke him and concluding that arbitrary notions of morality, justice, and humanity are just a silly joke.
It’s partly why Batman is one of my favorite heroes and also why I’m not put-off by his stoic demeanor or lack of emotional struggle in this story. The Killing Joke isn’t about Batman struggling to defeat the Joker or striving to press on despite the trauma Joker’s caused everyone. We all know Batman has already been through that, hence why I liked his speech in the prologue about the abyss. He’s been brought to the edge, but, instead of jumping in or backing away, he stays there to protect those who might fall in or already have, bearing his own pain all the while. TKJ is more about Batman striving to uphold his own humanity by helping others maintain theirs, including the Joker’s. The Killing Joke is a dark setup with a vague enough punchline that, among other things, contemplates the extent of our social responsibility as well as the lengths we’re willing to go for what we really believe in. In other words, it’s a joke that makes you think.