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Batman The Killing Joke

D: Sam Liu / 76m

Cast: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Ray Wise, John DiMaggio, Robin Atkin Downes, Maury Sterling, Anna Vocino

The latest in Warner Bros. series of direct-to-video animated movies to feature the Caped Crusader, Batman: The Killing Joke is a movie Harvey Dent would appreciate as it compromises two separate stories that are welded together to make a full-length feature. Fans will have their own feelings about which one of the two stories is the more effective, but taken on its own merits, the movie does have some distinctive moments that warrant more than a cursory acknowledgment.

The first “half” concerns Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl (Strong). As an occasional “partner” to Batman, Batgirl still feels the need to prove herself. The opportunity arises when she helps Batman in stopping a group of criminals led by Paris Franz (Sterling), escaping after a robbery. Franz gets away, but in the process he becomes obsessed with Batgirl, and when his plans to take over his father’s criminal empire begin to come to fruition, he drags her into it. This leads to Batgirl putting herself increasingly at risk, a situation that Batman is unhappy about. He tells her not to continue her involvement, but instead she rounds on him. Matters take an unexpected turn, and their relationship becomes even more strained. Later, Batman is lured into a trap by Franz, prompting Batgirl to go to his aid, and in doing so, she learns a valuable lesson – one that leads to her making a life-changing decision.

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This storyline is more reminiscent of previous Batman outings, both tonally and visually, with compact, multi-angled scenes that remind viewers of Batman’s comic book origins, and which serve as dramatic enhancements of the narrative. The animation here is a key component, serving to reassure returning viewers to the series, and maintaining a style that Warner Bros. have made their own. But the storyline itself isn’t as impressive, or as well thought out. Batgirl is made to look too dependent on Batman’s sanctioning her actions, and there’s a hint of a daughter seeking approval from her father that is terribly at odds with the “unexpected turn” that alters their relationship (this moment in the movie has been widely reported and talked about elsewhere, and caused a fair degree of controversy). It’s a brave move on  Warner Bros.’ part, but while there is some justification for it happening, it’s the way in which the movie fails to properly address it afterwards that spoils things, preferring instead to finish on an action sequence.

But as one door closes – as they say – another door opens, and the meat of the movie is thrust front and centre. The Killing Joke is a justly celebrated graphic novel by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland that was first published in 1988. An adaptation has been anticipated ever since Mark Hamill announced his willingness to play the Joker in a movie of The Killing Joke back in 2011. Now that it’s here, fans can relax somewhat, but not entirely, as there are elements in this “half” that don’t work as well as they should.

It begins with Batman being called to a crime scene that could only have been the work of the Joker. But the Joker is being held at Arkham Asylum – or at least, that’s what everybody thinks. When Batman pays his arch-enemy a visit, he discovers that the Joker has escaped and left a decoy in his place. Meanwhile, the Joker has bought an old, rundown amusement park as part of his plan to hurt Batman and those he cares about. To this end, he shoots Barbara Gordon and abducts her father (Wise). Invited to the amusement park’s reopening, Batman rescues Commissioner Gordon and goes after the Joker – but not before Gordon insists that Batman brings him in “by the book”.

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The Killing Joke is primarily about the Joker, his origin and the psychology that he shares with Batman. But while the movie embraces this idea, and does its best to reflect the graphic novel’s content, it’s not as successful in exploring the notion of Batman and the Joker being two sides of the same coin, or brothers cut from the same emotionally disturbed cloth. Aside from a surprise musical interlude sung by the Joker (I’m Looney), the emphasis rests firmly on setting up the inevitable confrontation between the Dark Knight and the Clown Prince of Crime. In between all this, we get to see the Joker’s origin story, a tale designed to provide the character with a degree of built-in sympathy, and which leads to the conclusion that we’re all “only one bad day away from being him”. It’s a neat idea, but fatally at odds with the fact that Batman has chosen to fight crime, while the Joker actively embraces it. Yes, both characters are psychologically disturbed, but in ways that are more different than similar.

With the psychological content failing to make as much of an impact as it needed to, there’s also the matter of what happens to Barbara Gordon. Again, much has been made of this elsewhere, and there is an implication that the Joker is responsible for much more than just shooting her, but it’s at odds with the character and his history, and while this is an animated Batman movie that is trying hard to be more adult in its themes and approach, it’s unlikely that the producers would have allowed this interpretation to be included deliberately (and producer Bruce Timm has confirmed this). Clumsy writing seems to be the culprit here, rather than an attempt at pushing any boundaries.

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And then there’s the animation. While it’s a perfect fit for the first “half” and the preceeding entries in the series, here it fails to recreate Brian Bolland’s intense artistic vision with anything approaching the effect he conceived. There are enough iconic images retained from the source to keep fans happy but overall it would have been better to have made The Killing Joke as a true stand-alone movie, with maybe a bigger budget, and a visual style that reflects the graphic novel. There are too many moments where the Joker looks cartoonish rather than scary, and too many moments where the sparse visual details on offer leave the viewer with too little to look at. In the end, it all helps to devalue the impact of the story, and makes the movie look a little under-developed.

But there are still plenty of good things to be savoured, from the re-casting of Conroy and Hamill, to the energy expressed in the action sequences (which are all expertly designed and choreographed), the decision to explore darker and more disturbing material (even if it doesn’t always work out), and returning director Sam Liu’s confident direction. Fans of the series will be delighted to see the references to this story made in Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010) expanded on here, and the future of Batgirl is foreshadowed in an epilogue that, again, should please fans of the character.

Rating: 6/10 – too many bad decisions at a creative level scupper what could have been – potentially – the best animated Batman movie ever, but unfortunately Batman: The Killing Joke remains a slightly above average entry in the series; it’s great to have Hamill back in the fold, though, and his usual exemplary work as the Joker is highlighted by an impressively told joke at the movie’s end, a moment of class that the movie is sometimes sorely in need of elsewhere.