If I could rank the animated DC films, I’d probably put Under the Red Hood at the top, followed by Mask of the Phantasm, then Assault on Arkham, and now, The Killing Joke. Yes, I will be so bold as to call it one of the better DC animated films, but at the same time, I can see why it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. (spoilers ahead!)
A little backstory: The Killing Joke was not only one of the first Batman comics I ever read, but it was also one of the first comics I ever read period. Back when I was 14 years old, my only real experience with Batman, the Joker, and the rest of the DC crew was via the animated television series. Then I got my hands on The Killing Joke and my entire perspective changed.
Needless to say, this film is kind-of a big deal for me. When I heard the comic was officially being adapted into a feature-length movie and coming to theaters, I knew I had to see it. Now that I have seen it, I can safely say that it was worth the wait.
The Killing Joke is recognized as one of the most important stories in Batman lore due to the fact that it contains an origin story for the Joker. Most people only know the Clown Prince of Crime as a psychopathic maniac with a penchant for purple suits who acts as a foil for Batman. The Killing Joke takes it one step further and shows us the man behind the white face and green hair.
But before we jump into the Joker’s backstory, the movie gives us some background on the other characters. The first half-hour of the film is dedicated to Batgirl and Batman’s relationship. This was invented purely for the movie, and it doesn’t make any appearance in the graphic novel. Obviously, they decided to add this sequence to pad the movie’s run-time and to shed a little more light on Barbara Gordon. While I enjoyed seeing some awesome fight scenes with Batgirl and Batman, I was completely caught off-guard by the sex scene between the two heroes. As far as I know, the two never had a sexual relationship in the comics. I always assumed they had more of a father-daughter thing going on. The scene didn’t bother me too much, but I can see it rubbing people the wrong way, especially the comic purists.
After the Batgirl scenes are over, the movie dives straight into the graphic novel pages. A good bulk of the film is literally a shot-for-shot adaptation of the original comic’s panels. I found myself in awe as I watched pages coming to life before my very eyes. It’s one thing to imagine the voices of Batman and the Joker as you’re reading along with the comic, but actually hearing them out loud is something else. It’s absolutely surreal. No matter who plays the characters in the live-action movies for years to come, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill will forever be known to me as the true voices of Batman and the Joker.
Hamill especially deserves the credit for his brilliant performance. I’m sure I’m not the only person surprised that he reprised his role for this film given that he’s stated time and time again that he was done with the Joker. Sorry, Mark, you’re stuck with us. I honestly want him to continue voicing the Joker until he dies (which I hope isn’t for a long, long, long time).
As I mentioned before, The Killing Joke is so popular because it gives us a solid backstory for the Joker. We learn that he was a former chemical engineer who quit his job to become a stand-up comedian. Unfortunately, he wasn’t that good at the comedy shtick and couldn’t make enough money to support his pregnant wife. Desperate for money, he turns to a group of gangsters and agrees to help them with a heist near his former chemical company.
The day of the robbery, our pre-Joker learns that his wife has died in a freak accident. Rather than cutting him some slack, the gangsters force him to still help them with the heist. That night, the police show up and gun down the robbers. They nearly take out pre-Joker too until Batman shows up to handle the situation on his own. One thing leads to another, and our would-be robber falls into a vat of chemical waste. When he’s flushed out of the plant’s drain pipes, he emerges with his new trademark color scheme and lack of sanity.
Hamill, who has done such a great job of portraying the Joker over the years, is able to dial back the creepy, laughter-ridden voice in order to portray the Joker before he was transformed. It’s awesome how Hamill is able to flip-flop between the two personalities so easily with seemingly no effort. Every single line delivered by the Joker (both before and after his transformation) is perfect.
My only critique about the Joker is the flashback sequence where he first discovers that his wife has died. His reaction feels very… bland. The police come into the bar and notify him, and he just kinda goes, “Hm, okay.” You can tell he’s heartbroken, but I expected him to go absolutely bonkers about it. He just walks back to the table and has another drink. It’s almost like it doesn’t surprise him that she died. In the comics, he has a similar reaction, but we get a glimpse of him having a full-on breakdown after the gangsters leave. That’s what I expected in the film. I mean, how would you react if you found out your loved one just died unexpectedly?
I’m talking way too much about the Joker, aren’t I? We have to discuss the rest of the movie.
Anyway, the Joker (yes, he’s still a big part of the story) breaks out of Arkham Asylum and buys an amusement park in order to carry out some big plan. What’s the big plan? Well, it begins with him going to Commissioner Jim Gordon’s home and shooting his daughter Barbara in the stomach, permanently damaging her spine. Here’s another reason why The Killing Joke is such a big deal in the DC universe: the paralysis of Barbara Gordon. This is the story that led to Babs becoming Oracle, Batman’s confidant and tech-genius partner.
When you look at the grand scheme of things, it now makes sense for the movie to have a little more backstory on Barbara Gordon. In the original comic, the only time we see her is when she’s shot and when she’s in the hospital. Her overall value is underplayed. It looks like the writers wanted to give her a little more depth by featuring her in the beginning of the film, but then they forced that awkward sex scene in for some reason.
Joker’s cronies kidnap Commissioner Gordon and carry him off to the amusement park. Meanwhile, Joker strips Barbara down and takes nude photos of her. He then strips Jim down as well, puts him on an amusement park ride, and forces him to look at the nude photos while mercilessly taunting him.
Sick, right? Absolutely appalling is more like it. This is one of the reasons why I always hated when people romanticized the Joker – those people who say “I just want a relationship like the Joker and Harley Quinn.” Shut up. You can say the Joker is a well-written villain, but don’t idolize him. He’s a sadistic bastard on par with John Wayne Gacy or Jeffrey Dahmer. Go read a book.
Batman tracks the Joker to the amusement park, where he finds the battered and humiliated Gordon sitting in his cage. At first, Bats agrees to wait until backup arrives, but Gordon tells him to go after the Joker, and to “take him in by the books.” This demonstrates how, despite all that the Joker has put him through, the Commissioner has retained his sanity and still believes in a true sense of justice. The Joker has spent the entire story trying to prove that everyone is just “one bad day away” from becoming just like him, and in the case of Commissioner Gordon, he has failed.
The film’s climax involves Batman fighting through Joker’s team of sideshow freaks and eventually confronting the Joker, and it is simply outstanding. Throughout the chase sequence, the Joker continuously provokes Bats with various one-liners and off-color jokes, proving just how insane he really is. My favorite line ever uttered by the Joker has to be, “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” If that doesn’t perfectly encapsulate the insanity of the Joker’s psyche, then I don’t know what does.
In the final moments of the movie, the Joker has a gun on Batman, ready to shoot. He pulls the trigger, and instead of a bullet, the gun fires a tiny gag flag. Joker angrily tosses the gun aside muttering, “God damn it…” Even in the darkest moments of the film, there’s always time for a little humor. This was easily the funniest moment in the movie (aside from the Batgirl/Batman sex scene; but this gun scene was intentionally funny).
Batman extends an olive branch to his nemesis, offering to help him instead of tossing him back in the asylum. Joker sadly tells him that it’s too late and that he’s too far gone. Then he begins to chuckle and tells Bats how this reminds him of a funny joke.
- “See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum… And one night, one night they decide they don’t like living in an asylum any more. They decide they’re going to escape! So, like, they get up onto the roof, and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moon light… stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend did not dare make the leap. Y’see… Y’see, he’s afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea… He says ‘Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!’ B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says… He says ‘Wh-what do you think I am? Crazy? You’d turn it off when I was half way across!’“
I wish I had the time to explain the deeper themes of the joke and how it applies to Batman and Joker, but I only have so many words left in this review. Once you’ve re-read it a couple times, you’ll start to see how Batman and Joker and their motives are reflected in the men from the joke. It’s a solid representation of the relationship between the two and their never-ending battle. Even Batman notices this and breaks his normally stoic composure to utter a deep chuckle. Before long, the two are engaged in an intense bout of laughter before the scene blacks out and the credits roll.
So what happened? Do they just keep laughing? Does Batman let Joker get away? Does he beat the crap out of the Joker and take him back to Arkham? Writers Alan Moore and Brian Bolland intentionally left this ending open for interpretation, but there is speculation that Batman actually kills the Joker after this confrontation. However, the movie, like the graphic novel, does not give us a definite answer and leaves us filling in the void with our own imagination. Now THAT is how you end a story!
The movie includes one mid-credit scene where the now wheelchair-bound Barbara boots up her supercomputer and reveals the Oracle logo, indicating that, while she’s no longer capable of being Batgirl, her work with Batman is still not over.
Overall, I enjoyed The Killing Joke‘s film adaptation. People often criticize comic films for straying so far from their source material, but in this case, it’s like the movie was almost directly lifted straight from the panels. The voice acting is superb, the pacing is well-done, and the animation is smooth and polished, and also reminiscent of the 90s animated series. My only big gripe is the inclusion of Batgirl. While I understand its purpose, I just felt like it was hastily thrown together in an effort to boost Barbara’s development and to pad the movie’s run-time.
Make sure you grab a copy of The Killing Joke when it comes to Blu-Ray and DVD – it’s definitely worth having in your collection if you’re a big Batman and DC animated universe fan.
Have you seen The Killing Joke? What did you think? Let us know your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter!