Batman: The Killing Joke (film) Review

 

If you ask many longtime fans what was the first (memorable) Batman title they ever read was, the answer will most likely be Alan Moore’s legendary one-shot, The Killing Joke. It’s sort of ironic that an entire generation of Batman fandom associates the beginning of their Dark Knight love with one of the character’s darkest literary titles.

 

The Killing Joke has remained one of the most divisive comics to this day; the kind of book that takes on different meaning during repeated readings set years apart. I read the book as a kid and was captivated while still protected by rightful naiveté. Ten years later, I reread the book to find equal parts captivation and anxiety as its previously unrealized deeper themes came into my realization. Now, as a father, I read the book again and experienced the full horror that had blissfully alluded me in the years past. Anyone who dismisses the literary power of comic books is missing out – Alan Moore has proven that time and time again.

 

Twenty-eight years after its release, we’re finally able to see the property adapted for film. DC Comics has an unparalleled average with its animated films so it was the best possible outlet for Moore’s work to be brought to life. News that the supreme talents of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill would be used to voice Batman and the Joker, respectively, meant that the movie would be done right. Topping everything off, they allowed it to be Rated R so there would be no diluting of the source material. I bought my wife and I tickets for the one night Fathom Events screening mere hours after they became available for presale.

 

So how was it? Here’s your obligatory “spoiler warning” (which should be unnecessary for this specific title)…

 

Batman: The Killing Joke – directed by Sam Liu

 

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The film starts out by showing a short interview with Mark Hamill. He discusses his past and what led him to become the iconic voice of one of the most iconic comic book characters. It was fascinating to hear his direct take on it; how he wanted to be involved with Batman: The Animated Series in any role BUT the Joker. He felt that a character like Luke Skywalker couldn’t have any association with the depravity of the Joker. We’re all so fortunate that he decided to do it anyway! Hamill’s segment was an unexpected way to begin the movie which also turned out to be perfect. It was a unique way to incite excitement then segue into the actual film.

 

Much of the criticism I’ve read about the movie is directed towards its first act which centered around Batgirl. The fact of the matter is, Alan Moore’s novel is only 48 pages long – a third of the length of your average graphic novel. They had to add a significant amount of material in order to not only adapt the story properly, but to also make it long enough to warrant production. Batgirl’s story acts as a framing device that helps tie everything together while setting the emotional stakes appropriately for what was to come. It also contributes to what I feel was the overall theme (something I’ll get to in a moment). It threw me off when Batman and Batgirl bumped vigilante uglies under the voyeuristic eyes of a stone gargoyle, but not to the extent that I thought anything less of the movie. If anything, the scene emphasized the fact that there are still people under the cape and cowl. Plus – Batgirl is a hot, kick ass librarian… can you blame Batman for giving into the moment? Some of the more vocal critics have focused on this scene for the wrong reasons, in my humble opinion. Batgirl isn’t just a jilted lover but rather she’s undergoing a transformation in line with the theme (again, I’ll get to that). Tara Strong’s voice acting definitely sells the emotional uneasiness that reverberated as a result of the rooftop scene. If you focus on the relatable humanity of the scenario then it’s easy to overlook the strength of character she forges as a result of everything that occurs.

 

The rest of the movie follows very closely with the novel. It doesn’t spare the audience from any of the depraved brutality of the source. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill’s vocal chemistry is just as powerful now as it was back in 1992 during “Joker’s Favor” (the first aired B:TAS episode featuring the two titans). You can hear the age in both actor’s voices which contributed to the grizzled dread that is so palpable in the original work. I absolutely loved additions made to the dialogue like the twistedly funny librarian puns made by the Joker standing over Batgirl’s wounded form. I will never tire of the Hamill/Conroy team up. I’ve heard their voices in my head with every comic appearance for as long as I can remember. One day I’d love to meet the actors because they both seem like the nicest guys around.

 

The Killing Joke’s underlying theme is about a person’s breaking point. When you’ve hit your lowest moment, the ultimate “bad day”, what direction will you take? What will you become after being taken beyond the brink? Batman and Joker are presented as both opposites and equals. They were each taken to that point then returned on completely opposite terms. We all know Batman’s story (thank god they didn’t feel the need to show any of it like every other Batman adaptation seems to) so seeing the Joker’s past was extra captivating. Personally, I prefer the vague approach Christopher Nolan later took with the Joker: his rabid unpredictability and untraceable origin makes him all the more terrifying. With that said, I cannot deny that the scene when Joker emerges from the chemicals and sees his reflection is powerful. I think I got chills hearing the transformation taking place with Mark Hamill’s haunting Joker cackle scoring the shattering of a man. An origin story for Joker was necessary to show the other extreme that could happen when that ultimate bad day occurs.

 

This story isn’t just a Batman/Joker story, it’s also a Batgirl and Commissioner Gordon story. Perhaps that’s what the negative critics are missing. If you look at the movie as only a Batman tale, then Batgirl does indeed become wrongly objectified and weak overall. Barbara Gordon’s story frames the entire film because it starts with her at her best, leads her along the edge of a disturbing abyss, before allowing her to emerge strong and confident regardless of what horrors she experienced. Commissioner Gordon’s side is the least developed yet still important since he’s the one to directly prove the Joker wrong by desiring to go “by the book” rather than embracing the laughable insanity craved by Joker.

 

The ending did slightly vary from the graphic novel… At first I didn’t like the difference but have since pondered the change and think it was the best route they could have taken. In the book, Batman shares a laugh with his equally mad counterpart then seemingly kills him. This works for the book but would have felt somewhat disjointed for the movie. After stressing the theme of returning from that breaking point, it wouldn’t have been right for the film to immediately go the other way by having Batman stoop to the Joker’s level. They openly acknowledge that the end of their story is clear: one of them will end up killing the other. Yet it’s Batman who chooses to take the route of redemption with an open offer for Joker to work with him in search of an end to the madness. He believes that their story doesn’t have to end that way; insanity doesn’t need to be all that remains when all is lost. The final scene with Barbara Gordon becoming Oracle further contributes to this thinking while bringing everything full circle. It was a far more defined ending than that of the book.

 

So don’t let the critics determine your own personal opinion of it. Watch the film and look beyond the surface to the expansive past that a wealth of source material has granted the characters on screen. There is much more present in this tale than just victims and villains. The Killing Joke is a raw, worthy adaptation of a milestone in comic history that features talented art direction and legendary voice acting.

 

My rating of Batman: The Killing Joke is 8 out of 10.

 

8 out of 10

Batman #51 by Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo

Fifty-one consecutive issues driven by the same core talent – a true feat in the comic book world. This flagship of DC’s New 52 has retained its quality and ability to captivate from start to finish. Scott Snyder is a masterful storyteller whose vision of Batman came to fruition with thanks largely to Greg Capullo’s modern style. There couldn’t have been a better team to drive this ambitious era of the Dark Knight.

 

I previously thought Batman #50 was the end since it saw the conclusion of the ‘Superheavy’ Mr. Bloom saga. In all honesty, I was underwhelmed by #50 and the issue 49 leading to it. Everything leading up to it was so intense that I think my expectations became somewhat (unreasonably) high. The big finale was good, but nowhere near good enough to cap off the legendary Snyder/Capullo run. So how about #51? Was it a worthy end?

 

(potential spoilers to follow)

 

Batman #51 by Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo

 

 

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Yes, it was absolutely a worthy end.

 

Unlike the death and cataclysm you’d expect, Scott Snyder wrote an epilogue of sorts that gave us the exact opposite. We get to see the newly minted Bruce Wayne venture into the city when in actuality, nothing is wrong. A power outage throughout Gotham has the Bat assuming the worst. He visits every usual suspect to find that none of them are involved in the event that put the city in the dark. We get to see just about every villainous element from the New 52 including the Arkham crew (minus the Joker) right down to the Court of Owls mysteriously plotting something nefarious in Gotham’s underbelly.

 

As Batman searches for the culprit you’d expect him to see the worst unfolding in the blackout. Instead, he sees a man chasing after a woman and her child to RETURN her dropped purse. He sees families enjoying candle lit dinners and friends conversing without hesitation on a rooftop. He witnesses Gotham unafraid – a Gotham that is rarely shown. There must be a circumstance of fear or a criminal element For Batman’s justice to be served. In this instance, he essentially has the night off.

 

When I describe it, this issue almost sounds boring when it is anything but. Tension builds throughout all the way until the point Batman learns that the blackout was a natural occurrence. I really expected this to jump right into another storyline that will be explored by Snyder and Capullo’s successors (there was a little bit of that but it certainly wasn’t the point of the issue). As he moved from place to place and villain to villain, I never thought of it as a true epilogue so I anticipated things to go to hell.

 

The story is framed around little lines of white text in black boxes themed “Gotham is…”. I didn’t really get their purpose until the end when you see that an editorial column is unfolding. In this piece, a columnist receives letters from Gotham’s citizens finishing the sentence “Gotham is…”. He notes that the letters were originally a true reflection of the average Gothamite’s mindset – disturbed, dark, and depressed. However, the column contributions gradually transformed into something else. Hope began to show when there once was none at all. He notes that the people of Gotham are only able to feel hopeful because they have a protector, they have the Batman.

 

How often do you get to see Batman, a tortured soul by nature, happy? You don’t. And I’m so glad Scott Snyder left us with an inkling of hope. It was refreshing to end a legendary run in such a way.

 

My rating of Batman #51 is 10 out of 10. It couldn’t have ended with anything less.

 

10 out of 10

 

Seriously – go read it even if you’re not current with the story. I think I’m going to read through it again right now.

 

 

BATMAN: EUROPA by Brian Azzarello

I wish there were more solid ‘one off’ comic story lines currently in production. With the continuous abundance of attention-worthy ongoing story arcs, it’s very easy to fall behind. Once you’re behind in one of those story arcs, or late in starting one, you’re almost better off waiting for the trade paper volume to be released. BATMAN EUROPA is one of those rare one offs that also happened to have an enormous amount of anticipation built up thanks to its long gestation. So… was the wait worth it? (spoilers below)

 

BATMAN: EUROPA written by Brian Azzarello

 

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Batman and Joker are infected with a unique virus called ‘Colossus’ which was specifically created to attack the two. The only way they can survive is to follow the trail of its creation all the way to an unknown villain out to kill both characters. Clues take them to the oldest cities Europe has to offer. EUROPA is interesting because each of the four issues features a different artist like Batman superstar Jim Lee. Having different artists isn’t anything new for comics, however, in this case every issue has a drastically different style which creates a memorable experience. The third issue is the only one that was abstract enough to seem out of place. Unfortunately, the story lacked the strength that could have taken those art styles to a magnificent level. The fact that it took place in Europe is sadly inconsequential; it could have happened pretty much anywhere without any solid reason for the setting other than an excuse to shake up the style in scenery.

 

I did have a “whaaaat!!” moment when Bane was revealed to be the central antagonist. Bane, after all, is a brilliant tactician with the maniacal drive and chemical accessibility to successfully pull off this plot. Even though it made sense (from knowing the character), I followed the surprise with a “what??” moment because of the total lack of clues to Bane’s involvement prior to the final issue. The climax would have been a tad more… climactic… if readers were given proper breadcrumbs to follow. This story was clearly meant to further explore the depths of the Batman/Joker dynamic more than give a rounded experience. I suppose it accomplished that purpose in some ways.

 

The revelation that the way to cure Colossus was in each other’s blood was interesting. Then the realization that it only took ingesting a small amount of their infected counterpart’s blood made it a tad odd… and uncomfortably unsanitary. My favorite part actually came from this weird development – it was a great scene having Batman truly consider letting himself die knowing it meant Joker would also die. That great moment was somewhat lessened by Joker’s cheap shot to get the cure.

 

All in all, EUROPA is worth a read for fans of the Bat. Getting a lackluster finale after four months of buildup doesn’t detract from the truly impressive visuals. Look for it in trade paper; I’m sure it will be far more impressive as a collected edition.

 

My rating of BATMAN: EUROPA is 6.5 out of 10.

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