It may take one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy, but it's taken nearly thirty years for an animated adaption of Batman: The Killing Joke to make its way to the small screen. Decades after its landmark release, one question still remains, "Who – or what – was 'the killing joke?'"
Produced by Batman: The Animated Series' Bruce Timm, the feature film will see none other than Mark Hamill himself reprising his beloved role of the Joker alongside BTAS's Kevin Conroy if rumors prove true. It's a project that's been a long time in the making according to artist Phillip Bourassa, who claims an adaptation of Alan Moore's 1988 one-shot has been in the works at Warner Bros. as early as 2009.
Slated for a direct-to-video release later this year, Timm has assured fans that he intends to keep The Killing Joke true to form with all its mature-related content intact. For fans of the original comic, that might mean treading over some mighty sensitive territory – especially as it relates to the Gordon family. It might also be an opportunity to address the comic's one unsolved mystery.
The Killing Joke follows a series of flashbacks recalling the Joker's former life as an unemployed engineer and aspiring stand-up comedian. Desperate to support his pregnant wife, Jeannie, he agrees to help two criminals rob the chemical plant he used to work at disguised as the infamous Red Hood. Even after his wife and unborn child die in a freak accident, the criminals force him to go through with the plan.
During the robbery, a shootout ensues and the terrified engineer jumps in a vat of toxic waste to escape a surprise appearance by Batman. Once outside, he emerges to discover that the chemicals have bleached his skin chalk-white, stained his lips ruby-red, and dyed his hair bright green. This, compounded with his wife's death, finally transforms him into the Joker.
In the present day, the Joker kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and imprisons him in a run-down amusement park after shooting and paralyzing his daughter, Barbara (a.k.a. Batgirl). Hoping to drive Gordon insane like himself, the Joker puts him on display in a freak show, ridiculing him as a pathetic example of the average man.
Batman eventually tracks down and defeats The Joker, offering him a last chance at redemption. The Joker declines, offering instead to tell Batman a joke about two criminals in which one betrayed the other during a jail break, simply because it was his nature. Batman chuckles and as the police arrive, he puts a hand on the Joker's shoulder before the lights go out and the Joker's laughter stops.
What happened afterwards is still a mystery to fans, but in 2013, Batman scribe Grant Morrison provided his own answer. In an interview with Kevin Smith's Fat Man on Batman, Morrison claimed that the The Killing Joke's punchline is ultimately the Joker's own death by Batman's hand.
"That’s why it’s called ‘The Killing Joke,' Morrison claimed. "The Joker tells the ‘Killing Joke’ at the end, Batman reaches out and breaks his neck, and that’s why the laughter stops and the light goes out, ’cause that was the last chance at crossing that bridge. And Alan Moore wrote the ultimate Batman/Joker story — he finished it."
Such a thing has never been confirmed by Moore, who never thought much of The Killing Joke himself. In a 2000 interview with Blather.net, the Watchmen and V for Vendetta author expressed his disappointment with its inhumanity.
"The Killing Joke is a story about Batman and the Joker," Moore said. "It isn't about anything that you're ever going to encounter in real life, because Batman and the Joker are not like any human beings that have ever lived. So there's no important human information being imparted ... Yeah, it was something that I thought was clumsy, misjudged and had no real human importance. It was just about a couple of licensed DC characters that didn't really relate to the real world in any way."
Many fans would beg to disagree, including this writer. Superheroes don't always need to be relatable to be symbols – they have to have seeds of truth. Everyone has their bad days. Batman chose to find purpose in his worst day while the Joker let his be meaningless. Insanity is like gravity, The Dark Knight told us. All it needs is a little push.
Talking with Cosmic Book News at San Diego Comic Con 2015, Timm said that that his feature-length take on The Killing Joke may expand beyond Moore's original story to meet its intended runtime. This could very well point to the film's rumored 15-minute prologue – or an actual resolution to Moore's cliffhanger. It wouldn't be the first time that a DC film played with its source material. It would, however, compromise The Killing Joke's greatest strength.
The Joker is like every good monster. He's a riddle wrapped in an enigma. The Killing Joke had him die like he lived, disappearing as mysteriously as he first appeared. That's the kind of character that Batman deserves and the one that fans have loved for eighty years.
Some of the best films ever made have been layered in ambiguity. Inception, The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey – we don't always need an answer. If that means making us use our imaginations, then by all means, let the Joker have the last laugh.