When the news first broke that Bruce Timm was helming a new animated adaptation of The Killing Joke, with executive producer Alan Burnett, starring Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, I think every DC fan and '90s kid popped a collective vessel. It was as if Batman: The Animated Series was coming back to life, this time in the form of one of Batman's most popular comic book stories. It was a dream come true. Hype was high, and everyone expected a masterpiece.
Nobody expected a thirty-minute prologue centering on Batgirl before we even had a glimpse of the Joker. But I for one was relieved, and even thrilled to see it. The Killing Joke, written in 1988 by Alan Moore, is one of the most controversial stories in comic book history, thanks to the way it cripples the one leading female in the Batman comics, and then ignores her for the remaining pages. Alan Moore himself admits it was a mistake. Bruce Timm and his team, screenwriter Brian Azzarello and director Sam Liu, knew it wasn't something they dared attempt to fix, but it was a blow they were prepared to soften. They were in a tough position, and naturally, their solution didn't – it couldn't – please everyone. But in the end, I think they did pretty well.
There was an episode of Batman: The Animated Series back in the day, called "The Gray Ghost." In the opening scene, young Bruce and his father are watching their favorite TV show – The Gray Ghost. Later on, an adult Batman meets the real Gray Ghost (voiced by Adam West, by the way), only to discover that his childhood hero isn't as much of a hero as he thought. But in the end, the Gray Ghost comes through. It was a simple, yet profound way of expressing Batman's lost innocence, a story about growing up without outgrowing the things we love. I mention it because, thematically, that episode sums up the experience of seeing The Killing Joke.
A Killer for Fans of Batman: The Animated Series
The wonderful thing about The Killing Joke is that it's a love letter to every '90s kid who was a fan of Batman:TAS. It sent shivers down my spine when the soft piano cover of the original theme started playing. When the credits rolled and the song came around again, a tear came to my eye. And hearing Hamill and Conroy, together again, was like being a kid again. But The Killing Joke didn't forget, not for a moment, that Timm's original audience is all grown up now.
The Killing Joke is quite possibly the most disturbing Batman comic ever, and Timm's adaptation pulls no punches. There's blood, violence, death, and the Joker at his most depraved. It was every bit as disturbing as the comic it was pulled from. In fact, it was the first animated DC movie to earn the R rating. This was a movie made for the adults who loved Bruce Timm's Batman when they were kids. And heck yeah, I was one of those kids.
The style of the animation felt like a natural evolution from what we saw in Batman:TAS and the other DC Animated Universe cartoons like Justice League. The music, composed by Kristopher Carter, Michael McCuistion and Lolita Ritmanis, who worked alongside Shirley Walker on Batman:TAS, has the same spirit.
Thanks to writers like Paul Dini and Alan Burnett, Batman:TAS was a series that never talked down to anyone. Its storytelling was already so mature that it didn't have far to go to become The Killing Joke – only twenty years. But of course, everything would have fallen apart if the voices weren't right. And ... well, was there any doubt they would be?
Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy have been voicing Joker and Batman together for so long now, it must be second nature to them. You get the sense that these voices are easier for them to use than their own. But even for masters, these were peak performances. Nobody else could have pulled it off like they did, and delivered those classic lines with such power. But even more impressive to me was Tara Strong. She's been Batgirl before, but we've never seen a Batgirl voiced with such subtlety. Strong nailed it.
A Joke for Fans of the Comic
Now, let's be honest. More fans bought this movie for Hamill's Joker than for Strong's Batgirl. But for the first half of the film, Batgirl was mostly who we got.
Tara Strong delivers an amazing performance, no doubt about it. And Barbara Gordon performs, too. The Killing Joke was never a Batman story – it was always a Joker story. Now it's a Batgirl story too, and rightfully so. This was her moment to grow up, to realize her childhood hero isn't the idol she thought he was. She's human, she's flawed, she's real. But she still kicks some real butt; and saves Batman's, too. For me, it worked. Understandably, however, it didn't work for everyone.
The movie's main flaw was that its two halves – the old and the new – didn't fit together cohesively. They followed two distinct and separate plots, with different tones, different themes, and different characters. It's like watching two separate movies – or two extended episodes of a TV series. But for me, that's exactly why it worked so well.
The comic book purists wanted an unaltered The Killing Joke, and the movie took a while to get around to it, but when it did, that's exactly what we got. But look, something had to be done about such a controversial story. Timm and his team knew they knew they couldn't change it. They knew they couldn't even add to it. So they didn't try. They told two separate stories. I still think they made the best out of a bad situation. Even while I was on the edge of my seat waiting for Joker's story to get started, Barbara's was pulling me in. No, it wasn't perfect and there were moments that weren't much fun. Azzarello's writing didn't match up to Moore's. But in the end, I enjoyed Barbara's character arc and I feel it rounded the story out better.
The Killing Joke Isn't Just for Laughs
The film was faithful not just to the comic it was adapted from, but to the television series it serves as a spiritual sequel to. That style, and the voices we grew up with, were the highlights of this movie, and make it well worth watching. For me, this is an A+ movie. But if I'm being honest, I'd give it a B. Not a bad movie, but it suffers from some serious pacing and storytelling issues, and even the animation, while nostalgic, was only serviceable.
I've caught wind that another new DC movie, Suicide Squad, got reviews so bad that many fans are petitioning to shut down Rotten Tomatoes, in an effort to put an end to all the rotten Tomatometer scores DC movies have been getting this year. I find it more than a little funny. I admit, when I myself saw the score from early reviews for The Killing Joke, I was disappointed and upset. But I didn't care what the critics said, why should I? I watched the movie for myself and enjoyed it anyway. Batman:TAS may be one of the most highly praised animated television shows of all time, but I'd love it even if it weren't. And I loved The Killing Joke for all the same reasons. As far as I'm concerned, it was the adaptation we deserved.