The Batman: The Killing Joke graphic novel – written by Alan Moore (who I’m a big fan of) and illustrated by Brian Bolland – is widely considered as one of the best Batman stories of all time. It’s an intelligent, visceral, and endearing – albeit also disturbing – tale about the Joker terrorizing Commissioner Gordon at length in an attempt to drive him crazy, in order to drive a point to Batman. It’s particularly a fascinating character study of the Joker, and an analysis of the psychological parallels of Batman and Joker. It also presents an origin story for the Joker, though its authenticity is questionable since he’s an unreliable narrator. Another significant thing about it is that it brought about the paralysis of Barbara Gordon in the DC Comics continuity, which she had been for many years afterwards (prompting her to retire as Batgirl; becoming the super-hacker Oracle later on, until the New 52 made her Batgirl again).
Thus, as a comic book fan, I was thrilled when it was announced last year that such monumental comic story was going to be finally made into an animated movie. And having Bruce Timm oversee the whole thing, and with the voice cast of the 90’s Batman animated series – Kevin Conroy (Batman), Mark Hamill (Joker), Tara Strong (Batgirl), and Ray Wise (Commissioner Gordon) – reprising their respective roles for the movie, there’s more than enough reason to expect that it would be great.
As it turns out, the Batman: The Killing Joke film is as dark and tragic as its source material. As far as depicting the comic’s plot in an animated medium and capturing its tone, it did a magnificent job. Having read the comic, I already knew what was going to happen next while watching the movie progress, yet that didn’t lessen the tension in the storytelling at all. That’s how successful this movie is in regards to telling the core narrative of The Killing Joke.
But (major emphasis on “BUT”) the movie doesn’t just exclusively tell The Killing Joke story. It does more. Stretching the original narrative into a full-length movie was probably impossible. Thus, Bruce Timm and co. opted to pad the movie’s plot with additional story elements. And that’s where the problem of this movie lies. (Spoilers begin in the next paragraph.)
Now, The Killing Joke comic is creepy and shocking – due in no small part due to all the evil and twisted deeds the Joker did in it. The movie is creepy and shocking, too. But not because of the movie’s impeccable depiction of the Joker aspect. It’s because it features a romantic element between Batman and Batgirl – heck, THEY EVEN HAVE SEX!
If we look at it through the perspective of the context of mainstream comics, it’s pretty disturbing. There’s some significant age gap between Batman and Batgirl – with the latter belonging to the same age group of Dick Grayson, the first Robin, whom she’s usually being paired with. Thus, the relationship between Batman and Batgirl is more of a father-daughter thing.
To be fair, in the animated series, there were some hints of a possible romance between Batman and Batgirl. And since the voice cast is that of the animated series, let’s just choose to presuppose that this movie is set on an alternate universe close to the universe of the animated series, entirely separate from the comics’ continuity as well as other DC animated films – including the recent Batman animated movie series, i.e. Son of Batman, Batman vs. Robin, and Batman: Bad Blood – and that the age gap between the two in this universe isn’t that big (at least closer to ten years than twenty).
This part almost derailed the movie for me. Fortunately, it didn’t since, at that point, the actual Killing Joke narrative wasn’t even starting yet. But I had to repeatedly condition myself of watching it in a fresh light by repeating to myself, “Take it as an Elseworld tale. Take it as an Elseworld tale.” Nonetheless, the sight of Batman and Batgirl making out, Batman reaching down to Batgirl’s butt, and Batgirl taking off her costume atop Batman left a feeling of discomfort and disappointment that remained all throughout this movie.
In an interview, Bruce Timm stated that the purpose of the first 25+ minutes of the movie was to “basically tell a Batgirl story… [so] we could spend more time with her as a character and get to understand what she’s all about and how she’s similar to Batman in some ways, and really different in others… we get to spend more time with her and learn that she’s an interesting character… we get to like her so much that when The Killing Joke part of the story happens, it’s, like, ‘Oh, no!’, because we really like her.” The intent was interesting. Unfortunately, what resulted from the execution was the opposite. It cheapens Batgirl into serving as a mere romantic interest for the story – and in an upsetting manner at that. It would have been preferable if Bruce Timm and co. decided to just exclusively adapt The Killing Joke story. So what if it’ll just have a 45-minuted runtime? At least it would have avoided this mess with Batgirl.
To sum it up, Batman: The Killing Joke’s actual depiction of “The Killing Joke” was perfect. Alas, before it gets there, there are about 30 minutes of gratuitous padding to go through – a “prequel” that screwed the character of Batgirl up. (Hey, here’s a suggestion: when you watch this, skip to 28:13 mark, where the actual “The Killing Joke” story starts. Don’t bother watching the first 28 minutes anymore.)