Director: Sam Liu
Cast: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Ray Wise
Plot: Batgirl (Strong) struggles to capture Batman’s (Conroy) attention, while the Joker (Hamill) concocts his most vile plan yet.
The Killing Joke is one of the most talked about Batman comics out there. It is a startling work of art, a story so simple yet so scarring. In short, it is a typical Batman takes on the Joker story. However, it pushes the boundaries of Batman, highlighting how superhero stories aren’t just for kids with some dark themes, as well as solidifying the character relationships of its central four characters. It seems silly that the team behind the animated Batman show hadn’t tried to bring it to life before and it is an absolute joy to discover they convinced the voices of the show, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill to bring life to their respective characters.
Rather controversially, the director and writers have added another half to the story, perhaps as to make a feature length cartoon without the fear of expanding, and in the process diluting, the original story. Therefore, when this movie opens, we are treated to half an hour setting the current Batman universe. Batman is currently partnering with Jim Gordon’s daughter, determined librarian, Barbara Gordon, more familiarly known as Batgirl. The movie shows no prior connection to the Killing Joke, instead taking us through a moderately thrilling episode where Batman and Batgirl track down an up and coming gangster, who has an unhealthy sexual obsession with Batgirl. Batman, fearing that something horrific could happen to her, takes her off the case. Batgirl fights back, following up on the case on her own. It is a pretty good exploration of what makes Batgirl tick, even if it leaves the audience confused as to what they are watching. It is easy to understand the frustration that may have led to a few grumpy critics. They come here for The Killing Joke and while the writers obviously feel the importance of bringing Batgirl to the centre of the story more (she is vital to the Killing Joke, yet also absent), they are left with a product that seems strangely separate from Batman. He is the supporting star of his own story and the Joker is nowhere to be seen. Maybe it is easier to like if you haven’t read the comic and are coming into the movie with a fresh face. Batgirl is a character fairly interesting and here she is done justice, given her own story to tackle. I enjoyed her emotional battle, as well as her taking on Paris Franz (it is hard to make a brand new Batman villain enjoyable these days – we all want one of the famous old ones), yet I felt the tonal shift halfway through was jarring. More could have been done to blend the two halves. Perhaps we could have had the Joker story burning away in the background, while Batgirl’s plight raged on.
What the absence of the Joker does do though is give Mark Hamill the build up of a lifetime. His absence from the first half of the movie does get the pulse quickening. This is the ultimate Joker story and we are dying for him to make his appearance. When he does, Mark Hamill does not disappoint. When he plays the Joker, he never does. And the story really is Joker 101. A plot that revolves around exposing the good guy’s inner crazy? A carnival show for a battleground, as well as use of the freak-show stars as goons? And that isn’t even touching on the dialogue. The writers could be called lazy for ripping the lines straight from the original comic, but they were so good in the graphic novel, it would be insane to try and change it. Hamill laps it up, as though he has been waiting his whole career to play the Joker in this specific story. “That’s what a dose of reality does to you. Personally, I never touch the stuff myself.” The lines are golden. And if the Joker is doing the usual, albeit better than ever, it is the other characters who find themselves being pushed into new direction which excites. Batman spends the entire film, questioning his relationship with the Joker. They hate each other so much, yet neither of them knows a single thing about the other’s true self. Commissioner Gordon is pushed to the brink and even if I personally felt Sam Liu underplayed his final, powerful line, his story arc is silently impressive. However, the best thing about the comic, and the film, is the unusual way it ends. It accentuates the unusual relationship between the hero and the villain. While it does make the first half of the movie all the more alienating (bringing it up in the epilogue would have smoothed a few wrinkles over), the sharp close does do a lot to making the Killing Joke one memorable Batman tale.
Final Verdict: While a few won’t like the distracting opening, The Killing Joke is animated Batman at its best, featuring the very best from the Joker.