It goes out of its way to be R. My three year old says "poopy diaper" a lot because he thinks he's being a rebel. Same idea. The R-Rating is bad, but it's pretty adorable that they are trying to get the R rating. Oh, wait. It's not. It's all pretty horrifying and immature. I take it back.
DIRECTOR: Sam Liu
Oh my. I have seen too many DC animated films. They aren't good. I always hope that they are going to be great and they rarely are. The only one I remember enjoying was Batman: Gotham Knights. I kind of enjoyed Under the Red Hood, but in a very disposable way. This one received quite a bit of infamy and a lot of that came from the very odd unveiling of this movie. I had best give the background for this movie. Alan Moore is a crazy person. He's kind of a genius, but he's also completely nutbars. The guy hates everything and knows he's a genius, so that's all kinds of no good. He wrote the original graphic novel (or prestige 48 page comic book) of "The Killing Joke" and it went on to be one of the most influential Batman comics ever. Alan Moore hates it. Lots of people today hate it, but it is regardless completely influential. Next thing you need to know: Mark Hamill, the guy who is associated with Luke Skywalker, is almost more nerd famous for voicing the Joker on the Bruce Timm / Paul Dini Batman: The Animated Series. He's voiced him a whole bunch of times since then, including in the upsettingly successful Batman Arkham line of video games (with the exception of Arkham: Origins). He said that he wouldn't voice the character again unless it was in an adaptation of "The Killing Joke".
Now jump forward to 2016 San Diego Comic Con. The thing that took place almost a year ago to the day. The movie was screened for Comic Con audiences and they...didn't like it. There's a lot of problems with the movie and I'll get to those later. The big one is that it over-sexualized Batgirl. On top of that, it over-sexualized her in conjunction to Batman. Batman has always been creepily older than Batgirl and there really wasn't a ton of sexual tension in the comic books before this point. A lot of these choices came from Brian Azzarello, one of the big current names behind the Batman comic books. It's weird and doesn't fit into the film. On top of that, it is really tasteless because it was added as a choice to give Barbara Gordon control in a story that has made her infamously a victim. It really doesn't work. In fact, it goes even deeper by taking what little it did to pass the Bechdel test and trampling on it. When questioned about it by a journalist, Brian Azzarello used a derogatory term meant to emasculate the reporter in front of hundreds of nerds in Hall H (I think it was Hall H. That's the big one from Comic Con.) People turned on him really quickly and it turned a slightly tone deaf movie into a travesty. So of course I had to watch it.
There's some other politics behind the story of "The Killing Joke" as well. In the '90s, there was a Green Lantern comic where the new Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner, is spurned into action after he discovers that the villain of the piece murdered his girlfriend and stuffed her into a fridge. From that point on, when a woman is victimized to drive the male protagonist's plot, it is known as "fridging." "Fridging" is really frowned upon in both the feminist community and the comic book community as well. While Barbara Gordon isn't the first woman to be fridged, she is the most famous and widely accepted fridged character. This is spoilery, but it is also common knowledge, so continue to read on. Barbara Gordon, who was Batgirl during this time in comic books, was shot in the spine by the Joker, undressed, and had photos taken of her to torture her father, Commissioner Gordon. There is implication that she might have also been raped by the Joker, but that was neither here nor there in the comics. So the idea that this movie sexualized her even more seemed in pretty poor taste. On top of that, Azzarello's script really drives the point home that the Joker probably raped her. It's an icky book that is a shame because it is a fairly solid read otherwise. When the filmmakers decided to make this movie, and it may not have been a mistake to do so, they were already on thin ice. Their job was to tread carefully; instead they bulldozed the whole thing.
Keep all in this in mind when I start reviewing it because it is really all in that context. The Killing Joke film adaptation isn't very good because it was originally 48 pages. My wife always wonders why I don't wake up and avoid adaptations of ridiculously short stories. For some reason, I thought Where the Wild Things are was going to be brilliant. (You can't blame me completely. Spike Jonze directed it.) So the movie is padded with a prologue. Normally, I don't whine about these things. I know that films and books are different things and those who try to stay too faithful to the book tend to burn down the main idea. (I'm looking at you, Watchmen...another Alan Moore story.) The prologue is completely tone deaf to the story of "The Killing Joke". You can read "The Killing Joke" and just notice the big difference. The actual adaptation part of the film is scary faithful. (Remember what I just said?) It is so much better written than the first part. The first part is meant to give Barbara Gordon some context. Her victimization needs to mean something to a new audience, so this story about Barbara taking down a creeper who is obsessed with her is meant to make her a valuable character. It actually doesn't do any of that. It makes her seem ridiculously emotional and frail, making silly decisions in the presence of actual sense. Add to that a crush on Batman that is manifested and that just makes her seem powerless in the face of men. It also is a really boring section of the movie. Knowing that the Joker is going to come in later in the movie and tear the world to shreds makes this part of the film really bad. Also, the bad guy's name is Paris Franz. The movie practically breaks the fourth wall acknowledging how dumb that name is, so I don't know why that name went forward in context with the rest of the story. During this prologue as well, the movie tries to be R-Rated, but it just comes off like Deadpool did in many ways. Not everything has to be dark and gritty, but whatever.
The actual adaptation of "The Killing Joke" is okay. It is really faithful and there's some really cool things about it. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are awesome as Batman and the Joker once again. Seeing some of those moments in the book portrayed in animation do give them some depth. Also, Hamill is on his A-Game. You know that he didn't want to get any part of those monologues wrong because his delivery is always awesome when it comes to Alan Moore's words. I can see the nerd in him gleaming in every moment. He doesn't joke around here (pun intended). He knows the intentions of each line and he has made choices when it came to choosing his delivery. I love his part so much. Conroy is always great, but Batman doesn't have a lot of character in "The Killing Joke". This is a story about the Joker and his insanity. It actually has a great premise if it wasn't so icky. The basic question is "What would it take to become the Joker?" Could someone become evil because they had one horrendous day? That's an interesting idea. (Alan Moore thought his own idea was dumb because Batman and the Joker aren't real. He has a point.) There's layers there. There's the look at Batman as the mirror of Joker, with his one bad day. The second act on really sell this idea. It's weird because the first third is devoted entirely to Batgirl, but she becomes such an afterthought after the first third that I wondered what the point of the first third was. Again, her sexualization doesn't really define her character so much as adds to the fridging element for Batman. Not only was she there to move the male protagonist's plot forward, but she also just became his love interest. Boo.
There were pains to match Brian Bolland's original artwork and the movie really tries its hardest. However, it still feels like an extension of the Paul Dini / Bruce Timm era of the DCU. Part of it is the color scheme. I Wikipedia'ed this one hard. Bolland always hated the original printing of "The Killing Joke" because the colors were all wrong. They popped and shined and Bolland always wanted a muted color palate. While The Killing Joke may have been muted compared to the stuff that was part of the WB Saturday lineup, the movie is still extremely vibrant and screams cartoon. That's where the R-rating really bumps into the tone of the movie. It looks like a kids movie, but with swearing, sex, and an exploded hand. I really couldn't get much investment in the darkness of the movie because it just seemed so cartooney. There was actually an episode (coincidentally, another story fridging Barbara Gordon) of the New Batman Adventures that was more effective in finding the tone that The Killing Joke was looking for. There's also one moment that really kind of made me cringe. The idea was sound. While Commissioner Gordon was being tortured naked in a funhouse, the Joker now has a musical number. I don't hate this. But the musical number is really hamfisted and doesn't really scream any production value. (I'm not trying to make this a musical number, but I don't believe the Joker would sing unless he got it right and truly destroyed Gordon with this moment.)
This last comment is more about "The Killing Joke" as a story. I love the idea of "one bad day". It is a great moment and a great question to ask, regardless of how surreal Batman and the Joker are. The book and the movie (with the exception of a buzzkill-y post credit sequence tagged on) end with a famous sequence that is meant to be ambiguous. It is really memorable, but I also know that everyone hasn't read this book. So SPOILERS. It ends with Batman offering rehabilitation for the Joker. The Joker has one moment of humanity and tells a joke straightforward. He stops being a supervillain as Batman stops being a superhero. He tells a joke, one guy to another. The joke is remarkably lame, but almost intentionally so, and the two laugh as the frame pulls away. It's a super cool ending...that might not at all match the rest of the story. (The ambiguous nature is one that questions if Batman broke the Joker's neck in this moment, but I don't buy that.) I like this ending, but it also makes no sense in the light of events. Batman hasn't gone insane. There's nothing insane about him at all. Knowing that Barbara Gordon has been paralyzed, I don't know why he would now let his guard down and laugh over a dumb joke. It's one of those things that I wanted to do when I was in high school. I wanted to make the darkest and coolest story ever. These ideas always had moments I really wanted to film, even if it didn't match up with the rest of the story. I now realize that maybe "The Killing Joke" is a remarkably successful version of the high school kid's "cool fantasy." Wouldn't this be cool? Sure, but it doesn't make a lick of sense.
I didn't hate this one, but it is awfully tone deaf. I don't recommend it. Fans of the original "The Killing Joke" should watch it, but with extremely low expectations. I don't know if this kind of story could or should be told anymore, so I guess I'll just watch knowing that it is the product of an era long gone. Mr. Moore, you were actually justified in leaving your name off of this.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.