Review – The Killing Joke
Content Warning: For those of you unfamiliar with it, the Killing Joke is one of the grimmest Batman stories ever put to paper, and deals with some hard hitting issues. I will be discussing them. And also spoiling substantial chunks, but this is now an eighteen year old comic… so…
Though DC’s live action films might be fighting a war on two fronts, I’ve grown rather addicted to their recent efforts in animation. Flashpoint Crisis, Gods and Monsters, Assault on Arkham, and a few others that have piqued my interest. It’s been well worth a watch, delving into some of the more complex sides of the DC universe, seeing how they run off their own internal logic, and seeing the interplay of the world’s mightiest heroes. I’d have to say that the Justice League’s inter-personal dynamic is stronger by far than the personalities of any of the individuals, maybe even better than that of the Avengers.
It’s to the point that I’m considering making a collection of it, twenty six films across the last decade featuring a lot of the most famous stories from the comics, and seeing the return of a lot of the most famous voice talents behind the infamous heroes.
Stories like 1988’s The Killing Joke by author Alan Moore, a story that presented a new vision on the Red Hood origins of the Joker, and not only served as powerful inspiration for both Jack Nicholson’s and Heath Ledger’s versions of the manic mobster, but also survived the New 52 reboot.
Voices like Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy, the most famous Joker/Batman combo in history. Despite the fact that Hamill swore he’d end his run with Arkham City, fans exulted at his return for the hidden history of the famously mysterious villain.
A quick and spoiler-heavy synopsis of the original comic (but again, 1988, seriously, I’m not asking you to read the whole back catalogue, just grab some of the famous titles). The Red Hood is actually a stooge, a former engineer turned failing stand-up comedian hired by two major burglars to lead them through the chemical plant where he once worked, trying to raise some money for his wife and unborn child. She dies shortly before he undertakes the job, but he’s forced to go through with it anyway. At the plant he falls into a chemical vat after being scared by the Batman, emerging out of one of the waste pipes and the green-haired Joker.
Years later, Batman goes to see the Joker in an effort to talk to him, to try and understand him, and in so doing discovers that the Joker has escaped. He’s bought himself an abandoned carnival, filled it with freak-show goons, and prepared a little show, shooting Barbara Gordon in the stomach in order to traumatise her father, by subjecting him to one of life’s more painful lessons in the hope that he’ll break, and demand that Batman finally kill the Joker. The Joker in this scenario would naturally win, having proven the ultimate point, everyone is capable of evil.
I shall come to the finale later…
A hefty amount of criticism by die-hard fans has been levied at the extra half-hour added to the beginning of the story featuring a story between Batgirl/Barbara Gordon, a low level mobster who makes Batgirl something of a personal mission, and how it impacts her relationship with Batman himself (they end up “sleeping with each other” on a roof). It has been criticised for how it has portrayed Barbara and altered the nature of Batman to some extent. I like it, and here’s why: Batman spends the whole time trying to pull Batgirl away from the mobster because he sees the same level of mutual fascination that he shares with the Joker, and is trying to stop her from creating her own arch nemesis, a man who she can never kill despite knowing she must.
If anything it gives Batman a reason to visit the Joker, to sit down with him, talk openly to him, at least try to reach him just once so that he can always say that he did more than just lock him up over and over and over again. And it also lends a new level of horror to the Joker’s actions later, shooting Barbara in the stomach and leaving her for dead, along with the unintended implications that followed. That extra layer added to their relationship makes the final scene even more ambiguous.
The animation loses only a little of the noir qualities of the comic’s art style, and they probably could have done a better job on that score, but I think they did well considering there is a theme to stick to. The voice acting is as incredible as ever, although I think I expected more from Hamill’s delivery of the monologue, which I suspect has more to do with my own expectations than Hamill himself and how much I love a good quality monologue, but it’s also annoyingly abridged, missing a few salient points.
Remembering’s dangerous. I find the past such a worrying, anxious place. “The Past Tense,” I suppose you’d call it. Memory’s so treacherous. One moment you’re lost in a carnival of delights, with poignant childhood aromas, the flashing neon of puberty, all that sentimental candy-floss… the next, it leads you somewhere you don’t want to go. Somewhere dark and cold, filled with the damp ambiguous shapes of things you’d hoped were forgotten. Memories can be vile, repulsive little brutes. Like children I suppose. But can we live without them? Memories are what our reason is based upon. If we can’t face them, we deny reason itself! Although, why not? We aren’t contractually tied down to rationality! There is no sanity clause! So when you find yourself locked onto an unpleasant train of thought, heading for the places in your past where the screaming is unbearable, remember there’s always madness. Madness is the emergency exit… you can just step outside, and close the door on all those dreadful things that happened. You can lock them away… forever.
The action in The Killing Joke is appropriately toned down, after all this isn’t a spectacle, this is supposed to be something a little more real after all. We’ve all grown very accustomed to the huge fights, big explosions, everything with the massive budget or the freedom of animation, so in one sense it’s nice to see something more subtle, but could never be called tame. In another sense however, one is left feeling lacking.
To the finale then. The Joker and Batman talk. Batman explains that for all his effort, for all his scheming and conniving, Gordon still wanted Joker brought in alive. Joker shoots Batman in the face without realising he’s got one of his fake guns, sags in defeat, and does what he does best. He tells Batman a joke. They stand in the rain laughing as the camera pans down to the soaking mud beneath them. After a while, Batman is the only one laughing… of course we know the Joker can’t really die, but it’s left nice and ambiguous for us to sit and wonder.
There’s been a lot of hype, and I don’t know that it has all been worth it. Is it worth the time and effort to watch The Killing Joke? Absolutely, but keep your expectations in check because it’s not exactly a masterpiece. I maintain that the DC animated films are a hell of a lot better than their live-action stuff, and they’ve also just proven that they’re not afraid to go for an “R” rating, at least not when it’s not going to a cinematic release. The film is willing to show the controversial side of the story without shame or glamorising.
If this is Hamill’s final outing as the Joker then it was an excellent decision, imperfectly executed. The Killing Joke deserved more than it got but what it got wasn’t bad, very good instead of the phenomenon we expected.