The Killing Joke is one of THE seminal Batman stories. Written by Alan Moore and drawn by Brian Boland in 1988, it has been a significant inspiration for every version of the Joker you are likely familiar with. But sometimes “important” doesn’t go hand in hand with “greatness”. Time hasn’t been kind to the overall opinion of the story, mostly in regards to its treatment of the character of Barbara Gordon, the original Batgirl. Unfortunately, it’s newly released animated counterpart doesn’t ultimately fair much better.
Just a fair warning, spoilers are to follow.
This is a hard review for me, because the creative forces behind it are people who have made some of the best Batman content in any medium for the last 25 years. And to their credit, this movie has a lot of good things going for it.
The vocal performances by the core cast are expectedly excellent. Kevin Conroy’s Batman voice is iconic, and this could be one of his best performances, coming close to his tour de force in the highly underrated Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Similarly, to many fans, Mark Hamill is the definitive Joker, and as always, his sheer delight in embracing the crazy is infectious to listen to. And they both benefit from getting to work with some truly meaty dialogue courtesy of the source material that Alan Moore provided. Tara Strong gets to shine once again as Barbara Gordon, and her performance is especially intense, even if the unfortunate plot doesn’t do enough to support her efforts. Visually, the animation is fluid, and the action is tight. The character designs do a good job of balancing Bruce Timm (chief architect of DC’s animated division, starting way back with Batman the Animated Series) and Brian Bolland’s respective styles. Where this movie shines, it does so brightly. But where it falls, it does so uncomfortably.
Here is where the spoilers begin. Once again, you’ve been warned.
So, one of the most contentious parts of Alan Moore’s original story was the Joker’s assault on Barbara Gordon. In an effort to rock the sanity of Commissioner Gordon and Batman, Joker shoots Barbara, resulting in permanent paralysis. The original story goes on to loosely imply that the Joker may have also sexually assaulted her. This series of events leads to a near mental breakdown of Commissioner Gordon, and Batman possibly killing the Joker. To this day, comic fans still debate the interpretation of the ending. While the story has many fans, it’s hard to argue that the treatment of Barbara Gordon’s character isn’t unfortunate, being used as nothing more than a plot device to move the story forward. The level of objectification and implied sexual assault has always made the story an uncomfortable read for many, myself included. The animated adaptation, to both its credit and detriment doesn’t shy away from or alter any of these events.
All the challenging aspects of the original story are there, and are as uncomfortable as ever. To the credit of the filmmakers, in an attempt to pad the runtime and even try to contextualize and make more palatable the events of Barbara’s assault, they added a Batgirl driven prologue that takes up the first third of the movie. Again credit should be given for the attempt, using this prologue to establish themes that play an important part in the resolution of the narrative. This prologue also serves to provide more action set pieces, where the original story is rather dry in that regard. Unfortunately, this prologue ultimately establishes the uncomfortable tone that permeates the rest of the movie. Firstly, a throwaway villain named Paris Franz becomes obsessed with Batgirl, developing a twisted sexual fixation on her and even attempting to rape her. This leads to an emotionally charged sexual liaison between Batman and Batgirl. Suffice to say, none of these events are handled well in the movie, creating a sour tone that is far and away not the tone you’d want from a film about a ninja detective that dresses up as a bat and fights psycho clowns. At one point, Batman ironically tells Barbara that she’s being objectified. How right he is. And unfortunately, where the rape of Barbara is loosely implied in the original story, it’s rather forcefully implied in the film, stopping just short of actually saying the word.
The movie also explores a series of flashbacks detailing Joker’s origin. In the original version, the story is told through the unreliable narration of the Joker. The fact that he forces you to question the validity of this version of events is pretty important to how the overall tale is interpreted. Without that narration, the flashbacks, while creating some sympathy for a madman, ultimately become somewhat superfluous, but that is a minor gripe in the overall scheme of things.
There is a bit of optimism via a mid credit sequence that introduces Barbara Gordon’s alias after her paralysis, but ultimately, this film probably shouldn’t have been made. Even the stellar track record of Bruce Timm and Co. couldn’t fix what was already a broken story. Trying to address the seedier aspects of it ultimately made things that much harder to digest.
Again, there are positives to this movie. But all of those positives are pretty drastically blunted by a tone that is directly centered around the mishandling of Barbara Gordon. She is the lynchpin of every event of the story, and it never lets you forget it. This point is best illustrated by what starts off as a rather well put together musical number by the Joker, only to be interrupted midway through by a graphic photo montage of the assault on Barbara.
The final verdict is a weirdly mixed one. I want to applaud the things it does well, because those things deserve praise. The visuals, the performances, the dialogue are all excellent, and do elevate the less savory aspects of the movie. But not enough for me to walk away with a glowing recommendation, because it can’t, nor does it try to fix the stories biggest missteps. Indeed, it’s attempt to make them work only serve to compound them. If you’re a fan of the original Alan Moore tale, you’ll likely get more enjoyment out of it then I did. But if you have trouble with stories that use women as plot devices and push forward a revenge story by way of sexual assault, then this might not be your cup of tea.