DC’s Cinematic Universe is getting a rough deal with critics, but the brand can take solace in the fact its animated division is a runaway success story by comparison. From Batman: The Animated Series onwards, they’ve maintained a consistently high standard and it made sense for the company’s best-loved graphic novels to start getting the adaptation treatment.
Classic Joker tome The Killing Joke had everything going for it on paper: innovative writing, striking art and a definitive stand off between two iconic characters. Unfortunately for movie producers the book is on the slender side. In attempting to expand it to feature length director Sam Liu and writer Brian Azzarello wind up hitting some obstacles.
Overall the script captures the main and somewhat controversial events of the source material. Following an uninteresting additional segment in which Batgirl attempts to earn her stripes alongside the Dark Knight, we get to the meat of the matter – the Clown Prince of Crime’s diabolical and kinky plot to unhinge Commissioner Gordon as a fatal blow against his mortal enemy.
In what is seemingly his swan-song as the animated Joker, Mark Hamill bows out in customary style. His voice has notably aged, giving the villain’s machinations a rich and deeply sinister quality. He’s by far the strongest element of a production that is seriously close to the bone by Saturday morning cartoon standards. However in presenting the tale within the awkward framework of a tinkered narrative Azzarello and Liu highlight the film’s main flaw: the story works much better on the page. The tragedy of the Joker’s past and the ruminative nature of his “final” confrontation with Batman is perhaps best appreciated in pencil and ink, where comic writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland‘s masterpiece could be absorbed at a slower speed. Here they’re brief and intriguing but nothing like as powerful.
Fans of the novel might also be disappointed that Bolland’s work is paid lip service only, replaced by a standardized animation style that doesn’t make an impact outside of the odd intricate backdrop or movie reference (if you liked Christopher Nolan‘s take, there’s a brief moment that’ll tickle you).
Barbara Gordon/Batgirl (Tara Strong) is given more to do, but the development tails off, with an epilogue of sorts tacked onto the conclusion and arguably fudging it. The famous ending is recreated from the book whilst also cutting through its ambiguity.
I’m really not sure what the character of bog standard Romeo gangster Paris Franz (Maury Sterling) was supposed to bring to proceedings. He merely adds to the icky atmosphere of sexual violence that wasn’t strictly required. Kevin Conroy goes gravelly as Batman, though disappointingly the cowled hero fades into the background for this outing. Twin Peaks legend Ray Wise voices the Commissioner – while Wise is a great actor his performance for me was too genial. I’d’ve paid good money to hear his version of the Joker though!
The result pales next to the original, but then that was always a safe bet. Reworking Moore (uncredited as usual) showed a level of insanity befitting the movie’s antagonist and a straight and shorter translation of the text could have hit home harder. Despite this, The Killing Joke gives an impression of the pitch black innards of the novel, and for that at least it deserves some praise.
This review first appeared on The Hollywood News