This review contains spoilers for the 1988 graphic novel THE KILLING JOKE.
By Batman’s underpants, they almost fixed The Killing Joke! The iconic, but overrated and problematic comic by Alan Moore had Barbara Gordon appear, get shot and paralysed then disappear entirely except in the form of graphic Polaroids. She was a plot device, a reason for Batman to go after the Joker and nothing more, and I can understand why people get so angry about that.
When Barbara Gordon (Tara Strong) realises she is in too deep as the masked crimefighter Batgirl, she decides to quit before anyone else gets hurt. Unfortunately her early retirement coincides with The Joker (Mark Hamill) escaping once more from Arkham Asylum, and this time he wants to prove a point to his old foe Batman (Kevin Conroy).
Thankfully, in adapting this comic, Brian Azzarello realised that this story would be much improved if Barbara was allowed to be an actual character. We open on a peaceful Gotham skyline and Barbara’s voiceover asking us, “I bet this isn’t how you thought this story would start?”, almost calling out the comic’s nastiness and sense of utter hopelessness. While the second half of the film is a very faithful adaptation of the comic, warts and all, the first half is an entirely new story of Batgirl getting to be Batgirl, kicking ass and coming very close to the edge. This new material elevates what is to come, gives Barbara a full arc not to mention considerably shaking up character dynamics in a manner which I’m sure will be divisive among fans.
While there is an argument that the story being told us still inherently misogynist no matter how you try and tweak it, I think giving Barbara her own struggles to overcome (an additional scene to follow the closing panel of the comic certainly suggests her place as an active player in the fight against crime in Gotham is far from over) and to make her a fallible, flawed and interesting woman makes this adaptation much more worthy of attention. It’s Batman who comes across badly here as an egotistical jerk who proclaims “We’re partners, not equals!” with such venom. He’s shown to be a failure as a mentor and a failure as a father figure throughout, forever preoccupied with settling his own scores on his own terms, and not even Conroy, as talented as he is, can convince you to side with him.
Though it’s a seriously dark story, there are moments of levity, and some nice Easter Eggs. Walking through Arkham Asylum, Batman passes a cell with a two-headed dollar lying sadly outside and a hand manically clawing through the grill to get it back. When Batman brings up a gallery of the Joker’s appearances on the Batcomputer you can distinctly see Heath Ledger’s take in the top right of the screen. This story famously ended on a joke, and they retain that exactly here (it’s still a good one) and Hamill has a blast throughout playing his most grotesque and gleeful Joker ever. The aim of the original plot was to humanise and rationalise the way The Joker has ended up (in a very twisted Alan Moore fashion) and in my opinion that didn’t quite work on the page. It doesn’t work on screen either really – he’s shown to be human, to have had a life before crime, but considering the atrocities he is responsible for, you never come close to sympathising with him, and if I’m honest that’s probably for the best.
There are animated Batman films that flow better, that are more satisfying on a storytelling level, but then again there are better Batman comics to base your story on. While I wouldn’t sacrifice the Batgirl-centric first half for anything as her character being compelling and relatable is key to the story having its punch, it does fell very different from the wretched melodrama that we end on. The half-time shock that perfectly and horribly realises the comic’s most infamous panel signals a complete change of tone and pace that is really quite jarring, and I think that’s the point. The Killing Joke, despite its place (undeserved or not) as one of the Batman stories, was always going to be problematic to adapt, flawed in whatever form it finally took. It’s certainly an interesting watch, but you wonder whether love of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES and seeing its key players reunite twenty years later is enough of a reason to sit through it. SSP