A Non-Comical Book, Err Film (Batman: The Killing Joke, review)
Sexuality is a complicated thing, dear readers. People of all sexual orientations exist in this world – heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, polysexual, pansexual, and transexual. And those are just the baseline, it gets more intricate then that. Which is a difficult thing to address because we have so much cultural material out there that mostly address heterosexuals, and to a lesser extent, homosexuals.
Every other persuasion gets considerably less attention.
Now, I’m writing about this challenge as a straight white male, so I realize my opinion is pretty limited, and that I am quite privileged in my perspective, but I will mention this, I have no idea how the actual percentages shake out on this sexuality matter.
Regardless, when we are reduced to our sexual motivations, that sucks. And not in a good way. Especially when it comes to art.
Batman: The Killing Joke (2014)
Cast: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Ray Wise
released on blu-ray August 2, 2016
Rotten Tomatoes: 48%, Audience Score 56%
The Guardian: N/A
Sam Liu is a Chinese American animation director, artist, and designer. He has directed several animated superhero films at both Marvel Entertainment and Warner Bros. Animation. I could list the heavy CV of films he has had a hand in, but it’s rather exhausting to look at, so let’s just take my word for it, okay?
As Bob Dylan once sang, the times, they are a changin’.
And this story probably didn’t need to be retold, especially the way it did, but before I tell you about the story, I’ll give you a bit of background first.
Batman: The Killing Joke is an adaptation of a rather slim graphic novel of the same name, which was originally created by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland in 1988, and which was itself also an adaptation of another story from the 1950s called The Man Behind the Red Hood which originally served as an origin story for Batman’s greatest foe, The Joker.
It has been widely lauded as one of the greatest Batman stories of all time, and has been critically reviewed as the definitive Joker story. It is a story describing both how The Joker came to be and for him to prove that anyone can sink into madness.
The flashbacks show a failed comedian and his very pregnant wife, and the comedian eventually decides to work with criminals to steal from a playing card company. It’s adjacent to his former work, which is a chemical plant. But his wife dies in a household accident, and he is forced to help the criminals anyway. The criminals dress him up as The Red Hood to implicate him if cops arrive. Cops do arrive, and then Batman. The comedian escapes from Batman, but is flushed out the chemical was pound lock – this turns his skin white, his lips red, and his hair green. He loses his sanity.
In the current timeline, The Joker invades the Gordon’s home, shoots Barbara (Batgirl), and kidnaps Commissioner Gordon. He then subjects him to sexualized images of his naked and bloody daughter, ridiculing him, and parading him through an abandoned amusement park. His hope is that Gordon will go insane just as he did, but this does not happen. Then Batman arrives, fights The Joker and proves to The Joker that he is the only insane one. The comic closes with Batman attempting to rehabilitate his foe, and The Joker responding with a joke that insights laughter from both parties, then the comic ends with an empty panel. Leaving the question of what happened to the reader.
It was a powerful story for the time, and still an interesting read, but Alan Moore has admitted that it lead superheroes down a dark road, and that while he wanted to show that comic books could be anything, all it did was darken the industry, and it hasn’t really recovered since. He regrets having written the story.
Now, let’s get to the update. Without diving too much into it, the new animated movie adds a prologue to help introduce us to Batgirl, even showcasing her challenges with a villain of her own, and a strained relationship with her mentor. The villain is sexually attracted to her, and of course gets in her head, which has Batman take Batgirl off the case. The story eventually shifts to a sexual tryst between Batman and Batgirl. Then Batgirl intervenes in the case anyway, and she ultimately resigns from crimefighting. Thus setting up the rest of the movie, which is a beat for beat repeat of the original story.
And so the story shifts the motivations of Batman and Batgirl, while removeing the weight of both The Joker and Gordon’s role in it’s outcome.
Pros: When the story sticks to the source material, it is engaging and an interesting account of both The Joker and his role with Batman.
Cons: We didn’t need to see a sexualized Batgirl. And we definitely didn’t need to see a 30 minute prologue story, when Batgirl should have gotten her own feature length animated film. Also, the animation is quite bad in many places.
Runtime: 1 hour 16 minutes
Points of Interest: Mark Hamill had retired from voicing The Joker, and would only come back if this story was adapted for film. The movie received a limited theatre release a week before it dropped in stores and online; the last time this happened was with the 1993 Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
The fact that Alan Moore didn’t want his name on this adaptation might have been considered a sign that DC shouldn’t have green-lit this story, but that’s the perpetual struggle with comic book publishers, it’s a constantly dying industry, and they have to do something to inject life back into their business. And so an adaptation of an almost 30 year old Batman story was made into a movie. You can watch it, but I’m not sure that it’s worth it.
I really wish this movie didn’t turn out the way it did. I mean, the original story is interesting and noteworthy for a morality tale and cross-examination of Batman and The Joker as they relate to each other. And yes, Batgirl does plays a victim role in the original story, so it’s not like it’s the most brilliant piece of writing ever, but man did they screw up the adaptation with that prologue. It went from being an interesting story to something completely different. It just doesn’t mean the same thing with those changes. A story reduced to sexual motivations, and unnecessary sexualization of a female character.