It should have been a slam dunk. The Killing Joke, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s seminal beloved graphic novel, has been on the wish list for a motion picture adaptation for years. A perfect fit for DC’s accomplished animated division (a studio with a much better ratio of hits to misses than their live action counterparts), the project loomed in the minds of fans and creators alike, with legendary Joker voice actor Mark Hamill expressing his desire to bring the story to life on the silver screen, even as he has pulled back on the frequency with which he plays the clown prince of crime. But The Killing Joke is a nasty piece of work, and DC’s animated projects have almost always skewed toward more family acceptable fare. That edict has relaxed itself a bit in recent years, with projects like Batman: Under the Red Hood and Justice League: Gods and Monsters showing the studio more willing to tell stories with a harder edge, opening the door for something along the lines of The Killing Joke to become a possibility. That possibility was codified at 2015’s San Diego Comic Con, with Batman: The Animated Series guru Bruce Timm announcing the film would soon be entering production. Hamill was in. Fabled Batman voice actor Kevin Conroy was in. Timm would be executive producing. It would be the first DCAU movie to be rated R. They were checking all the boxes. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, quite a bit, it turns out.
The biggest hurdle that came with adapting The Killing Joke is its length. The 48 page story couldn’t come close to feature film length even with extensive stretching, and attempts to alter or pad the story would be a one way ticket to a rabidly negative response from superfans (as we all know, comic book fans can tend to get a bit tetchy when their beloved stories are changed, and few stories are more beloved than The Killing Joke). How (or, indeed, why) they would turn it into a substantive piece would be a mystery, with DC putting their faith in 100 Bullets writer Brian Azzarello to pen the screenplay and flesh things out. Barely a year after its announcement, DC returned to San Diego with the completed film in tow and a two night theatrical run scheduled for the week prior to its home video release. We soon learned how the team would manage to turn a 48 page story into an 85 minute film. And it isn’t pretty.
Batman: The Killing Joke reaches its length by virtue of an extended prologue centered around Barbara Gordon/Batgirl (Tara Strong), the daughter of Batman’s brother in arms Commissioner James Gordon. On the face of things, deciding to focus on Barbara with the additional material makes sense, as she is the impetus for most of the action of The Killing Joke. A measured and well-executed prologue could make the events of the main course more resonant. Unfortunately, what we get is anything but. Azzarello ends up doing far more harm than good by serving up an uninspired, rote mob boss conflict, stumbling over his effort to spotlight Batgirl by piling on a series of frankly insulting events that manage to undermine the character rather than inform her. Azzarello’s script is obsessed with Barbara’s sexuality (again, a precursor to the sexual aspects of Joker’s assault on her), but by leaning into it so heavily, all he manages to do is turn Batgirl into an object with no agency. She is hit on and drugged by the lecherous son of a mob boss (inexplicably named Paris Franze because that’s...clever, I guess?), with the date rape connotations clear. All of her conversations with the only character who doesn’t objectify her that isn’t her father (because he’s gay, and like Sean Hayes in Will and Grace gay) are about sex and dating and sexual tension with her boss (i.e. Batman), reducing her to a woman-shaped pile of urges. To make matters worse, the film makes sure to linger on her butt and breasts whenever possible, creating the impression that it was written and storyboarded by an adolescent boy in the early throes of puberty, with the storytelling sophistication to match.
Granted, once it manages to free itself from its execrable prologue, Batman: The Killing Joke does manage to improve, but only marginally so. Azzarello fares better when he has Alan Moore’s words to lean on, with Brian Bolland’s iconic panels coming to life on screen. The story of Joker’s attempt to break Commissioner Gordon’s psyche by means of “one bad day,” thus justifying his own anarchic view of the world is legend in the comic book realm, and Azzarello, Timm and director Sam Liu are clearly deeply respectful of the source material once the rubber hits the road. Treating Moore and Bolland’s comic as practically a storyboard layout is a dangerous gambit; it seems so easy to be able to transfer comic books to the screen, and it can work from time to time (Sin City generally hit more than it missed), but it can also result in less than stellar projects, like Sin City’s own boneheaded sequel or Zack Snyder’s meathead adaptation of Watchmen. Simply drawing a direct line from page to screen is not enough.
Perhaps because of this approach, there’s something choppy and uninspired about The Killing Joke itself. The animation throughout the film feels a bit underwhelming, but it is most noticeable during the marquee segment. This is a clear result of relying on the source material so heavily, with scenes simply existing as transitions from panel to panel, hitting marks like they’re duct tape on a stage. It never stops feeling awkward and mechanical, making the entire film look like it was rushed to completion (which, considering its timeline, could legitimately be the case). The voice acting is surprisingly similarly uninspired; Hamill generally seems up to it even with a few big lines that don’t land, but Conroy’s performance makes him sound like he’s just in it for the paycheck. The dialogue they have to play with is not always the best (comic book writing and feature film writing do not directly translate, and Azzarello does little to nothing to aid the transition), but that does not save Conroy from the lack of energy in his line readings. Considering how excited Hamill was to be involved in the project, it’s shocking how toothless it feels in practice.
Batman: The Killing Joke appears to have been felled by expedience. The desire to complete and release the product quickly, as well as the decision to pad it out to feature length, has hampered the creative process, making a sure thing doomed for failure. Hamstrung by a witless, deplorable script with a doltish, insulting prologue, the film threatens to lose its audience before it can even get to the reason everyone wanted to see it in the first place. And while the retelling of The Killing Joke is a giant improvement over what preceded it, it comes nowhere near justifying its own existence thanks to choppy animation and stilted voice performances. Its R rating feels like little more than a publicity stunt (when’s the last time you heard someone say “Freaking A!” in an R rated film?), in keeping with the faux edginess of the whole enterprise. Perhaps if the Timm and company had gone for an anthology series, allowing The Killing Joke to stand on its own and deleting its atrocious prologue from existence, it would have been more palatable, but as it stands, Batman: The Killing Joke is a film everyone wanted and no one should have to stand.