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Review: ‘The Killing Joke’ Turns Batman Into a Bad Boyfriend And Might Wreck Your Childhood

An awkward introduction dooms an otherwise faithful imagining of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's classic graphic novel, "The Killing Joke."

Batman: The Killing Joke

“The Killing Joke”

Warner Bros.

“It doesn’t have to be good to be a classic.”

While the Joker’s sage words may hold true for a joke, the opposite is more accurate for a film, and “The Killing Joke” won’t reach the classic status of its graphic novel inspiration because it’s simply not that good.

To be fair, the feature-length, R-rated film does just fine when it sticks to the source material. (The above line is a new addition.) But an attempt in the introduction to better paint Barbara Gordon’s motivations — a necessary, if ill-plotted expansion for the sake of time — ends up making the victim even more disposable than before.

[Minor spoilers in the next two paragraphs for what’s new in “Batman: The Killing Joke”]

READ MORE: ‘The Killing Joke’: New Look At Animated Batman Feature Takes A Trip to Arkham

Opening with Barbara as Batgirl, the film lends her the narrative voice of authority. We watch as she struggles to come to terms with her diminished role next to Batman; a dynamic that becomes more and more complicated as the two investigate a young, violent mob boss attempting to takeover the family business from his father. As the threat level increases for Batgirl, Batman pushes her further and further away.

While he attempts to justify his lack of faith by citing her inexperience — she’s in it for the thrill, while he’s doing it for a purpose — Batman’s judgment is called into question when the “partners'” relationship turns…romantic? Well, maybe it’s not romantic, considering Bruce and Barbara don’t exactly swap gifts or sit down for a candlelight dinner, but the two are nonetheless sexualized in an attempt to further humanize Barbara — a character readers know will soon become the victim.

Batman: The Killing Joke

“The Killing Joke”

Warner Bros.

On the one hand, it’s easy to imagine why screenwriter Brian Azzarello and director Sam Liu would make this choice, even beyond the practical demand of extending “The Killing Joke” to feature length. Barbara isn’t much more than a prop in the original graphic novel; a prop that gets sexually exploited and thus becomes a motivating factor for her father, who becomes a means to justify whatever Batman decides to do in a brilliantly ambiguous ending. Filling out her role could have created a direct attachment between Barbara and Batman, but instead of humanizing her, it turns Barbara/Batgirl into a comic book cliche: The female character that feigns complexity, but, when given an expanded role, is only viewed through a sexual lens.

Making matters worse is how the relationship affects Batman. Despite the graphic novel cutting to the heart of our hero’s moral quandaries, the movie paints him as an emotionally-deadened jerk. Not only does he give into his baser instincts in an obviously inappropriate fashion, but the film never explains how and why he did it. Nor do they allow Batman to try to make it right or even openly discuss his sins with those he hurts. It makes his resolute demeanor in regard to saving the Joker all the more baffling, as he’s too good to kill a criminal who’s asking for it, but he’s not strong enough to pick up the phone when his lady friend is calling.

Supporters may argue the themes are what matters, and “Batman: The Killing Joke” does hold true to most of the topics introduced in the graphic novel. But the confounding additions muddle the overall message, not quite making Batman into the “ordinary” man pushed to the limits by an extraordinary evil, nor is Batgirl the new example of virtuosity. They’re flawed, yes, but in a manner too disconnected from the graphic novel’s central conflict.

READ MORE: ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’ Trailer: First Look At The R-Rated Animated Film Of The Iconic Graphic Novel

Making things all the more instinctually complicated is the medium itself. Super-fans are ecstatic the voices of Batman and the Joker — in everything from “Batman: The Animated Series” to  “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” (the only animated Batman to earn a theatrical release until this one) — have returned, along with animation harkening back to the fan favorites from the early ’90s. But hearing Hamill’s voice — who is still the best Joker of all time, animated or otherwise — coming from a character this depraved, this violent and this sexualized is bound to be jarring for anyone who grew up with a Joker who “put the fun in funeral” on “BTAS.” At least Kevin Conroy alters Batman’s voice for the new iteration, creating a separation between his previous work and this R-rated offering. Hamill embraces a character he perfected long ago, even if it may have helped to hear him as we see him — differently.

While it may seem instinctual to want an R-rated “Batman,” especially from a graphic novel that would deserve the rating without alterations, “Batman: The Killing Joke” is borderline unsettling — and not in a good way. While the source material is preserved with reverence to key artistry from Brian Bolland, the overall film gets lost between Batman, the bad boyfriend, the Joker, an evil unseen in animation, and where, exactly, Barbara is supposed to fit into all this.

Grade: C+

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Comments

Lare

Why wouldn’t batman be a disconnected jerk? His parents were murdered and he didn’t have a good example for the majority of his life. IMO, a bad boyfriend/jerk makes perfect sense.

    dave

    Seem like batman is only a jerk to batgirl, but for joker he wanna cuddle and understand all thats wrong with him and save him. very confusing

      Kyizen

      Its explaines Barbera. Batman always had feelings for her and thats why he was keeping her safe, but then the line was crossed when they had sex because he couldnt just try to keep her safe but HAD to keep her safe ans she released he cant do this and quit being batgirl.

Jeroen

I edited the movie myself to remove all the unnessesary stuff. Removed the intro and made the film begin with barbara jogging. Removed the interview of the prostitutes and the interrogation of the mob boss because of the bad writing. Also removed the fight with the freaks in the circus. No one wants to see batman fight a fat lady. Made the film much more enjoyable altho mark hamill isn’t quite as good as I had hoped. Will see if I can somehow remove the stuff with the 3 midgets fighting in the end. It distracts from jokers monologue.

    Manny

    Where can I see that edited version?

Alex

I was willing to give this movie a shot until I heard about the Batman/Batgirl thing. DC is facing its nadir.

Marcus

Could have been an animated classic but they made a shitty cashgrab movie instead.

Juan

I agree with pretty much everything here, except the praise for the animation. Not enough is said about how bad the animation is, and comparing it to the animated series is an insult to the animated series. Its just so bad, and it really fails the source material. I left wishing they had skipped that pointless prologue, and just focused on the quality of the main story.

Anna

I think it could have ended a better way, the joker and batman become besties? I mean where is the action very R rated for kids, maybe its just more but would have like to see more action. DC have done badly in this film and dont portray joker in the right light. Hated the film

    Daniel

    The movie is an adaption from a comic book, so the ending was already written, my thought on it is that the Joker has always wanted to make the batman laugh and has never successfully gotten a laugh out of him. Batman, in terms of wanting to squash this deadly beef he has with him, gave into the joke and laughed along with him, as a sort of a hey I am not such a bad guy, hence him trying to help the Joker, who knows, maybe that is why the Joker is insane. Besides his past his lot in life was to make the batman laugh

    Dante

    The ending is supposed to be ambiguous. Batman laughs wiht the joker in an effort to understand and avoid sanity, or he ends up strangling and killing him. The Killing Joke

      Dante

      Correcting mistakes:
      The ending is supposed to be ambiguous. Batman laughs with the joker in an effort to understand and avoid insanity, or he ends up strangling and killing him. The Killing Joke

        tetanus

        The favt that Conroy’a voice is the only one heard laughing after a moment removes some of the ambiguity imho.

Lilian Brunswick

The author of this article should not bother experiencing any form of art or media if they can’t handle difficult subject matter. Artists and storytellers are always going to express themselves and tread darker waters if it’s in the interest of the story. Offense is received, not given. You cannot protect yourself from upsetting material because anything is potentially offensive. The fact that millions of people can experience this film, process it, enjoy it and continue with their lives unharmed by its imagery proves that this article has no real merit or significant point to make. If D.W.Griffith’s Birth of a Nation can be purchased on DVD/BLu ray and is still part of film history and academic discourse with no real world consequence, then The Killing Joke has as much right to exist. When all’s said and done, you could just not watch it if it upsets you that much. Democracy is a wonderful thing…

    Anonymous

    Dude, chill. He didn’t like a movie you like. He’s not saying all copies must be burned immediately. Relax.

    Will

    +Lillian
    Do you fully comprehend how film criticism works? Yours was a very academic-sounding response to a pretty straightforward view in which the critic brought what he knew to the movie, watched it and then shared his opinion. I’m not sure why you’d kick around hyperbole like: “He should never bother…” He’s a film critic and from reading this, a solid film critic. I learned what I wanted to know from a review and it’s helped me decide whether this is a movie I might like. One voice in a sea of thousands. You evoke ‘Birth of a Nation’ to make a non-point that doesn’t really address anything written in the review. I’m pretty sure NO ONE considers this film “difficult subject matter.” I’m sure the critic likes lots of movies that are “dark” and “complex” character studies. This evidently was one he felt “meh” about. That pretty much seems to be all. So why all the vitriol? I never understand when people call good critics with solid writing styles, BAD critics when they don’t see eye to eye on a particular movie. His review wasn’t even THAT negative (C+) and you make it sound like he was clutching pearls over some perceived offensiveness. He absolutely wasn’t. Sometimes things just don’t work. This critic and many other critics AND fans just think this movie didn’t work. Jeez. Lighten up.

DarkKnight

Bg/BG is a self-actualized young woman (not a minor), who chooses to jump Bm’s bones in an act that has NOTHING to do with “romance” or “rape,” while still being about power/will. Too complicated to contemplate?

BG also chooses to walk away from Bg, after she saves Bm from Franz, because she nearly beats the latter to death in a berserker rage that Bm had been warning her about, all along.

Overall, BG is strong, no matter how flawed — perhaps even stronger than Bm in that she can and does choose.

Also, Alan Moore has always been dismissive about the original Killing Joke story, saying that he went too far with what he wrote for BG and even to the point of admitting in a much later interview that, the “brilliantly ambiguous” ending was Moore’s way of sneaking in Bm finally breaking J’s neck. Bm choosing the abyss.

Every sane person knows that Bm is a high functioning psychopath, who ultimately falls on this side of “right,” to the extent that his adversaries generally fall on the opposite side of wrong. Generally and ultimately, but not always. Which has always informed every great Bm story.

    Remcoow

    Great anwser DARKKNIGHT. Made me like BG role and decisions and understand her choices better. Even though the movie (in my opinion) treats her in a sexist way she strongly believes in her own decisions and is able to make a choice.

    What I meant by the sexist part: I find it regrettable (and unnecesary for the story) that the mobster sees her as an object and falls in love (or obsesses over her). It could be said that it is his strategy to belittle her…. but i found it jarring to watch.

Me

Wreck your childhood??? grow the hell up you pathetic, crybaby morons

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