The Killing Joke is one of the greatest and most influential graphic novels of all time, both in the world of Batman and generally, and it regularly tops lists on that very subject. When it was announced that it was coming to the big screen, and that it was going to receive an R rating, anticipation was high – if justice could be done to this tale, it was going to be fantastic. However, it is a very uneven film – a movie of two halves, where the new additions detract massively from the original text.
Batman (Kevin Conroy) and Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) have a difference in opinions on how to handle Paris Franz (Maury Sterling), the nephew of a powerful crime boss who is eager to take over – Batgirl is concerned by the dangerous obsession that Franz is developing with her, and by Batman’s view on her crime-fighting. However, the threat of Franz is nothing compare to the appearance of the villainous Joker (Mark Hamill) – having escaped from Arkham Asylum, he is determined to prove that one bad day is all it takes to drive the average joe mad, and the target of his twisted quest is Commissioner Gordon (Ray Wise).
The Killing Joke is not a long graphic novel, running in at only 48 pages, and so an extra prologue was added to this film to help it reach feature length. (Even with these bonus thirty minutes, the film only just reaches 70 minutes without credits.) I’ve no issue with this in principle, but the prologue is long and adds nothing positive to the main part of the plot. The idea with it was really to flesh out Barbara Gordon (in the original text, she is pretty much there to be the victim), but it doesn’t play it correctly – it turns her into the jilted partner of Batman’s bad boyfriend. There is a sex scene that I thought was maybe okay when I saw a clip, but it feels very off-putting in context. That, coupled with a lot of whining to a token gay friend about how her boyfriend won’t call her back, and more damage is done than repaired.
After you’ve wasted your time with that, we arrive at the main event – the film pretty much adapts the text word-for-word, and incorporates several iconic frames into the movie. With such strong source material, this was probably the sensible way to go, and these last 40 minutes are gripping.
Even if you’re familiar with the story, there is a lot of joy to be had in seeing it brought to the screen, especially with the calibre of the cast. Both Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill have really come to define these roles, and the latter gets to give a vocal tour de force, offering both the Joker’s gleeful murderous insanity as well as moments of lucidity when he contemplates what he truly is. He also gets a musical showcase partway through, and anybody who has played the Arkham games knows what a treat that is. Strong and Wise are decent, but they don’t get a lot to do – the focus is really on the two old enemies.
The Killing Joke aspects of this film are good, and translate to the screen wonderfully. However, it only takes up half the runtime, and the rest of it is a bit bland and pointless. It should have been executed better, and served to address the big problem with the original story – the role of Batgirl – in a way that doesn’t make the problem a lot worse. If you skip the first half an hour, this is fantastic. As a whole film, it is very uneven.
Director: Sam Liu
Cast: Kevin Conroy (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Mark Hamill (The Joker), Tara Strong (Barbara Gordon/Batgirl), Ray Wise (Commissioner Gordon), Robin Atkin Downes (Detective Bullock), Brian George (Alfred)
Running Time: 76 Mins