Batman: The Killing Joke is officially in the world thanks to its debut at San Diego Comic-Con. The animated adaptation has been touted for quite a while ahead of its premiere for a number of reasons: it’s the first R-rated feature adaptation of a Batman story, it brings the acclaimed (yet controversial) story of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s graphic novel to life, and it reunites classic Batman and Joker voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, respectively. There was good cause for all the excitement.
And yet the first reactions to the screening are divided. Most praise the solid adaptation of The Killing Joke story and see it as an homage to one of the most well-known tales in Batman’s canon. But nearly as many see the additional prequel material, which focuses on Barbara Gordon/Batgirl (Tara Strong) due to the brevity of her story in the comic, as unnecessary at best, and an offensive mess at worst. Spoilers lie ahead, so if you’d rather go into The Killing Joke cold, best to avoid now.
The main bone of contention, so to speak, with The Killing Joke is the new material, a half-hour or so of prequel story that centers on Batgirl, her mild-mannered life as Barbara Gordon, and a surprisingly adult romantic tryst with the Batman himself. It’s this last bit that’s upset people the most, not only because it seems to sully the father-daughter relationship between the Bat-heroes, but because it was so clumsily (and to some, offensively) done. Here’s a look at how some reviewers reacted to the film overall:
From our own review by Tommy Cook:
Half of The Killing Joke – the half that’s super faithful, sometimes word-for-word panel-by-panel, to Alan Moore’s original comic – terrifically builds on its source material, turning The Joker into a tragic movie-monster and its hero Batman into, well, just a monster. This simple inversion feels just as fresh and shocking now as it did in 1988 – and when the film is just Batman (Kevin Conroy) & The Joker (Mark Hamill), talking, arguing and, most surprisingly, confiding in one another – it’s the best DC animated film yet. The last fifteen minutes, in particular, are probably the best work Hamill’s ever done as The Clown Prince of Crime.
However there’s not enough material in The Killing Joke to make a feature – so directors Bruce Timm & Sam Liu have added an extended prologue focusing almost exclusively on Batgirl aka Barbara Gordon (Tara Strong). The prologue never quite gels with the rest of the film … There’s some lip service given to Batman’s darker inclinations, but a majority of the first thirty-minutes focus on the will-they-won’t-they romance of Batman & Batgirl…
Ultimately – you’re better off turning the movie on thirty to forty minutes in and just watching the actual Killing Joke portion of the animated feature.
There is the well done, great attention to detail, well acted adaptation of The Killing Joke. But there is also a “prequel” of sorts that focuses on Batgirl that just feels out of place and wrong on so many levels that its inclusion is a huge detriment to the production.
Killing Joke first …Bruce Timm and Brian Azzarello nailed it, and I couldn’t have asked for that scene to be any more perfect.
No, all of my issues are with the “prequel” to the film …It is a complete mess, and real disappointment that they choose to do this in this way. It made The Killing Joke part after just a little bit less sweet to experience. Luckily, that was enjoyable.
In the room, reaction to the film’s late-night premiere seemed largely positive, with applause for all the key voices. Conroy and Hamill were in top form, and Hamill’s rendition of the Joker’s song “I Go Looney” is an instant classic. There was, however, a vocal minority put off by the Batgirl-focused early scenes. During the 20-minute post-screening Q&A, one fan questioned the need for the prologue and the insertion of sexual tension between the Bats. The filmmakers attempted to rebut the criticism. “I think she is stronger than the men in her life in this story,” said Azzarello. “I think she controls the men in her life in this story.”
At that point, someone shouted out, “Yeah, by sex…” Azzarello didn’t appear to hear the remark and tried to engage the critic, but the audience member didn’t immediately repeat his comment. (That prompted the writer to call the person a “p—y.”) Eventually the gist of the criticism became clear: Instead of empowering Batgirl, the prelude could be interpreted as demeaning or objectifying her.
Wonderfully directed by Sam Liu and produced by DC animation legend Bruce Timm, and written by former Wonder Woman scribe Brian Azzarello, The Killing Joke is a very straightforward adaptation. Well, with one major exception: the entire 25-minute opening prologue is an entirely new storyline, created for the film exclusively by the these three gentlemen. The new opening tells the story of how Barbara Gordon and Batman’s professional and personal relationship dissolved amid a complicated and intense case, to the point where Barbara ended up quitting being Batgirl. Barbara is written as complex and interesting here, maybe more so than she ever has before in any animated version. So when tragedy strikes her in the main storyline, it becomes her tragedy, instead of just an exploitation of her pain and misery as a motivating factor for the men in the story. It is a very welcome change, and doesn’t alter what made any of the original work so effective in the slightest.
The Killing Joke is a 30-year-old Batman graphic novel that goes to ugly places, especially in what it does Batgirl. And when folks expressed anger at Barbara Gordon’s portrayal in a new, controversial scene in the upcoming film adaptation during a DC panel, things got ugly in real life.
Batman: The Killing Joke is most infamous for the moment where the Joker shoots and paralyzes Barbara Gordon, a gruesome scene that serves as a mere adornment to a Batman-Joker fight. We already knew that, almost impressively, DC’s animated adaptation of this comic was going to make a bad Batgirl story much, much worse.
Look, I don’t want to get into another debate about whether or not cartoons and comic characters are for kids. That debate has been going on since The Killing Joke itself, which was a major push in taking superheroes more seriously. What I want to talk about here is the fact that this shows the people at DC animation are existing in a fundamentally broken state – they have missed the point of Batman completely…
The Killing Joke cartoon should never have been made, but I get why it was – there’s money in them thar hills. But this? This is the kind of thing someone at DC animation should have seen coming, should have understood why it’s so bad and wrong. This is fundamental betrayal of the Batman character, perhaps even worse than having him murder thugs in Batman v Superman.
Though I haven’t seen Batman: The Killing Joke yet, I can’t say I’m surprised by the response to the additional material. Adapting stories with mature thematic elements that were meant for adult audiences will obviously translate to mature, adult themes playing out on screen, but lately Warner Bros. TV and DC Animation seem to equate maturity and adulthood with sex and violence rather than more complex psychological storytelling. That’s fine, and there’s certainly an audience for it, but that line of thinking will always keep these sorts of adaptations from reaching the impactful storytelling of the source material, and far short of exceeding it.
For more on Batman: The Killing Joke, be sure to take a look at some of our recent write-ups below:
- ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’: Watch Mark Hamill Channel Joker During Star Wars Celebration
- Watch: New Footage of Batgirl from ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’
- ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’ Comic-Con World Premiere Details Emerge
- ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’ Will Be Fathom Events Widest Theatrical Release to Date
- First ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’ Clip Pulls a Classic Scene from the Comic