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Review – Batman: The Killing Joke

Warning: Here there be spoilers. Fairly warned, ye be.

I couldn’t believe it. There I was, scanning through the cable channels for movies to download to the DVR and, boom, there it was. Batman: The Killing Joke. I remember picking up this Alan Moore story as soon as it hit the shelves back in 1988. When I heard last year that WB Animation was finally putting out an adaptation, I was super excited, and I’ve been checking Netflix and Amazon Prime for it ever sense. With eager anticipation, I thumbed the record button.

Now, I’m a big fan of the Warner Bros. adaptations of the DC classics. I devour them. The studio does a really good job with them, and I’m always wondering why Marvel can’t get the same treatment. Oh, boy, I couldn’t wait.

Man, what a let down.

Now, I don’t remember the graphic novel all that well. I read it over thirty years ago, after all. Maybe the fault is Moore’s or maybe the fault is with the adaptation, but this thing failed to deliver the gut punch I so fondly remembered. Maybe it was never there in the first place.

OK, here’s a quick synopsis. Batman is working with Batgirl to take down some gangsters. One of the gangsters develops an obsession with Batgirl, she’s young, hot, and single, after all, and Batman, who knows a thing or two about obsession, removes his protege from the case. Batgirl, who’s apparently been crushing on Batman all along, takes exception to this exclusion and tries to work this on her own, eventually getting herself in a situation where Batman has to save her. Batman’s a “my way or the highway” sort of guy, and the conflict between the two intensifies until it ends in a bout of fisticuffs and angry sex on a Gotham rooftop.

Yeah, this would happen.

Because, yeah, that’s what happens between men and women after they beat each other up. They have sex. Just ask Andy Capp. The whole thing feels like a fanfic.

Then, the Joker shows up. This is the Red Hood version of the character. The “you’re just one bad day away from being me” version. To prove this, he sets out to drive Commissioner Gordon nuts. He shoots Barbara Gordon in the spine, and then undresses and takes nasty photos of her. He kidnaps the Commish and sets his plan in motion in a refurbished carnival. Batman comes to put a stop to it.

Now, there’s a lot of interesting stories crammed in here. Barbara’s obsession with Batman. Her journey from Batgirl to Oracle. There’s the Joker’s obsession with Batman. Finally, there’s Batman’s realization that sooner or later either he or the Joker’s going to end up dead, and his struggle to find a third way. Any of these could make for a great story. Unfortunately, they’re all crammed into one.

It doesn’t work.

If there’s any single theme to the story, it’s obsession. Most of the characters are obsessed in one way or the other. With the exception of Batman, for whom obsession is almost plot armor, they are destroyed by it. Barbara has to give up being Batgirl after the rooftop tryst. Joker, of course, fails to corrupt Jim Gordon and winds up going back to Arkham. Gordon emerges unscathed, although we never really learn how. That would have been another good story.

Instead, we end up with two stories. The first half of the film is about Barbara’s fall from Batgirl back to normal life. The second half is about Batman’s struggle with his arch-nemesis. They really aren’t related. In fact, when Joker shows up, it’s out of the blue. No foreshadowing, here. He’s a Bad Guy ex machina. If the story was supposed to be about Barb, then he’s just a guy who shows up to paralyze her. A catalyst for her transformation to Oracle. If the story was intended to explore the dynamic between Batman and Joker, the whole first half could have been cut. We never see Bruce Wayne agonizing over what happened between him and Barbara, or even over her grievous injuries. Sure, maybe his obsession with Joker overrides those concerns, but the story never bothers to make that point.

On the other hand, Batman is voiced by Kevin Conroy and we get Mark Hammil to play the Joker. These guys are the best. So, the movie has that going for it.

I guess I need to go back and find The Killing Joke and re-read it now. I’d like to know whose fault this is.

I give this one three out of five batarangs. I came away with a sour taste in my eyeballs, but I still enjoyed it.

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