A Review of The Killing Joke

Before I begin my review proper, I would like to thank the people at movietickets.com for double booking my reserved seat. As more theaters change their layouts and require you to book your specific seat before showtime, it’s good to know that the ticket I paid for does not necessarily guarantee I’ll have the seat I chose. This is especially a good idea when the theater is nearly sold out. I’m also pleased that you took no effort to correct your mistake and tried to say it was the theater’s responsibility, even though I didn’t purchase the tickets from them. You obviously run a company with no logistics experience and no idea how to keep you information up to date. So huzzah for you, movietickets.com! Three cheers for a job poorly done and I will enthusiastically recommend no one ever uses your service.

Now then, onto The Killing Joke.

Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke is one of the most famous Batman graphic novels of all time. This is because it’s the only story that cares to actually explain what The Joker is. Not “who” he is, mind you. Even though the story has been accepted as The Joker’s officially origin, it’s not been relevant to the main point. The Joker is the man Batman could easily be with just a few tweaks. This was the attempt of The Joker to prove to himself that he’s not crazy. Anyone could turn into him. He regrets his actions, but in the final pages, The Joker realizes that he has no choice but to abandon reality and treat life like a giant joke.

But to turn it into a movie, The Killing Joke would need a lot of changing. For one, it’s a shockingly short comic. For another, much like Moore’s Watchmen, the story only fits the medium it was designed for. It contains a large amount of in-jokes, especially as we transition from the past to the present in a single panel. It’s obvious in the comic that The Joker’s origin story is the product of his insane mind. He’s creating a story that reflects what he’s afraid – namely, being seen as a hack criminal who isn’t funny and is scared of Batman. Films have never been allowed to be ambiguous.

The film adaptation should be praised for moving away from that template. The Killing Joke never feels bounded to the original work and expands on the world. It even addresses one of the biggest criticisms of the original work – the treatment of Barbara Gordon. She is not only a victim of the Joker, but someone very capable of doing whatever she wants to.

But it also feels disjointed and never feels satisfied with the changes it makes.

The film opens with a long prologue that highlights Barbara Gordon as Batgirl. She’s frustrated by a mobster named Paris Franz (yes, really. She even asks if it’s a joke) who taunts her and the fact that Batman will not let her take the lead in capturing Paris.

The prologue is a clever deconstruction of how comics usually treat female superheroes. Paris treats Batgirl as nothing but a sex object and, as Batgirl threatens to beat him up, states that “it must be that time of the month” in true Trumpian fashion. She also has to reconcile her own feelings for Batman, whom she tries to convince as an equal but is sexually attracted to him because he is everything she isn’t. Some fans will treat the sex scene as controversial, but it doesn’t bother me. The comics have always viewed dressing up as Batman and defeating garish villains as Bruce Wayne’s only sexual outlet. He cannot have a normal relationship with anyone who is not like him. Barbara realizes this and, in an effort to defeat him at his own game, gives Batman what he’s always wanted. And she’s never treated as a damsel in distress. She’s always the one in control.

This is good material about a character that often gets overlooked. But how did the filmmakers seamlessly transition this prologue into the main feature? How did they tie in her role as Batgirl into her gruesome fate at the hands of the Joker and her transformation into Oracle?

They didn’t.

After the prologue, we immediately transition to The Killing Joke’s story and the film forgets what happened in the first 20 minutes. Batman has the same reaction to Barbara that he did in the comic when he went to visit her. It no longer makes sense given their updated back story. We do get an extra epilogue that helps complete Barbara’s story and her transition to The Oracle, which is helpful, but she’s virtually ignored during the main story.

Again, this main feature is exactly what happens in the original comic. Barbara Gordon appears in maybe two scenes and never puts on the cape. Yet the film version had decided it wanted to explore different aspects of the story and the characters. The Killing Joke adaptation should have either been brave enough to keep down this path or not bothered at all if it was going to pretend like the prologue didn’t happen.

However, the treatment of The Joker is as good as you would expect from an adaptation of The Killing Joke. Mark Hamill, as the featurette that played before the main attraction stated, has defined the Joker for almost 25 years. This is the one story he said he wanted to do. It gives him a chance to explore the character and his fears. When The Joker realizes he hasn’t made Commissioner Gordon insane, his reaction is new for Hamill. There is no look of sadness like there is in the comic. Just frustration from the Joker. He can barely scream, “Why aren’t you laughing?!” Also, Hamill adopts a different voice for the flashback scenes. The Joker is still there, but buried deep beneath an unfunny man trying to deliver the punchline. It helps emphasize Batman’s case that The Joker is unique in his madness and that the seeds were planted long ago.

So, we still get the same dynamic between Batman and The Joker that has attracted audiences for more than 75 years. When the film is adapting The Killing Joke, it’s great. And I admire the filmmaker’s bravery in exploring Batgirl. Yet I still feel underwhelmed by the finished product. While the original comic felt revolutionary, the film adaptation feels worn out. After numerous movies and a celebrated cartoon, The Killing Joke film doesn’t feel like it’s breaking new ground. You should see it if you’re a Batman fan, but don’t expect to be blown away.

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