Review: “The Killing Joke”

Killing Joke poster

Each year, the animation department of Warner Bros releases a feature-length Batman film on home video. These movies often succeed where their live-action counterparts fail, and though this adaptation isn’t up to those usual standards, it’s still quite enjoyable.

In a lengthy prologue to the main story, Barbara Gordon (Tara Strong) tells the audience about her adventures as Batgirl, the female sidekick to Gotham City’s hero Batman (Kevin Conroy). She is constantly living in Batman’s shadow, being undermined by his alter-ego Bruce Wayne and objectified by the city’s criminals. After a night of sex with Bruce and a vicious beating of a gang leader, she declares that her time as Batgirl is over.

After that’s dealt with, Batman is called to a crime scene suspected to be the work of his arch-nemesis, The Joker (Mark “Skywalker” Hamill). Bruce calls on his friend Commissioner Gordon (Ray Wise) – Gotham’s chief of police and Barbara’s father – and the two head to the local prison to question the crazed villain. They soon discover that Joker has escaped from his cell, and are left clueless as to what his next plan may be.

The Killing Joke is based on the polarising graphic novel of the same name, which told Joker’s supposed origins as a failed stand-up comedian. Fans of the comic had been asking for its story to be adapted for many years, while veteran voice-actor Hamill has long expressed interest in a film version. When the producers found there wasn’t enough material for a feature, they added the Batgirl portion of the story.

Batgirl’s tale has copped a lot of hatred online, but I believe that it’s the best part of the movie. Some have said her character is clichéd and demeaning, but as someone who isn’t familiar with Barbara Gordon, I found her story fascinating – it could have been a feature film all on its own. My only issue is that it serves no purpose to the subsequent plot. Sure, it establishes the relationship between Barbara and Bruce, but this could just have easily been done in a single scene.

Batgirl and Batman
Batgirl/Barbara Gordon and Batman/Bruce Wayne in “Batman: The Killing Joke”

Talking of which, it’s hard to review The Killing Joke without discussing THAT sex scene which sent the internet into a furore. The scene in question isn’t shown on screen, but it is strongly implied that such activity did take place. I have conflicting views on the issue: it’s a side of the characters that hasn’t been seen before, but is it really necessary? Just because your characters can have sex doesn’t mean they should.

On a whole though, the film is pretty good. The hand-drawn animation looks fantastic (less so the computer-generated parts), with the action and character design among the best of the DC films; Mark Hamill gives a delightful vocal performance as The Joker; the soundtrack is pleasing to the ear, putting Batman v Superman to shame; and although some of the content is confronting, it’s justified by the film’s strong message.

Batman: The Killing Joke takes a controversial storyline and turns it into a reasonably polished animated feature. Had it maintained focus on Batgirl’s character, it could have been the greatest DC film yet.

3.5 stars

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