*This review is spoiler safe, which means it will contain a spoiler section separate from the review marked off with a spoiler warning.*
When it comes to Batman comics, The Killing Joke is one of the best Batman and Joker stories ever told. It has influenced the way The Joker has been perceived for years, and the mark it has left on the comic world is undeniable. So it’s a little surprising that we’ve never received a proper adaptation of the story until now. But as the times have changed from when the graphic novel was released, so must the story. And the rated R animated film based on the story embraces change in a way that fits modern times, while remaining completely faithful to the original story. In other words, the classic story in which Batgirl is a victim of The Joker’s plan is changed to her becoming more of a survivor of it. And that makes the darkness surrounding one of the most controversial scenes in comics hold more weight than it ever has before.
The Killing Joke follows the comic of the same name in which The Joker decides to prove to Batman, and the rest of the world, that all it takes is one bad day to turn a good man insane. So to execute his plan, he kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and tortures him in order to drive him mad. In the process of his plan, he reflects back to his own origin story. The backstory itself is told from an unreliable narrator’s point of view considering that The Joker openly admits to changing it whenever he sees fit, but it remains the closest to an origin story The Joker has ever had. And it runs parallel to his actions of attempting to prove that anyone could go just as mad as him given the right circumstances.
Batman starts the night off visiting Arkham in order to reason with The Joker. He hopes to avoid the inevitable outcome of their ongoing battle eventually ending with one taking the life of the other. But after realizing that the person inside Arkham isn’t The Joker, he sets out to find the real one. Unfortunately, his discovery is too late as the real Joker has already initiated his plan of kidnapping Gordon. The rest of the story deals with Batman trying to track down The Joker as he continues to torture Gordon into madness.
The story is basically a solid and straight forward adaptation of the graphic novel. However, the first twenty minutes of the film is a new story surrounding Batgirl. The graphic novel is a quick read. But instead of expanding on the storyline in order to add filler, the film gives Batgirl a bigger role in the film before it slips in to covering the events of the comic. And while some might find the focus on her less interesting or controversial due to one scene within her segment of the film, Batgirl’s story that eventually leads in to The Killing Joke’s main storyline is a reflection of how the movie evolved the story to meet modern times while still remaining faithful to the story it’s telling.
Addressing the Batgirl storyline and controversy
In the original storyline, The Joker shoots Barbra Gordon and leaves her crippled while kidnapping Commissioner Gordon. He then strips her down nude and takes pictures of her in order to display them in front of the Commissioner while he’s attempting to drive him mad. This event, while the story itself is not considered part of the official continuity of the comics, had an affect on the regular comic run as Barbra Gordon eventually overcomes her handicap and becomes Oracle. But while the event is solidified in comic book history as a huge moment that any adaptation of The Killing Joke must reference, there are some that will take issue with the scene and try to turn it into something it’s not.
It’s 2016, a time in which people are more offended by what’s in their entertainment than real issues in the world. Last year, DC decided to cancel a Batgirl variant cover (the one above) due to negative backlash from people whom where offended by it. Labeled as exploitation of rape culture by people whom are too lazy to use google to look up the reference, the cover gained a lot of controversy. Comic book readers familiar with the reference supported the cover as they saw no harm in it. However, it was eventually cancelled due to the outcry regardless of it referencing one of the most well known Batman storylines in comics.
Bruce Timm and Brian Azzarello had the unfortunate job of searching for a way to both honor the graphic novel by retaining the well known scene, while dodging backlash from people desperately searching for something to be offended over. And while The Killing Joke has been in existence since 1988, the film was destined to gain backlash just like the cover referencing the event. So with that issue to deal with, along with the short running time of the film due to the graphic novel itself being short, Timm and Azzarello decided to use the additional time in the film to flesh out Batgirl’s character. The new story painted Batgirl as a survivor that overcomes her situation rather than a victim that serves no other purpose other than motivation for Batman to stop The Joker. And due to her storyline, along with the ending to the film that shows how she has overcome her situation, there is more weight on the scene in which she is crippled than ever before.
Batgirl is painted as a woman ready to move past being on the sidelines when it comes to crime fighting. Batman is the male figure in which she craves approval from despite believing in herself enough to know she doesn’t necessarily need it. She’s searching for validation from him, which leads to admiration. So when she initiates sex with him, it’s her way of expressing and displaying her power over him. But the heat of the moment mistake is never fully resolved between the two as they eventually go their separate ways before the events of The Killing Joke take place.
The story may have nothing to do with the main story being adapted, but it’s separated enough from the main story to have very little affect on it as well other than Batgirl. So fans of The Killing Joke can still enjoy the direct adaptation uninterrupted by unnecessary filler while Batgirl’s separate storyline compliments her character. Batgirl is no longer just a victim to serve a certain purpose. She’s a strong female character. And while that has been met with mixed reviews, it’s worth noting that the film has nothing to do with comic book continuity.
With artwork similar to the graphic novel mixed with a little of Bruce Timm’s well known art style from Batman: The Animated Series, along with both Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy reprising their roles, Batman: The Killing Joke is a love letter to fans of both the graphic novel and Batman: The Animated Series. Mark Hamill shines in the role of The Joker more than ever, and Conroy has Batman down to a science. Tara Strong gives Batgirl the confidence that was missing from her in every animated adaptation we’ve seen so far, and is extremely likable in the role. However, the story is basically a faithful adaptation of its source material. So it easily nails the feeling and tone of the book effortlessly.
But the biggest issue with the film is how the viewer perceives the Batgirl storyline that leads up to the main story. If you view the character development she experiences as not important and a waste of time, then you may not enjoy the film as much as someone open to her being fleshed out as more than just a shocking moment in the story. But if you’re open to the idea of her being more than just a victim, then you will definitely enjoy the film as a whole rather than only the main story.