Movie review: Batman: The Killing Joke

The Joker, the clown prince of crime, is arguably one of the most iconic villains to come on stage in comic book history and he returns to the big screen with the animated adaptation of Alan Moore’s famous graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke (1988).

In the history of the Joker’s fictional life span, Batman: The Killing Joke is the most commonly referred to origin story of his existence and has had an enduring impact on the graphic novel community.

The comic follows the younger Joker (who at that time is given no real name) during his early days as a failed standup comedian who is struggling to support his pregnant wife. In desperation, Joker turns to the underworld life of crime to earn money, but trips into a toxic chemical tank, thus becoming the Joker.

Getting to see the adaptation of this legendary comic was bittersweet. Sweet because the anticipation of viewing this film was significant and my curiosity was heightened from the start of its reveal. Unfortunately, the film didn’t live up to the expectations: it wasn’t even close.

In the opening sequence of the film, directed by Sam Liu, the viewer is shown a gratifying shot of the crime infested city of Gotham lit up at night. Barbara Gordon, Batgirl, begins to narrate the scene and break the fourth wall by acknowledging the audience. She says, “I bet you didn’t expect for the story to start like this,” and she was right, but almost only because she pointed it out.

The film follows Barbara as the primary narrative pilot for the first thirty minutes or so, in an effort to serve as a prologue to the events that ensue. The beginning felt like an episode from Batman: The Animated Series where a small conflict happens over the course of 25 minutes.

This was done primarily due to the film not being able to have an adequate runtime with just an adaption of the graphic novel. The connection between the two halves is forced and consequently, the film added other unnecessary humanizing characteristics into Barbara’s story.

Once the primary lens of Barbara has been taken away from the film, the action shifts toward the relationship between Batman and Joker. A black and treacherous storm is shown as a visual symbol and the events that follow are considered to be some of Joker’s most sinister acts. In fact, one of my favorite quotes of the film comes when Batman visits a crime lord to get information on Joker.

He tells Batman, “in my line of work, we might be scared of you, but we’re terrified of him.”

The overall flow and environment of the film seems to change once the attention of the story is focused on following the graphic novel. Because of that, I thought the visual animation style feels like it made a slight stylistic change.

During Barbara’s initial narrative, the animation felt smooth and more fluent. Once Joker comes into play, the animation slows down and moves from segment to segment, almost as if you are actually viewing the physical comic panel by panel. It added tension to the screen, but it also came off as a bit distracting.

Batman: The Killing Joke makes a few modern tweaks to the iconic old comic, but fails to capture its audience as a whole. The direct adaption of the original Joker story is solid, but the miscellaneous side plots didn’t fit the puzzle.

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