For the past decade, Warner Bros have consistently produced adaptations of celebrated DC story arcs; Year One (2011) and The Dark Knight Returns (2012) have been lauded for how faithfully they stuck to the original comic compared to Marvel’s animated films released through Lionsgate. Yet it seems their strategy has begun to shift: Son of Batman (2014) and Bad Blood (2016) are ostensibly adaptations of the Damien Wayne arcs of the Grant Morrison’s run, yet liberally shift things around to the point where they struggle to resemble the original, whilst Assault on Arkham (2014) lifts from a video game series, yet largely forms its own story.
The Killing Joke is not a film: The Killing Joke is a graphic novel. As a story, it is one piece, simultaneously both open-ended and close-ended, both within continuity and out of it. It is musing, reflective, very much within the literary tradition, pondering the relationship between the Joker and Batman. Both strict adherence to it and its direction chosen make little sense.
There’s so little to it in terms of running time (and page count), despite much in terms of the weight of the content, that I get the sense it could have killed it as an episode of The Animated Series.
Recently, in an episode of the podcast A Bit of a Chat with Ken Plume, animator Paul Dini spoke about the difficulties of adapting particular comic stories into an episode for The Animated Series, making sure it works in the 22 minute time slot when there’s enough material to stretch it to 40 minutes, but 60 minutes would be too long. Sometimes, brevity is better than padding.
Certain parts could have been condensed down, like the Red Hood scenes with the Joker. It works within the graphic novel – because it’s slow, able to be read at one’s own pace, able to transition between present and past through separate pages and tinted panels. These same rules could be applied to the rules of filmmaking: comics and films are both visual, but they are still different mediums. The original comic relies on a notion of the Joker as an unreliable narrator. Yet besides desaturated colours (within an already dark coloured film), the film is unable to communicate a sense of unreliability. A different animation style, or noirish monochrome to reinforce the timeless yet 1930s futurism Gotham, or to have Hamill’s voice to blend into all other characters within the scene, could have reinforced this unreliability.
The idea of expanding upon the graphic novel could have been a good idea, showing what happens in the hours before the story. Or maybe we can see more of the Joker’s backstory, perhaps incorporating material from Ed Brubaker’s The Man Who Laughs (2005). Yet then I began to hear things. First, there was the trailer. Then, when Mark Hamill spoke about the film at a convention panel, he spoke about Batman and Batgirl having a *thing*. I assumed he was joking. Suddenly, io9 articles decried how awful it is.
I never had a problem with how Barbara Gordon was treated in the graphic novel. But when I read the graphic novel, she was just another character in the Batman universe for me, or the female sidekick in the Batman TV series (1966-68) that never landed a spin-off.
But recently, more attention has been brought towards more controversial aspects. Cameron Stewart’s reboot of the comic blocked a variant cover depicting Gordon at the Joker’s mercy, an homage to the graphic novel. The series ended by reversing the events of the story, or at least creating ambiguity about it (it has since been reinstated by the new Rebirth Birds of Prey series.) Her transformation as a disabled and intelligent character as Oracle helped to make up for the entire incident. I never felt that she needed to be fleshed out in order to justify the brutal attack.
What it ends up doing is create a sharp divide between two parts of the film. Apart from the many problematic implications of it, structurally it makes little sense. If The Killing Joke could have made a TAS episode, then this opening act really does feel like a TV episode. If it had been included as an extra on the Blu-ray, as has been done before with bonus episodes and shorts, it could make a bit more sense. Visually and tonally, its style is completely different. Barbara Gordon’s world is bright and colourful, with no natural shift to the dark world of The Killing Joke (which remains dark throughout), instead creating bland gangster villains who never appear again, without any connection to the Joker. We move from an extended prologue, set a week beforehand, over to another story set over perhaps a night or two. Even Barbara Gordon’s narration feels like an end.
Part of me wonders if the order for a prologue came from executives aghast at the idea of selling a 40 minute animated film. Brian Azzarello doesn’t try to write Alan Moore; for a strong writer (Joker, 100 Bullets), his prologue is painfully awful, complete with awkward dialogue. The animation itself conveys awkward, static frames, complete with CGI cars, transposing the timeless narrative of the original comics against modern computers and social spaces, including flamboyant openly gay characters: Batgirl is in her hip, modern, diverse and social media Burnside persona – not her timeless persona. Here, she’s still a librarian, but firmly in the world of 2016, only helps further complicate the Depression/Prohibition-esque world of the Red Hood flashbacks.
But let’s get down to it. Batgirl and Batman fuck.
It’s a philosophy of “yeah! Let’s give the fans something really unexpected!” The Killing Joke as a graphic novel is dark, yet not necessarily R-rated dark. There’s the odd swearword, some violence, implied rape, yet there’s no explicit sexuality. Convinced by the R rating, they went down The New Adventures route, regardless of whether it is in character or not.
“Let’s push boundaries!”
“Why? For the story?”
“Let’s push boundaries!”
In some ways, Batgirl is presented as a strong female character. She kicks butt, yet neither the animation nor the dialogue draws enough attention to her kicking butt. She is in control of her sexuality, not distracted by cute boys in the library, deploying it to her advantage against patriarchal villains obsessed with how hot she is. But she becomes a Catwoman clone, without enough of a developed backstory at the library, instead presenting the odd cutaway scene that completely fails the Bechdel Test.
Sleeping with Batman isn’t presented as a positive thing – she ends up regretting it, and it ultimately helps to fracture their relationship. A story about Barbara Gordon sleeping with a guy and regretting it could be a cool and completely relatable teenage story – but not with Bruce Wayne (maybe all billionaires are sleazy assholes after all), and not here – but within the soap opera lives of an ongoing comic series.
Similarly, exploring how their relationship fractures could be interesting, especially within the late 80s era of a lone Batman, set apart from Robin and into other introspective stories like Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum (1989) – but it’s lazy for sex to be the one reason for that fracturing relationship.
Bruce Wayne spends the entire prologue as an absolute fucking douchebag I have no respect for, first telling her not to trust supervillains who flirt with her, before then telling her she’s not responsible, and then falling into a situation where they fuck.
Instead, it recontextualises the comic in awful ways. In the background of scenes, you can’t help but wonder “Bruce must just be thinking “oh fuck I screwed her” right now”. It adds another layer to the Joker and Batman as two sides of the same coin: whereas Batman pressures young women into sex, the Joker instead rapes them. It feels like a horror film cliche: a woman who has fucked therefore must die for her sins; the virgin will survive.
There was nothing certain about whether the Joker raped her or not. As an unreliable narrator, the readers become detectives of sorts: he takes nudes of her in a helpless position, another part of the game to misleading both the readers and the detectives of the story that he is even more fucked up than he actually is. Yet it is concrete that her and Batman screwed, with no ambiguity about it.
The Killing Joke, for the duration that it is actually The Killing Joke, is a fantastic animated version of the graphic novel. Mark Hamill kills it as the Joker, somehow managing to make up for every other flaw in it. Skip the first half hour, and you might just absolutely love this.