Monday, 25 July 2016

Film Review: Batman - The Killing Joke

The Killing Joke is the latest Batman storyline to receive the animated treatment - but can the film match the notoriety of its source material?

Alan Moore's 1988 one-shot The Killing Joke is one of the most iconic (and controversial) Batman comic-books of all time. It signals a moment in time when DC Comics steered itself into darker, grittier territory than ever before, delivering a pivotal storyline for Batman, the Joker and Batgirl that is still incorporated into other Batman mediums today.

However, the book offers scarcely enough material to flesh out a complete feature length film, so screenwriter Brian Azzarello has composed a tale of two halves to round out the runtime to fuller 76 minutes. In this adaptation, we're introduced to a glistening Gotham City that is watched over by Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) and Batgirl (Tara Strong).

It's the classic dynamic that we're all familiar with in that it sees Batgirl/Barbara Gordon work as a librarian by day before donning the cape and cowl at night to fight crime alongside Bruce Wayne. Commissioner Jim Gordon (Ray Wise) feeds Batman information via rooftop meetings, unaware that his own daughter his lurking out of sight as the Caped Crusader's sidekick.

However, the two crimefighters' relationship begins to become strained after the capture of a criminal goes awry; Batman, fearing that Barbara is in too deep, distances herself from her more reckless actions, calling time on their crusade. Around the same time, the Joker escapes from his incarceration in Arkham Asylum, hellbent on executing a plan that will prove once and for all that all it takes is 'one bad day' to send anyone over the edge.

Firstly, let's look at the positive aspects of this adaptation. The voice work is stellar, but did we really expect any less from stalwarts like Conroy and Hamill? Tara Strong is excellent as Barbara too. The score is weaved into the film really well also - it's an element that certainly adds an extra degree of tension to certain scenes.

I quite liked the elongated prologue that focuses more heavily on Barbara. It affords her role in the narrative more importance; Barbara often feels fairly inconsequential in the original book prior to the scene around which the whole story pivots. In this version, Barbara's inclusion is more fleshed-out, making her fate even more tragic.

However, it would remiss of me to not mention the aspect of this film that everyone is talking about - look away now if you don't want anything spoiled for you.

The sex scene. It's all kinds of weird, even nauseating. Look, in almost every form of Batman media I've come across, Batgirl is very much Batman's junior. She's an apprentice, just as Robin and Nightwing are. Her age in this film hovers around 19 whereas Batman is well into his thirties, bordering on 40. He's always been a 'father figure' to Barbara - which goes someway to illustrating just how unnecessary and odd this sex scene between the two is. I mean, she's the teenage daughter of Batman's best friend for Christ sake! Doesn't Batman care about the bro code at all?

Seriously though, why do the two need to hook up at all? Doesn't this creative choice just add further fuel to the section of fans who herald The Killing Joke as a story that does Barbara Gordon a huge disservice? Irrespective of their age difference or pseudo-father/daughter relationship, Barbara's fate in the story has always been an area of contention for fans - and now it's even more gratuitous. Now she’s a jilted romantic interest who only exists in the story to further justify Batman’s ongoing conflict with The Joker - after getting shot, paralysed and sexually assaulted too.

Anyhoo, casting this aside, what else can we say about The Killing Joke? Well, the animation isn't anything to write home about (which is really the case with all these WB Animated films). It's certainly not up there with the likes of The Legend of Korra for flair and vibrancy. The film does make an effort to replicate iconic frames from the graphic novel, which is a nice touch.

The Verdict: 6/10

All told, Batman: The Killing Joke is the kind of film that was always going sit awkwardly with some viewers - and it certainly doesn't help that the writers have made a creative decision that ruffles a lot more than just feathers. The voice acting is great, the expanded narrative has its moments - but the strange tweaks that DC/WB have made to the Batman/Batgirl dynamic wholly overshadow the exceptional work done by Hamill in presenting a definitive origin story for Batman's greatest foe.

Batman: The Killing Joke was available in selected theatres across Australia for one day only. It'll arrive on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD in the near future. 

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