This one is going to be hard for me because The Killing Joke is easily one of my favorite Batman stories. For years, that was the story I was hoping would eventually be animated but always seemed to run into problems. Production of the film always seemed to hit a snag, but fans of the story kept pushing for it, […]
This one is going to be hard for me because The Killing Joke is easily one of my favorite Batman stories. For years, that was the story I was hoping would eventually be animated but always seemed to run into problems. Production of the film always seemed to hit a snag, but fans of the story kept pushing for it, even having a fan campaign in 2011 after Mark Hamill, the defacto voice of the Joker, said he’s reprise the role if the film ever got made. That sat for years until in 2015, I finally got what seemed to be a gift from above. Not only was it announced that it was being animated, but Bruce Timm, Kevin Conroy, and Mark Hamill were all coming back to work on the film, to give it the adaptation the fans wanted. This is the dream team of Batman animated. The acclaimed Batman: the animated series team was coming back, so an animated movie of The Killing Joke was practically a guaranteed success. Unfortunately that’s not exactly what happened, as it released to mixed reviews, and is something I have had very strange feelings about ever since.
It’s been a while since the adaptation and, with the new Joker movie coming out soon, I think I finally understand what bothered me about how The Killing Joke was handled. No, it wasn’t the first half of the movie, a completely new story added onto the original one, or the treatment of Barbra Gordan (I’d actually be annoyed if they changed that). In fact, I respect the attempt they made to add to the story. The whole thing is a 46 page one-shot and attempting to make a full length movie out of that is pretty much impossible without adding to the story, an ill-conceived story it may be.
No, what bothered me about this version of The Killing Joke is that it didn’t seem to really get the tone of what’s happening in the comic. It never seemed to get the idea that this is supposed to be the last Joker story, and a last chance for both him and Batman to convince the other that their point of view is the right one.
A brief summary for anybody who has not seen or read The Killing Joke:
The story begins with Batman vising Joker in Arkham Asylum in an attempt to, one last time, reach out to his arch-nemesis and try to prevent the inevitable outcome that their back and forth will have. The only problem is, the Joker has escaped, and has made it his mission to prove to Batman and everyone else that he’s not as crazy as everyone thinks he is. That whole world is just one bad day away from seeing everything the way he does, and decides to give Commissioner Gordan that kind of day. He kidnaps him, shoots and paralyzes his daughter, Barbra Gordan (Aka Batgirl), strips him nude and sends him through a monstrous carnival, filled with pictures of his suffering daughter and other horrific photos, all while taunting him and his misfortunes in only the kind of way the Joker can.
The whole story, the comic stuff anyway, is all about how both he and Batman see the world. As you go through the comic and get the bits and pieces of his backstory, the Joker shares a lot of details with Batman. He keeps coming back to the phrase “one bad day” because both him and batman both have that one day that pushed them to become what they are. The absurd cruelty that life can dish out sometimes hits both of them, but the difference between them is how it effects their outlook on life. For Joker, the world is insane, nonsensical, and cruel, and trying to make sense of it all is pointless because there really is no point. Batman sees the world pretty much the same way but decides to force it to make sense. That the one bad day you eventually must face doesn’t have to break you, and this argument becomes centered directly on Commissioner Gordan.
Now, in the comic, it’s very clear that this struggle is taking place, but when it’s animated, it doesn’t feel as pronounced, and nowhere is that more apparent in the final showdown between Batman and the Joker. The final monologue that the Joker gives to batman is supposed to be pleading. It’s his last chance to make Batman see the world from his point of view. It’s him trying to figure out why him and batman are so different. When they both got shafted by life in much the same way, why does batman keep trying when he sees there is no point? Why did he zig when the rest of the world should have zagged?
And that’s what makes Batman’s eventual reply hit even harder and have actual weight, because it’s the very fiber of what makes him Batman.
That pleading isn’t there when it’s animated, and the pacing of it is completely different for how it goes down in the comics. These are small changes in the grand scheme of things, but they change the context of their back and forth, making it feels like a regular showdown between the two, when it’s supposed to be so much more.
Without that feeling of desperation, that desperate attempt to make the other finally see the world the way he does, and the heartbreak that comes from finally realizing that they never will, it fails to elevate the story to being more than just another Batman/Joker showdown. This is THE Batman/Joker showdown, the one every version of the Joker look to as a reference point. Any incarnation of the Joker use The Killing Joke to get the characterization right, and to see it not translate to it’s animated incarnation is truly disappointing.
I don’t blame any of the voice actors for something like this, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are absolute legends who own the roles of Batman and The Joker. The art style does it’s best to mimic the one from the comic and while I do have gripes about how it’s not as amazing as it could be, it is still a well put together story, weird prologue story to the actual story aside. But I really feels like someone behind the direction didn’t really grasp why this story matters to the people who love it. What about this comic that resonated with people enough to push for it’s adaptation so hard nearly 25 years after it’s original printing.
This is a story about what happens when life deconstructs you. What happens when the sometimes-horrific things that life throws at you takes everything from you, and how you deal with it all when putting yourself back together. When the lows get low, we all would like to think we’d react like Batman, taking control back and seeing the world as a place where people can and will do what’s right, no matter how hard things get. But the Joker is what happens when you see it the other way around. That there is no point to it all and even trying make sense of it is futile. And seeing those two ideologies battle it out is at the heart of every great Joker story, and that’s what makes this story so compelling. That’s what makes it The Killing Joke.
Posted by Austin Hamblen, Owner and Main writer of Endlessmonkey.com