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This latest entry in the much-celebrated Batman animated series (from the DC Animated universe) is unlike others in the long-running franchise, telling a darker, more adult story that follows closely the highly-acclaimed 1988 graphic novel (by Alan Moore) while making a few controversial changes to the already controversial book. Some may take issue with an expanded Batgirl role and a budding romance, but these in no way hinder what amounts to a faithful and respectful adaptation that is, in no uncertain terms, a sensational experience.
It starts like you don’t expect, and Batgirl’s opening, somber, introspective narration let’s us know it knows it too. With a title that outright declares a confrontation between the long-standing, iconic enemies, it’s a risky but surprisingly effective choice to dedicate the first third of the story to Barbara Gordon/Batgirl (wonderfully voiced by Tara Strong) instead. As Batman’s younger assistant, she patrols the streets of Gotham from above and one night, fails to stop a robbery of an armored truck, but manages to apprehend one of the criminals with Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) swopping in to help.
Escaping the scene is Paris Franz (voiced by Maury Sterling), the nephew of a major crime lord. He takes an obsessive, dangerous physical interest in the attractive Batgirl and tries to lure her to him. Batman wants her to back away, worried that she is not streetwise enough yet to handle the more repugnant side of Gotham crime. She hasn’t looked into the abyss yet, something he has, and it worries him. Not long after, when a moment comes where that abyss stares at her, it frightens her, but also tempts her. She makes a fateful choice.
Meanwhile, Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill), imprisoned at Arkham, escapes. He has a new, ruthless plan that is as often, very personal, striking at Commissioner Gordon (voiced by Ray Wise). He attacks and kidnaps him after assaulting Barbara, leaving her behind. Now, on his own again, Batman must find the notoriously insane Joker, but the Caped Crusader has grown weary of the game and realizes there are ultimately only two possible options for how this disturbing relationship can end. One of them will die. Batman’s thoughtful solution is one that separates this from so many others, abandoning lengthy fight sequences for something more reflective.
Directed by Sam Liu, it might be easy to dismiss Batman: The Killing Joke as just another animated superhero movie but that would be neglecting the larger message, and missing the beautiful accomplishment that it truly is. Yes, there are some issues with objectification, as the curvaceous Batgirl is sometimes viewed in parts rather than whole, aiming the camera at her torso and behind and having her in erotic positions, but this is the point of why Franz has become enamored and Batman himself understands this, warning her that she is in fact being seen as such. The filmmakers test us in the vein, and seem to illustrate their own point in a manner that can be seen as hypocritical. But that is stripped away by the character herself, a young woman with extraordinary talents, caught up in the trappings of crimefighting superheroism. The key difference here is that she is attracted to her mentor and he to her. There is a wonderful, adult moment on a rooftop that is surprising but effective and humanizes these characters in a remarkable way. It also gives weight to the second half and motivation for the actions of all involved.
Like the book, which was criticized (even by the author, years later) for its treatment of Barbara Gordon, the film takes no easy path in lessening that impact. There are moments that are uncomfortable, and as this is an animated feature, feels doubly so. We are left with questions about what exactly Joker does to the young woman after he already has significantly hurt her (a glimpse of a hand undoing a button says much) and while its themes are surely heavy and challenging, it accomplishes precisely its intent, both in giving the Joker the menace he needs and the emotional investment in Batman and Barbara’s relationship. That said, Barbara and Batgirl are never once seen as ‘victim’, and indeed, we see rise from this story, the beginning of another in the hints of an Oracle origin. Interpretation and opinions will vary but this is powerful stuff.
The Joker is again a deliciously maniacal monster who this time is provided a backstory. This follows Moore’s book closely and details a meek man with a pregnant wife facing an impossible situation as he stumbles into the role of the Clown Prince of Crime. Hamill is once again, startling good, his performance one of his best as the famed villain. There are sequences that are lifted directly from the book while keeping the spirit of the animated series. The Joker is never a sympathetic character, despite the history, but we want answers and more so, cling to Batman’s philosophical assessment, believing that their connection is one born of the other and a resolve can be found
One does not need to be a Batman fan to enjoy Batman: The Killing Joke. It is a stand alone film that is less a superhero movie and more a character study, a deftly-made, sharply written, supremely-voiced animated film that rivals any current superhero film, besting many of them. It’s not an easy experience, but it’s a worthy one. “All it takes is one bad day . . .”, says Joker. That, and his story in the final moments say much more than than you think. This is a great film.
Director: Sam Liu
Writers: Bob Kane (character created by: Batman), Brian Azzarello
Stars: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong