When Warner Brothers and DC Comics announced the development of DC Universe Animated Original Movies, the appeal to fans was seeing beloved comic book story arcs adapted into animated films, stories that likely wouldn’t be made into live-action movies.
The first of them was 2007’s Superman: Doomsday, which adapted the “Death of Superman” story from the early 1990s. (As it turns out, elements from that arc made their way into Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.) Almost all of the DC animated films to this point have adapted comic book storylines — including Justice League: The New Frontier, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, All-Star Superman and Justice League: War, among many others — though there have also been origin stories for Wonder Woman and Green Lantern that would have served well as live-action movies.
But in recent years, Warner Bros. Animation and DC Comics have been more ambitious, taking on some of the most highly-regarded stories of the past 30 years. Those films include adaptations of Frank Miller’s classic comic books Batman: Year One and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Critical and fan reception for those movies have been mixed. Personally, I think these movies — and much of the DC Universe Animated product — have been mediocre. While they’ve provided a momentary thrill by bringing beloved comic books to life, most of the films have fallen far short of their source material.
So when an adaptation of the 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke was announced, I was apprehensive. This is considered one of the best Batman stories ever created. Writer Alan Moore was at his best, coming off celebrated runs on Swamp Thing and Watchmen. Artist Brian Bolland was known mostly for his Judge Dredd comics in the U.K. and DC Comics covers in the U.S., and to get a full story from him was a rare luxury.
While “graphic novel” is often used as a pretentious term to make comic books sound more adult or wrongfully used to label paperback collections of comic book arcs, The Killing Joke was a true illustrated novel, a one-off story that explored territory the regular Batman comics wouldn’t venture into. Could an animated film possibly faithfully translate the darker themes and gorgeous illustrations?
The good news was that producer Bruce Timm — who helped create some of the best Batman material ever seen with Batman: The Animated Series — had every intention of maintaining The Killing Joke‘s darker, adult edge, developing it as the first R-rated DC Universe original animated film. Those familiar with the graphic novel know that the story wouldn’t contain the same drama with softer edges and sanitized plotlines.
Underlining that this was a special effort, Timm brought back Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill to voice Batman and The Joker, respectively, as they did on the animated series and recurringly over the past 20-plus years. While other actors have voiced these characters for the DC animated movies — notably Bruce Greenwood and Jason O’Mara for Batman, and John DiMaggio and Michael Emerson for The Joker — Conroy and Hamill are most affectionately associated with the Dark Knight and his arch-nemesis.
The bad news is that, by itself, the Killing Joke graphic novel doesn’t have enough story to sustain a 75-minute running time, the preferred length for these DC Universe animated films. As celebrated as the book is, it’s largely concerned with flashbacks telling the origin story of The Joker. The scenes in the present day mostly consist of The Joker having escaped from Arkham Asylum, psychologically torturing Commissioner Gordon (largely by doing something terrible to his daughter Barbara), and Batman trying to find Gordon and take down The Joker yet again.
To pad the movie out, Timm, writer Brian Azzarello and director Sam Liu created an extended prologue to the original story featuring Batgirl — aka Barbara Gordon, daughter of Commissioner Gordon.
The creative intentions were good, giving Barbara more of a story and allowing viewers to take more of an investment in the character. That way, when the events of The Killing Joke happen to her, there is far more of an emotional punch because Barbara is a character we’ve spent more time with. In the original graphic novel, Moore presumes that longtime comic book readers already know who she is and will be shocked when The Joker attacks her. She’s not much of a presence in the story, used more as a plot device, which has been a significant criticism of the book.
I very much doubt how Batgirl/Barbara Gordon is utilized in this newly larger story is going to quell those criticisms. In fact, irritation will likely be replaced by outrage. The big revelation was leaked last week before Comic-Con and became a huge controversy online and in San Diego, where the filmmakers were confronted by angry fans. So it’s easy to find if you prefer to know about it before watching this film.
While trying not to spoil the story, I will say that this development is an aspect of the Batman-Batgirl partnership that has always seemed to intrigue Timm and I’ve never quite understood why. (It’s also a character point in the Batman Beyond animated series.) What happens doesn’t make either character look good, and rather than making them seem flawed, it just delves into icky, uncomfortable territory. It also defines the Barbara Gordon character in a way that undercuts her dramatic value.
This terrible, misguided creative decision ends up ruining what would have been a faithful adaptation of a beloved graphic novel. I’m not certain that the psychological and existential aspects of the story work as well on screen as they do on the page. While the origin story makes The Joker into a tragic figure, his present-day intentions are to demonstrate that one bad day can push anyone over the edge of sanity. Meanwhile, Batman is struggling with the reality that their long conflict can only end with one of them dying.
While there is a climactic set piece, it’s not much of a showdown. Batman versus The Joker has never been about physical confrontation. Yet in a film, the story is kind of forced into that because you can’t just have two characters talk it out— especially in an animated movie that depends largely on action. However, that’s essentially what happens at the end of The Killing Joke, which is great in comic book form because it allows you to contemplate what happened. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t play that well in animation.
(To their credit, Azzarello and Liu do attempt to stay true to the book’s ending, which has been interpreted differently over the years. The most notable angle was taken by comic book writer Grant Morrison, compelling many longtime fans to take a different look at the story more than 20 years later.)
I wonder how someone who never read the original comic book might view this animated version of The Killing Joke. Perhaps without the book influencing perception, it’s more enjoyable. Isn’t that often true for any book-to-movie adaptation? Maybe one reason I liked Batman: Under the Red Hood is because I didn’t read the original comic books.
Yet I also get the sense that the primary audience for these DC Universe Original Animated films is made up of people who want to see their favorite comic books brought to life. To me, they’ve been consistently disappointing, especially when adapting stories that I grew up loving. Batman: The Killing Joke makes me want to stop giving these animated films repeated chances.
Batman: The Killing Joke is now available on digital video and will be released on Blu-ray/DVD Aug. 2.