8 Aug 2016

Screen Time: BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE

BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE
Cast: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Ray Wise
Director: Sam Liu
Runtime: 76 minutes
Certificate: 15
Release date: 25th July 2016 (USA)/8th August 2016(UK)

Matt C: The Killing Joke is a seminal Batman tale released back in 1988, one which has arguably had more of a lasting influence on the Bat-mythos than The Dark Knight Returns. It has always seen controversy swirl around it, specifically in the way it dealt with the crippling of Barbara Gordon at the hands of the Joker and how the Clown Prince of Crime attempts to drive her father, Jim Gordon, insane with naked photos of his daughter's bloodied body. It remains potent stuff, and it took the ‘adult’ approach to superhero storytelling to a new level. There are those who suggest that an off-panel rape of Barbara occurred, but  Alan Moore's disturbing investigation into whether “one bad day” can tip someone over the edge is uncomfortable reading no matter what interpretation you take from certain sequences (some would have you believe Batman murders the Joker on the final page) and it continues to possess enormous power thanks to the intelligence and emotional weight that sits behind it.

A lot of the criticism that still lingers around the story focuses on the characterization of Barbara, which is relatively brief considering the impact she has on the plot and the life-changing injuries she receives. The makers of this animated adaptation obviously hoped to redress that by giving Barbara and her Batgirl alter ego a much larger role, and roughly the first third of this film has her as the lead player. It’s a real shame then that her presentation here is so woefully misjudged – she comes across as an often emotionally unstable crimefighter with limited experience, potentially more of a hindrance to the Dark Knight than an equal partner. Then there’s an unnecessary sexual attraction that gets introduced and played up, leading to an obvious destination, one that doesn’t fit with the established dynamic at all. Instead of increasing her importance in the narrative and defining her as a strong woman, she’s frequently left looking like someone who struggles to keep up in a man’s world. So, instead of redressing anything, Barbara is far worse off from this misguided and embarrassing expansion of her part in the tale, which does absolutely no justice to the character.
From there it settles into a more direct adaptation of the source, with much of the dialogue coming straight from Moore’s script, and although that should be a cause for celebration at this stage, much of it feels stilted and uneasy, highlighting that the medium probably wasn’t the best fit for translating this particular material, the rather bland, generic animation not really suiting the more mature content (and certainly not doing justice to Brian Bolland's original art). The voice cast generally don’t find the right tone to hit, not quite making the jump from a Saturday morning kids cartoon pitch to a more resonant and grounded frequency. The exception is Mark Hamill who does bring a mix of manic humanity and outright insanity to Moore’s words, but again the direction, score and various other aspects of the film frequently undermine his good work.

It was inevitable that Warners Animation would get to this after going through various other celebrated superhero stories from across the years, but even with a writer as acclaimed as Brian Azzarello penning the screenplay it seems that this is one graphic novel that should have remained as an inspiration for taking these iconic characters to the screen rather than being taken to the screen itself. 4/10

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