While Warner Brothers’ DC Comics live-action movie slate has caused division amongst critics and fans thus far, their direct-to-video original animated movies have been universally appealing for the most part. But with Batman: The Killing Joke, one of the most influential stories about the Joker, comes high expectations. Did directors (and Warner Brothers Animation veterans) Sam Liu and Bruce Timm deliver what fans of the Batman mythology were expecting? Yes, but not without consequence.
To prove that one bad day can make any man as insane as he is, the Joker wages a psychological war on Batman that catches Commissioner Gordon and his daughter in the crippling crossfire and leaves scars on the Dark Knight that even time won’t heal. Batman: The Killing Joke is available to own on Digital HD today while the Blu-ray edition will hit shelves on August 2.
When the Caped Crusader pulls up to Arkham Asylum in the Batmobile, it certainly feels like panels are being stripped right out of the graphic novel and that’s where Batman: The Killing Joke succeeds: when the story reaches its source material.
Unfortunately, the only problem (and it is a big one) with Batman: The Killing Joke is the initial setup before diving into the source material, which will ultimately leave some people disappointed, or chuckling, depending on how they view it.
The first 30 minutes revolve mostly around Barbara Gordon/Batgirl. Creating a subplot to tie into the one-shot might feel appropriate since the graphic novel is only 48 pages. But for The Killing Joke, it feels tonally different and absurd – even for Batman. Without giving away too much, the subplot gives Batman more motivation to take down the Joker than the original graphic novel did. This was unnecessary, since Batman’s motives in the graphic novel alone were enough to stand on their own, especially since the added, unwarranted narrative will no doubt create countless jokes and funny headlines.
Despite an eye-rolling first act, things pick up steam in the second act once the movie hearkens back to Alan Moore’s classic tale. While some sequences might be too dark and disturbing for viewers, we’re given a more mature look at a battle-weary protagonist and antagonist pushed to their limits in the middle of psychological warfare. Batman has always been shown in a much lighter tone when it comes to animation, but kudos to Warner Brothers for allowing an R-rating for their most recognizable superhero.
Along with the faithful source material, Batman: The Killing Joke shines in a couple of other areas, as well. The animation is top-notch, as the transition from page to screen looks smooth, even if it is somewhat different. Flashback sequences of Joker’s origin particularly stand out. And of course the biggest draw for The Killing Joke is the voice cast itself, which is stellar. Fans familiar with Kevin Conroy as Batman (Batman: The Animated Series) should expect more of the same and it never gets old, while Mark Hamill (Batman: The Animated Series) once again proves that no one will ever come close to matching his iconic Joker voice and laugh. Along with Hamill giving us a more layered approach to the Joker, he also provides an original, catchy tune that is sure to put a smile on people’s faces.
When the day comes that Conroy and Hamill decide to retire from voicing Batman and Joker, it’s difficult to imagine anyone coming remotely close to capturing what these two have given to world over the past two decades. And while I didn’t care for the subplot involving Barbara Gordon/Batgirl, Tara Strong (Teen Titans) does a fine job voicing Batman’s understudy while Ray Wise (Twin Peaks) is solid as the voice of Commissioner Gordon.
Running at around 75 minutes (the typical run time for these direct-to-video DC animated movies), the 30-minute set up for Batman: The Killing Joke could’ve been left out entirely or reworked with another original idea to go along with the superb final 45 minutes. Either way, it doesn’t change the fact that what could’ve been an unforgettable adaptation of one of DC Comics’ best stories is instead something that doesn’t feel wholly satisfying for even the biggest of Batman fans.