REVIEW: ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’ (2016)

Sometimes you just need to accept that something isn’t for you, and instead of bitching about it, get over it.  This isn’t a very sophisticated critical argument, and I’ve refuted it plenty of times.  But I would be lying if I said that sometimes it didn’t seem like sage advice, that produces a meditative calm in the face of an exasperating annoyance.

I kinda had to give myself that advice while I was watching Batman: The Killing Joke.  Have you read the graphic novel?  You see, I haven’t, and mistakenly thought that this was an animated film, an adaptation of a graphic novel or manga like Akira, maybe, or Cowboy Bebop.  What The Killing Joke actually is, it turns out, is an animated graphic novel.  It hasn’t really been ‘adapted,’ per se, as much as scanned and uploaded.

I learn from online sources that The Killing Joke itself wasn’t quite enough material for a feature film, so a brief episode featuring Batgirl was added to the beginning.  Even if I hadn’t been aware of this, it would have showed.  The first half-hour or so has, from a thematic and narrative perspective, nothing to do with the remaining forty-five minutes.  Batgirl, in an attempt to, I dunno, impress Batman, who is like a father to her, chases a bad guy, Paris Franz.  As Franz becomes obsessed with her, Batman continually warns her that she is in over her head, infuriating her.  She yells at Batman and assaults him, before unzipping his batsuit and riding the pony.  (Spoiler alert?  I can’t tell.)

Okay, so we have a female crimefighter who fucks her father figure at the same time she tries to prove to him her prowess and autonomy.  It’s kind of a fascinating premise, but nothing is done with it.  After this, the issue with Franz is quickly resolved, and we get into the graphic novel’s territory, which is less to do with Batgirl than her father.

In The Killing Joke, The Joker kidnaps and tortures Commissioner Gordon in an attempt to drive him insane.  He wants to prove that any man is only one bad day away from insanity, that our stability is tenuous at best.  Intercut with this is the story of the Joker’s origin, in which we see him, over the course of one day, losing his grip on his life and mind.

This is also a fascinating premise, but it seems to me shallowly explored.  There is more than enough material in this part of the story to be adapted to feature length, but everything moves along in a hurry; once you have a plot point, it just moves on to the next one.  And again, and again.  It also seems so frustratingly uncinematic; it plays like episodes of an animated, half-hour TV show strung together.  But, of course, maybe I’m not being fair.  There’s a reason this was going straight to video, not least of which is that, throughout its production, it was never intended to be a theatrical film.

So, have you sat with your copy of The Killing Joke, wishing that the pictures on the page would move like in the newspapers in the Hogwart’s library?  Then Batman: The Killing Joke is for you.  It is essentially the panels come to life, nothing else.  Were you hoping for a darker Batman tale, liberated by the freedom of animation and freedom from tentpole commercial considerations?  Then, sorry.  This is something that, quite simply, is not for you.

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