Ever since Batman The Animated Series grapple-gunned into our Saturday mornings in 1992, the DC Comics/Warner Animation powerhouse has barely missed. Moving into features, Warners started to dabble in adaptations of comics. From Geoff Johns first Justice League arc, to the seminal Dark Knight Returns, DC and Warners have been smart enough not to tinker too much with the source material and make the most benefiting narrative additions and subtractions.
So when the news came that the next feature animation would be Alan Moore's influential The Killing Joke people stirred, but that was pretty much it. We knew we were in safe hands. If you could handle a grizzled and near-maniacal Batman from Frank Miller, we're not going to go Arkham-crazy about a beloved book being ruined by writers and animators that didn't understand. It'd be fine...
Like the airships over Gotham, slowly but surely tid-bits of news gathered. It would be 15 certified - Yes! Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy were coming back to voice Joker and Batman, respectively - Joygasm! It's exploitive - huh? It's sexist - What!? It's wrong - Hold up a second!?!?
It seems that the the screening at the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con had an unexpected backlash. Misogyny was being leveled liberally at The Killing Joke film. It's not that it made it more interesting, but those who had read the book could only think of THAT scene. Otherwise it just didn't make sense...unless they took a departure from the comic!
Well, they did and they didn't. The beginning of Batman: The Killing Joke is quite different to the book. Rather than open with a Batman visiting the Crown Prince of Crime to unburden his soul, we open with Batgirl. She even comments on our expectation, but references the view of the scene before us.
The Killing Joke comic is a one-shot and not a particularly long one, so what seems like a bid to lengthen the narrative and better fit a feature running time, actually turns into something else. We see the longing of a young girl for her mentor. Intertwined with her confessions to a college friend and a psychological cat-and-mouse game with a mob thug. Half the first act is taken up with Barbara Gordon rebelling, as her alter-ego struggles to deal with her capabilities (or lack thereof), along with her feelings for Batman. This particular strand takes a bat-boomerang of a turn with Bruce'n'Babs doing the bat-with-two-backs. It's a hand buzzer of a jolt, but still makes sense if it stays the course.
If you already know the rest of this dark tale you'll rub your hands together with anticipation. This will surely change the dynamic of how Batman deals with the Joker. Maybe even his interaction with Jim Gordon. However, the rest of The Killing Joke plays out exactly the same as the book. Where the new introduction does not feel crowbarred-in you come to realise that this doesn't change the motivation or reactions of Bats from the source material. Being involved with Batgirl makes him no more vitriolic or vengeful than he is when he feels like he's protecting his own from this mad man. So, you can't help but wonder what was the point, if not just to extend the running time.
The rest of The Killing Joke is lovingly rendered. Without going fully CG, it'd be hard to recreate the detail of Brian Bolland (the graphic novel's illustrator). So instead we see something bravely simple. The renderings lovingly capture the mood of the source, but the lines are economic. Perhaps not so much as the original animated series, but enough to be expressive without trying to be a facsimile of the comic book panels.
As too is the story. The scenes are played out with respect without being totally slaveish.
Watching an animation so unflinching when it comes to the darker deeds is not something overly new, but it's successfully unsettling. Helplessly witnessing the Joker put a slug into Barbara and nonchalantly comment on how she's crippled using a book metaphor is dreadfull. The unbuttoning of her clothes and subsequent allusion are positively sickening . This is perhaps where the San Diego screen audience were perturbed. Is this not perhaps deliberate manipulation, rather than misogynistic titillation?
However you digest it, it's not an easy meal going down. Not only does Batman: The Killing Joke embrace the adult beats of the story, it makes sure it keeps the narrative rhythm. It fully explores the concepts of madness and how the line of sanity can be stepped over - maybe so far you can't find your way back.
To say that Batman: The Killing Joke is a triumph, may be laying it on a bit thick. After all, it is an adaptation. However, when this much effort and love is put into something and it's successful, it surely is a Dark Victory.
4* - A Serious Cartoon on Serious Earth