Film Review | Is The Killing Joke a Cynical Cash In or a Worthy Adaptation?

Alan Moore, Brian Bolland and John Higgins’ graphic novel The Killing Joke is generally considered one of the best centring upon Batman, along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. It took two well-loved and famed characters and did something interesting with them. It highlighted how The Joker is essentially a warped, mirror image of Batman – analysing the duality of evil. Both are men who, following one disastrous day, were altered forever.

Many adaptations of the graphic novels mentioned in my opening paragraph go straight-to-DVD. As a result, one would be forgiven for thinking that director Sam Liu’s take on The Killing Joke is of better quality than the typical animated Batman adaptation on account of its release in cinemas. However, in reality, it’s no different and does not really deserve a place on the big screen.

Batgirl - voiced by Tara Strong. -
Batgirl – voiced by Tara Strong. Source

The film begins in an unusual fashion. Instead of The Joker versus Batman plot-line synonymous with The Killing Joke, we spend twenty minutes with Barbara Gordon/Bat-Girl. It’s a strange decision because, aside from giving Barbara more to do than just be a pawn in The Joker’s sick plan (a complaint feminist critics levelled at the novel), it serves no function. Bat-Girl’s attempt to track down a villain, whose most interesting quality is his name – Paris Franz (yes, really) – does not push the plot forward in any meaningful way. Also, in giving Barbara extra time in the film, the filmmakers have given her less to do. Her romantic feelings for Bruce Wayne and the way she describes it to her token stereotypical gay friend, cause the movie to feel less like The Killing Joke and more like a Sandra Bullock rom-com. Bat-Girl has the capability to be portrayed as a strong, independent woman. This animation does not do that.

Once, Mark Hamill’s Joker appears (the highlight without a doubt) the movie begins to pick-up. His plan to drive Commissioner Gordon insane by giving him the worst day of his life, proving that what happened to him could happen to anyone, is a plot that has genuine promise. However, even when this adaptation tackles that classic story, there is a distinct feeling that what’s happening on-screen should feel bigger and more epic than it does. The Killing Joke is a graphic novel that is often used as proof that comics are a legitimate form of art. However, even at its best, this adaptation feels only serviceable.

Mark Hamill provides the voice of The Joker in The Killing Joke. -
Mark Hamill provides the voice of The Joker in The Killing Joke. Source

Aside from Hamill (who is reliably great), the voice-cast lack soul or flavour, despite some good names. Awesome character actor Ray Wise (Twin Peaks) as Commissioner Gordon, The Strain’s Robin Atkin Downes as Harvey Bullock, even Batman veteran Kevin Conroy as the central caped crusader – all are non-entities, adding zero charisma. On top of this, the film’s running time of 76 minutes (after spending the opening twenty on a needless sub-plot) feels far too short to build characters one can like. Meanwhile,  the animation, aside from some ace exterior shots of Gotham, is for the most part unremarkable.

So why is The Killing Joke receiving a cinema release when everything about it screams “direct-to-dvd”? One can only assume it’s a combination of the original graphic novel’s legacy, combined with an attempt to cash-in on the hype of the upcoming Suicide Squad. Either way, Sam Liu’s The Killing Joke is only worth watching if one is a fan of the many other straight-to-DVD entries centring on Batman.

The Killing Joke is in selected cinemas now. Check out the trailer below.

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