We’ve been begging for it for years. Some thought it would never happen. “It’s too violent,” they said. “The studio would never allow it,” they said. “You can’t have an R rated animated movie! Think of the children!” …Seriously? Well, they were wrong. It happened. It was allowed. It’s the first ever R rated Batman movie in theatres. Eat it Batman V Superman!
WARNING: SPOILERS FOR BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE
Yeah, I’m going with spoilers this time because a) it’s based on a very famous, highly controversial comic and b) said comic is now over twenty years old.
Written in 1988 by famous comic book writer Alan Moore, the one shot comic ‘The Killing Joke’ was the first mainstream comic I ever owned and it was what slowly helped me to get into comic books, though my love admittedly turned towards Marvel rather than DC. Now I will admit it has problems: Fridging Barbara immediately, not addressing how the tragedy affects her rather than Batman or her dad, …pretty much everything to do with Barbara is problematic actually. Yes, she eventually becomes Oracle in the comics, and Oracle is amazing and a badass, but no one knew that then and the editor at the time reportedly said “cripple the bitch”. I still contend that it’s a good comic, a good Batman and Joker story, just not a great comic and even Alan Moore himself regrets what he did to Barbara.
However, something that ‘The Killing Joke’ can be proud of is its legacy. Tim Burton named it as one of the influences for his Batman film, which in turn inspired the beloved animated series we all love and gave us Mark Hamill’s Joker and Kevin Conroy’s Batman in the first place. It was the influence for Heath Ledger’s Academy Award winning performance as the Clown Prince of Crime. The award winning Arkham games all take place after the events of the story. And, again, Oracle was created because of this story. The computer expert, information broker of the DC Universe, and leader of the Birds of Prey. She’s the best!
I hope you can understand that I find the comic overall interesting even if I disagree with portions of it, and they are major portions even if the comic itself doesn’t think so. There’s a reason I haven’t read it much since I bought it. Off topic: ‘Batgirl’ was the only comic I followed in the New 52. Go read it. It’s awesome!
Since the comic is short, a prelude was added to it to allow the audience to spend more time with Barbara Gordon as Batgirl prior to the events of the comic. In it, Batman and Batgirl investigate a thief and member of the Maroni crime family, Paris Franz…yes, that’s his name. The point of this was to make Barbara more of a character than in the original story, but they resorted to making everything about her relationship with Batman, which I’ll get to later. The events of this investigation ultimately lead to Barbara retiring as Batgirl. A week later, the Joker purchases a rundown carnival and converts it into his own design. He shoots and cripples Barbara at her home and kidnaps her father, leading Batman to him in the hopes of showing they aren’t so different after all and that all someone needs to end up like him is “One bad day”.
Let’s start with some good stuff first, shall we? The voice acting. Mark Hamill, Kevin Conroy, and Tara Strong all return from Batman the Animated Series and are all fantastic in their roles. They haven’t lost a beat in all these year, Conroy and Hamill especially. I do wish the voice actors for Commissioner Gordon, Alfred, and Harvey Bullock could have come back, but it’s kind of hard when two of them are dead. The guy they got to play Gordon, Ray Wise, is a good replacement, even if it is weird to see that design and expect another voice to come out. Hamill sings in this movie and it’s great! …Does anyone remember if he sang in Arkham Knight? It’s been a while.
The art and animation, also great. It sort of looks like a hybrid of the comic and the Animated Series. At least, that’s how it looked to me. I could have had nostalgia goggles on due to the voice cast. The animation looks much better than it did in the trailer, probably because it’s the final product and not a marketing piece. The animation in the trailer always sort of looked slowed down to me. It’s a lot more polished in this version.
The adaptation is spot on. These are all scenes straight out of the comic. A few things are changed to accommodate the fact that the pictures are now moving, but it’s an extremely faithful adaptation. Which is also the problem with the movie, but we’ll get to that in a second. Point is, as an adaption of ‘The Killing Joke’, one of the most famous of Batman stories, it sticks the landing. As an actual good story however…Well, let’s get to the elephant in the room.
The thing most people have a problem with is the tacked on prologue and for good reason. It is tacked on. It is bad and it is offensive to Batgirl as a character. Hell, it gives her a friend who’s a walking gay stereotype. I don’t even remember if he had a name. I don’t think he did. More than that though, it makes everything Batgirl does about Batman and not about herself. In the comics, she originally appeared dressed as a female Batman for a Halloween party and saved Bruce Wayne from a kidnapping by Killer Moth. That was all her. No Batman prompt needed. It was only after that that she started being Batgirl. She was made to represent the women’s liberation movement of the time. She had a PhD. She was a detective and a librarian. She was one of the most popular characters of the Silver Age of Comics. Yeah, she was originally conceived to draw more female viewers into the Adam West Batman show, but she grew beyond that.
Here? Everything she does is shown as being because of or inferior to Batman. Par for the course in Batman stuff because of the old “Because He’s Batman” excuse, but it also makes it incredibly sexist. One of my friends who saw the film with me pointed out Bruce Tim’s obsession with Barbara and…yeah, there are quite a few shots of the camera ogling her. Then there’s the sex scene…I’m not even…even before I saw the film, when I heard about that I was just like “…What?” The creators said that the prologue would make Barbara more of a character and less of a set piece for the story of Batman, Joker, and her father…Well, they did it wrong. It made it worse. I like that the film showed her as Oracle at the end, but it still doesn’t make up for it.
The problem with the movie isn’t the movie itself. It’s the original comic it’s based on. The comic about the woman who gets shot and paralysed from the waist down in order to drive her father insane and get Batman’s attention. This wasn’t about her. Joker didn’t know she was Batgirl. The only reason he did it was because of her father and Batman: the most important men in her life (I don’t read DC comics so I’m not sure where any of the Robins were at this time though I’m pretty sure Dick was with the Titans and it was shortly after this story that Jason was killed). The story’s not even about her. It’s about Batman and her father’s reactions to what happened to her. Everything about her becoming Oracle and her learning to live with her disability only came after the comic had been released as a reaction to what Moore did. I don’t even really blame Moore for this, the comic wasn’t his idea and even right after he made it he regretted what he did. I blame the editor for allowing it to happen.
I can applaud trying to give the Joker a sympathetic backstory. I can applaud trying to make a story where Joker and Batman are seen as two sides of the same coin, that’s interesting as my love for Hannibal will attest to. I cannot abide by what happened to Barbara in order to make that story and the fact that it was treated as a minor detail. That’s not even going into the problems with its portrayal of mental illness, but I don’t think I’m anywhere near qualified to talk about that. There’s only so much I can learn from the internet and really understand.
Honestly, I think the entire movie boils down to the creators shouting “Are You Not Entertained?!” And yes, I was. They faithfully adapted the story and for that I give them kudos. If you want an adaptation of ‘The Killing Joke’ with Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy then, congratulations, you got what you wanted. I wanted the first R rated Batman film to not be Batman V Superman and I got what I wanted. Though saying that it’s better than BVS is not very high praise. That film at least had Wonder Woman in character. I can give the film credit for having the guys in character in comparison, but that wasn’t asking much to begin with. I say see it only to say you have and only for the amazing voice cast. Round out your Conroy/Hamill collection, so to speak.
The film ends with the joke I’ve wanted to see brought to life by Hamill since I read the comic. So, why aren’t I laughing?
Saturday: A review of Star Trek Beyond (Sorry for the delay)
After that: Comic Con Reactions!