I’ll preface this review with two truisms. The first being I am NOT a fan of animation, the second being I am a HUGE fan of the seminal graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke. Oh wait, there’s a third truism – this review is not going to go well.
I can’t tell you exactly why I don’t like animation – but it isn’t like there are no animated things I don’t like. I remain entranced every time I watch the Tom & Jerry short, Mouse In Manhattan; the Toy Story movies, The Incredibles, The Iron Giant – I love those movies. I liked The Powerpuff Girls when my daughter was old enough to love them – I even appreciate the weirdness of Adventure Time just fine, and when Christmas comes around, I get all sentimental about A Charlie Brown Christmas – but yeah, I mostly have no interest in anything else. I didn’t feel it for Akira, the Miyazaki movies are pretty, but uninteresting. I loathe anime of all kinds … I don’t get the appeal for animation, just like I don’t get the appeal for movies like Pacific Rim. Animation, for the most part, just has no depth that grabs me.
And then there’s the matter of The Killing Joke. Published by DC Comics in 1988 when both writer Alan Moore, and artist Brian Bolland (Judge Dredd, Camelot 3000) were arguably at the absolute top of their powers. I’m not a Batman fan at all, but The Killing Joke is by far and away my favourite Batman story, and one of the greatest comic book stories ever told, in my opinion. Drawing from the same sense of comic book “realism” Moore helped usher into comics in the 80s, along with Watchman, Marvelman, and Swamp Thing, The Killing Joke ostensibly features the origin of The Joker, but since The Joker is insane, any memories the story puts forth lands it squarely in the realm of “unreliable narrator” storytelling. I think it’s a terrific piece of work, even though Moore since then has denigrated it as simply a story about two licensed characters who don’t relate to the real world. Given Moore’s fractious relationship with DC Comics, the comment comes off more as that of someone embittered, and who wants to be seen as distancing himself from the company at any cost. While it isn’t considered Moore’s greatest work, most people will agree that as far as comic books go, it’s still way, way up there.
So then, Warner Bros/DC Comics’ decision to create an animated feature based on a legendary comic book at this point in time is something of a mystery. The mostly acclaimed animated version of Batman goes way back to the early 90s, and the Bruce Timm years are generally considered some of the finest the world of animation has produced. Yet The Killing Joke predates even that by a few years. Why now, then? As I write this, there’s a sense among comic book critics, and defenders of Moore’s legacy, that DC are on a mission to ruin Moore’s work – the recent Rebirth doesn’t simply blame DC editorial for the abject failure of their New 52 reboot, it figuratively blames Moore’s Watchmen for it! If this would have happened 20 years ago, the conceit might have been cute, but in the present day, almost thirty years after Watchmen’s publication, it just feels like return fire across the trenches.
If DC set out to knock a few more dents into the great work Moore did for them, they couldn’t have done a better hatchet job than their animated version of The Killing Joke. It’s a flat out disaster from start to finish. Written by Brian Azzarello, who’s done some decent work but not here, and with Bruce Timm serving as a producer, this is a horrifyingly ill-conceived trainwreck. While the graphic novel isn’t hugely complex, it’s still a well-crafted story of two men staring into the abyss from both sides of the mirror, and what the darkness within each of them forces them to do. The animated feature? Forget any of that. In one of the worst decisions I’ve seen when it comes to adapting source material, the first 30 minutes of this (and the entire feature is only about 75 minutes long) not only tells a story that IS NOT IN THE GRAPHIC NOVEL, it somehow tells a story that doesn’t even feel connected to the main narrative. Not only that, this part of the story is lame and threadbare, featuring Batgirl (who only ever appears as Barbara Gordon in the original material) going up against a would-be mob boss who’s crushing on her, and trying to work out her complex girl feelings about Batman. It’s horrendously bad – so much so that it doesn’t even attempt to be an allegory or metaphor for the theme played out in the main narrative. And about that main narrative – you don’t even get a good version of it. The story is a weightless Wikipedia-retelling. It hits the same plot points, but does nothing with them. There’s no feeling, no soul, no compelling reason to continue watching when all this becomes evident early on. In the source material The Joker’s plot to drive Commissioner Gordon mad feels like a real attempt, but the animated version serves up an abysmal, cringe-inducing musical number.
I know, right?
Another reason for the failure is the animation itself. It’s TV standard animation and nothing more, full of stiff, clipped movement, crude artwork (especially compared with Brian Bolland’s flat out gorgeous, career-defining work) and uninvolving voicework. Mark Hamill’s voice might have worked on the TV show, but in an adaptation of this magnitude it’s hopelessly inappropriate. You may think it’s silly to be this negative against a cartoon, but bear in mind that this feature carries – ludicrously so – an R rating, so someone somewhere is attaching weight to this too. It’s astonishing, really, and is more proof that Warners just has no idea what they are doing with the DC properties.
I do feel that The Killing Joke could be a fantastic piece of live action cinema. It would put the pathos of The Dark Knight to shame done as a straight adaptation – the material practically screams out for that kind of treatment. This animated version is mostly embarrassing, silly in places, and whether or not DC intended for it to piss all over Moore’s work, it does exactly that.