Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 8/7/16
Director: Sam Liu
Cast: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong

Batman (Kevin Conroy) and the Joker (Mark Hamill) are on a collision course with destiny, and Batman tries to ease his conscience by attempting to talk things over with his insane nemesis at Arkham Asylum. Unfortunately, the Joker has escaped and is setting a horrific plot into motion, with Barbara Gordon (Tara Strong) as collateral damage. Pushed to the edge of sanity by the horrors unleashed upon him by the Joker, Jim Gordon is put on display at an amusement park as bait for Batman. The final showdown is a compelling psychological study of chaos and justice, personified by two extreme men who have peered into the abyss of madness and despair.

I dare say that I never thought this film would ever get made. Alan Moore's tragic and horrific exploration of madness is arguably the best Batman graphic novel of all time, and is definitely the most controversial. Brian Bolland's artwork is some of the best the genre has to offer, and his rendition of the Joker completely redefined the character when the book came out in 1988. The adaptation is quite good and numerous panels from the book are immediately recognizable. The music score is subtle, but effective and full of dread. Having Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Tara Strong reprise their iconic roles from the animated series is wonderful, and their performances are superb. Hamill had retired the Joker several years prior due to the strain on his vocal chords, but maintained that he would do it one last time if "The Killing Joke" ever got made.

Unfortunately, the film isn't the masterpiece that it could have been, and the contemplative nature of the material doesn't lend itself well to a cinematic approach. It's a short story, and the true horror of it can only be experienced by lingering on and studying the details in every panel. The movie tends to move through these moments too quickly, while at the same time feeling sluggish and slow. In an attempt to lengthen the story, improve the pacing, anchor the setting, and add emotional weight to Barbara Gordon's character, the filmmakers made a regrettable decision to include an extended prologue exploring Batgirl's relationship with Batman. Taken on its own, it makes a nice piece of ass-kicking Batgirl fan fiction, but it adds nothing to the main story. In fact, it's so radically different in style and tone that it actually detracts from the plot. When "The Killing Joke" starts proper, the difference is like night and day, and it takes a couple of minutes to try and reconcile what the hell just happened in the Batgirl story. Still, it's an excellent piece of animation and Warner Brothers took a huge risk making it. Not only did they attempt to adapt a thematically difficult book, but they allowed it to be made with an R rating in order to preserve its mature material. Attempting to water it down for a PG audience would have been pointless.