Review: ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’ (rated R for really-not-for-kids)

Hey kids! It’s Mark Hamill as the Joker! And he’s… um, he’s… Holy God.

Barbara Gordon aka Batgirl (voice of Tara Strong) has been patrolling Gotham City with Batman (voice of Kevin Conroy) as her mentor, but when things get personal between her and a newly crowned crime lord obsessed with her, Batman warns her off the pursuit. She doesn’t listen, of course, and after a too-close encounter, she decides maybe it’s time to hang up her cape and cowl. Meanwhile, the Joker (voice of Mark Hamill) has escaped from Arkham Asylum (again), and he’s decided to try something new: proving to Batman that anyone can become a villain after “one bad day.” He knows he’ll need a test subject to prove his theory, and Commissioner Gordon (voice of Ray Wise) is the perfect lure to rope the Dark Knight into his twisted experiment. Unfortunately, Barbara finds herself in the line of fire when the Joker comes to call upon her father, and far be it from the Clown Prince of Crime to pass up an opportunity…

Those familiar with the Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s graphic novel “The Killing Joke” knows the emphasis was on the word “graphic.” It depicts one of many possible origins for the Joker — depending on the one he likes any particular day — and the horrific treatment of Barbara Gordon in order to unhinge her father. This plays into a too-familiar trope: Women in Refrigerators. Feel free to look it up, but it’s essentially the idea that a woman’s existence as a character along with anything that happens to her is merely a point of motivation for a man… but not her. When Warner Bros. reassembled their “Batman: the Animated Series” voice cast of Conroy and Hamill, there wasn’t enough story to pad the comic into movie. Writers decided to add a preamble to give Batgirl more significance, making what Barbara endures matter for her instead of just to her — but did it work?

Yes… and no. While Barbara Gordon comes through in the movie as more significant than her mere comic counterpart victim, the animated film plays like two separate stories — because they are. Even more interesting is the choice to show Batman closer to Batgirl beforehand, meaning it isn’t only Papa Gordon who’s taking it personally… although the Joker couldn’t actually know that. The reworking does setup Barbara’s empowerment as it was meant to; while “The Killing Joke” technically wasn’t meant to be DC canon, Batgirl overcomes her ordeal by becoming… well, let’s not spoil it if you don’t know already, but they chose to keep it in the movie here as a coda — and that works just fine.

The voice cast is spot on, but knowing how far the Joker has gone this time makes Hamill’s portrayal sound more chilling than ever. Like the graphic novel, more is implied than actually shown, so the film doesn’t really make much use of its R-rating… not even an f-bomb. Perhaps the main idea was to steer kids far away from this; just because it’s animated doesn’t mean it’s family friendly. There are a few mistakes here and there, but the moving canvas is rich in the way the novel is brought to life and is worth a viewing.

Fans who grew up with the animated series and have read the comic may want a copy for the few but interesting extras on the disc, but it begs the question once again: why do DC animated features have their act together while the live-action DC Cinematic Murderverse can’t make anything gel?

3 Skull Recommendation Out of Four

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