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Batman: The Killing Joke (Blu-ray Review)

4 Aug, 2016 By: John Latchem

Box Office $3.78 million
$19.98 DVD, $24.98 Blu-ray, $39.99 Deluxe Edition
Rated ‘R’ for some bloody images and disturbing content.
Voices of Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Ray Wise.

What a missed opportunity.

Batman: The Killing Joke is one of the seminal comic book stories in the history of not only Batman, but the Joker as well. The 1988 graphic novel, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland, not only broached the idea of an origin story for the Joker, but its examination of the relationship between the hero and villain as intricately connected opposites has influenced countless Batman stories since, not the least of which are Tim Burton’s 1989 movie and Christopher Nolan’s 2008 masterpiece, The Dark Knight.

So it’s a bit surprising that the animated adaption seems more like an exercise in producing a movie version just to do it, rather than taking the care to craft a truly epic piece.

They certainly had the right cast in place to generate fan excitement, with Kevin Conroy’s Batman and Mark Hamill’s Joker long considered the definitive versions of the characters dating back to “Batman: The Animated Series” in the early 1990s. In fact, Hamill’s insistence he would return to the role for this film is probably what drummed up enough popular support to get it made.

What ended up on the screen, however, really puts a spotlight on exactly what it takes to adapt a story from a comic book to the screen.

The filmmakers realized early on that the original book wasn’t long enough to stretch the story into a 70-minute feature, which is the length of the other DC Universe animated films. Originally, the plan was for a 40-minute short, and they prepared a screenplay that was pretty much a straight adaptation of the story, using a similar flashback structure to examine how “one bad day” might have turned a failed stand-up comic into the Joker (whose recollection, by his own admission, might stretch the truth). Not unlike how "one bad day" set a happy rich kid down the path of a criminal-hunting vigilante.

This half of the movie is essentially the comic book put on screen, as Batman must hunt down the Joker after he kidnaps Commissioner Gordon, with disastrous consequences for Batgirl.

Then the decision was made to pad out the story to meet the longer running time. But instead of deconstructing what they had to add depth and character to the central story, which deals with the relationship between Batman, the Joker and Gordon, with Batgirl caught in the middle, they simply tacked on a lengthy prologue about Batgirl.

The result is jarring, to say the least. Anyone familiar with the story will be baffled as to why this new opening act has little to do with the second half, other than the fact that Batgirl exists. And anyone coming in fresh will think this is a Batgirl movie that suddenly and inexplicably shifts gears to focus on the Joker. It doesn’t so much feel like a movie as it does a couple of episodes of a TV show, with the Batgirl stuff playing like a hypothetical series on the CW in which she explores her romantic interest in Batman (which is the most controversial aspect of the piece).

It’s as if screenwriter Brian Azzarello and executive producer Bruce Timm were less interested in properly translating the core story and its themes to the screen as they were in using the project as an excuse for a standalone Batgirl adventure.

The best way for fans to watch is to simply start with the second half of the movie, which is the true Killing Joke adaptation. It’s a glorious thing to hear Hamill return to the role, even though the animation style is a bit less polished than the aesthetic used on the animated series.

Other viewers might not connect with this story, however, because of the lackluster effort made in establishing the other characters (aside from Batgirl). Giving Batgirl some development to deepen the impact of what happens to her in the graphic novel is a fine idea for an adaptation, but it would play better if it were done within the context of the core story about the Joker. This is where the movie needed to pad out its running time, by expanding on the relationship between Gordon and the Joker as well, and really hammer home the idea that the Joker is able to unwittingly target Batgirl not because of her relationship with Batman, but because she is Gordon’s daughter. If anything, the movie as presented blunts the impact of these relationships in favor of what boils down to a basic surface retelling of the comic book.

Such themes are given a bit of discussion in the Blu-ray bonus materials, especially a 17-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that explores why the Batman-Joker relationship is so compelling and why the original Killing Joke book endures as a definitive Batman story.

There’s also an 11-minute piece about the music in the film, from the score to a musical number sung by the Joker in his attempts to drive Gordon insane.

Also included are two additional “Batman” cartoons with similar storylines to the film, and a 10-minute preview of the next DC Universe animated movie, Justice League Dark, a teaming of supernatural characters such as Constantine, Swamp Thing and The Demon.

About the Author: John Latchem

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