So it turns out I was able to pick up the Batman: The Killing Joke Blu-ray for a reasonable price (“not cheap enough!” I already hear some of you saying) so I was able to form an opinion on the thing for myself rather than depending on the internet’s wailing and gnashing of teeth that followed its unleashing upon the world.
And…well…I mean, the cover’s nice:
…though looking at a large version of the image, I can’t precisely tell if this is a brand new image based on the cover of the original comic, just with extra details that extend beyond the borders of that comic’s cover, or if it is the original drawing, with those additional details added after the fact, or what. My vote’s for brand new drawing, since it wouldn’t surprise me if Brian Bolland exactly duplicated every strand of hair, every glare on the camera, for this new image. There are enough little differences that could be attributed to recoloring/Photoshop manipulation, I suppose, but…
“Hey, Mike, what about the actual cartoon?”
…Now, the discs inside are certainly very round, with nice labels, and…
Oh, okay, fine.
What we have here are two very different cartoons basically just glued together to make a feature with the expected run-times of DC’s usual home video product. You have the first half (more or less), which is relatively standard issue Batman/Batgirl fighting bad guys, and the second half which is the actual adaptation that you presumably bought the movie for. The big problem is an issue of tonality…the second part does not flow from the first part. You have slam-bang action with relationship melodrama, and then you swing into a story that, as originally presented in print form, has a measure of melancholy and introspection that the cartoon at least attempts to duplicate.
The elephant in this particular room is of course that Batgirl and Batman perform, to borrow a phrasing from my initial Twitter response, the horizontal Batusi in the first half of the story. Now, this seems very much to be wildly inappropriate for the characters, to say the very least, given the “mentor/student” relationship that the two have…and is in fact reinforced throughout this half of the film, despite Batgirl’s efforts to alter that status. Batman even says to her at one point “we’re not equals,” emphasizing the apparent power imbalance that makes this “hook-up” even more cringeworthy. Yes, in context, they’re both adults, but that’s not how their relationship has ever read. At any rate, I will say that to the film’s credit, their sexual encounter is presented as a Very Bad Idea, so for a one-off film, I suppose can deal with it…
…Not that there’s any real point to it, beyond (as I’ve seen some folks suppose) to give Batman even more reason to hunt down the Joker, since apparently just shooting one of his crime-fighting partners and, oh, the simple fact that he’s the Joker aren’t enough. This is part of the larger idea that the producers added this extended prologue to give context as to who Batgirl is, so that we’ll feel the loss more when Joker shoots her in the back half of the movie (oh, SPOILERS, by the way) and…I don’t know. I feel like if you had to it, an entirely separate adventure, giving us not just the classic context for Batgirl but the Batman/Joker conflict as well, would have provided sufficient contrast and not have diminished the whole by pretending to be part of “The Killing Joke.”
Now the actual adaptation itself is…serviceable, if viewed as its own thing. There are some highlights, like Mark Hamill’s voicework as the pre-Joker Joker, which was as good as I’d hoped. He sounds like a perfectly normal guy…with just the faintest hints of his eventual Joker voice at the edges. And the scene where Barbara opens the door and the Joker is waiting there with the gun pointed at her…that’s just as terrifying and horrible as it needs to be. In fact, that entire scene is probably the best paced of the film, and most closely resembles the source material. There are attempts at some of the visual transitions from the comic, too, and those aren’t too bad, I suppose.
But overall this trip didn’t feel necessary. Nothing’s really added by giving voice to the dialogue, by making the pictures move. Part of the appeal of the original Killing Joke is, like I’d said, the quiet melancholy, as in the scenes where the Joker is clearly reflecting on his past. And Batman’s opening speech to who he thinks is the Joker, about how he’s been “thinking about you, about me” — that works read on a page. It doesn’t work when read out loud. Even the joke that ends the story…the timing on its telling feels like it’s off…and we don’t get the sirens that drown out the laughter, even though Batman has explicitly said that the police will be coming. You can still interpret the ending in this way, however, which is a good thing since in my mind I do think that’s an important part of the story.
It’s like animating The Killing Joke has made it smaller, taking its sadness and its nightmarish qualities and reducing them to Just Another Cartoon, and tacking on an unnecessary prologue didn’t help.
I mean, believe it or not, I’m glad I saw it…I think it’s interesting from the perspective of what happens when direct adaptations like these are attempted (see also The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen), but maybe we’re better off when these stories are used as inspirations for new media adaptations rather than expecting accurate translations.