Few movie/television franchises have evolved as much as Batman has over the years. For those of us old enough, we grew up watching the campy Adam West-fronted series that saw Batman’s violence limited to ‘POW’ and ‘KAPOW’ . Anyone who had never read the original Batman comics had little indication of just how dark this series could turn out. While Tim Burton touched on it with Batman and Batman Returns, Christopher Nolan fully embraced with his Batman trilogy. However, the animated Batman: The Killing Joke takes that mantle as the darkest incarnation of the Batman series.
Loosely based on the Brian Bolland/Alan Moore graphic novel of the same name, Batman: The Killing Joke sees the successful duo of Batman/Bruce Wayne (voiced by Kevin Conroy – The Office) and Batgirl/Barbara Gordon (Tara Strong – Ice Age) generally keeping Gotham City crime free. Things sour when their relationship becomes a sexual one and Barbara feels that Bruce still wants to treat her like a child. After deciding to retire as Batgirl, she and her father, Commissioner Gordon (Ray Wise – RoboCop), are attacked by The Joker (Mark Hamill – Star Wars) and that’s when the action starts.
Anyone expecting that Batman: The Killing Joke to be for kids since it’s an animation is in for a rude surprise. Those familiar with the graphic novel know that the treatment that Barbara and Commissioner Gordon receive from The Joker is extremely violent and adult orientated and director Sam Liu (Green Lantern: The Animated Series) doesn’t hold back.
Liu and his screenwriter, Brian Azzarello (Batman: Gotham Knight) do a fine job making this a Joker ‘origins’ story and while they produce a great insight into the Joker there are weaknesses in the plot. The opening scenes which show Batgirl and Batman trying to bring down Paris Franz (Maury Sterling –The A-Team) are far too long and the early sub-plot of Paris developing a crush on Batgirl clumsily switches the focus between Batgirl the Joker. If anything, the subplot drags on which is quite an achievement given the film’s relatively short running time of 76 minutes.
The worst crime though that Batman: The Killing commits is its rushed ending. Liu does a great job setting up what appears like it is going to be an epic battle between Batman and The Joker after Commissioner Gordon has been tortured in an old fairground. Alas, the battle is never as epic as you expect it to be and the sight of Batman and Joker laughing together at the end is awkward considering the torture the Joker has inflicted upon Batgirl.
The upside is the darkness of Batman: The Killing Joke brings out the best from its voice cast. Anyone who considers Mark Hamill washed-up since Star Wars will be silenced by his eerie and manic portrayal of The Joker, while Kevin Conroy is his typical smooth self as Batman. The other star here is Tara Strong, who gets the benefit from the added Batgirl storyline and she gets real emotion out of her voice.
Batman: The Killing Joke does have its weaknesses, but they are somewhat overcome by the fact that this is one of the darkest Batman stories ever conceived. The mere fact it is animated certainly doesn’t lessen the impact of the darker scenes and the filmmakers behind it need to be congratulated for not toning it down. Well worth a look if you are a hardened Batman fan.