Release Date(s)2016 (August 2, 2016)
Studio(s)DC Comics/Warner Bros. Animation (Warner Bros.)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: C+
Based upon the seminal 1988 graphic novel by Alan Moore, Warner’s long-awaited, direct-to-video adaptation of Batman: The Killing Joke has much going for it, not the least of which is the involvement of Batman: The Animated Series producer Bruce Timm and the return of its terrific voice actors, Kevin Conroy (as Batman) and Mark Hamill (as The Joker). Nevertheless, the result is a bit of a mixed bag.
The film does rather faithfully adhere to the plot of the original graphic novel in telling the origin story of The Joker, who goes from failed comedian and family man to homicidal villain through a series of tragic events. Years later, The Joker wants revenge against Batman and kidnaps Commissioner Gordon as bait, going to great lengths to torture Gordon into insanity to prove just how close we all are – even the best and most virtuous among us – to being consumed by the darkness within. Joker thinks Batman is just like him in this respect, and he’s trying to push him over the edge once and for all. The question is, will Batman succumb? All of which is genuinely fascinating. The graphic novel was groundbreaking in its day for plumbing the depths of the psychology of these iconic characters; Not only is this the quintessential Joker story but it definitively altered audience perceptions of Batman and the superhero genre at large.
Unfortunately, that story isn’t quite enough material for a screen adaptation, so the filmmakers wisely chose to expand the story further. What’s more, they wisely choose to expand the right character: Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, also the Commissioner’s daughter. In the original graphic novel, she’s just a sadistic plot device – Joker brutally shoots her in the stomach, damaging her spine and thus paralyzing her, then strips her naked and photographs her, all simply so that he can use those photos to torture her father. Here, the filmmakers have sought to make Barbara a more rounded and motivated character, one who – after surviving the violence – takes back control of her life to become a stronger force for good in the DC Universe. But the way her character is written in Brian Azzarello’s script, she becomes a petulant teenage girl with a crush on Batman, who acts recklessly to the point of defying and then actually seducing Batman, then vents about it to her gay male friend. Barbara’s dialogue and actions here – not to mention those of the gay male friend – come off as adolescent clichés, an all-too straight, young, and male notion of what strong female or gay characters should be. So while one can appreciate what the filmmakers were trying to do here, the result is a mess that doesn’t fit tonally with the rest of the story.
What’s worse, the visual style of this animation is completely wrong for the source material. While it tries to copy the imagery faithfully, if you look even superficially at that original graphic novel, the inked panels are twisted and gritty and raw. This is a filtered vision of reality, pushed to the point of graphic hyperrealism. Yet here, what we get is animation that’s clean, sanitized, and gloomy, but without the texture and atmosphere needed for it to feel genuinely dark or threatening. Worse yet, the hand-drawn characters are too often layered over sterile computer-animated backgrounds; This is the very antithesis of Brian Bolland’s original hard-boiled comic art. The result is that Warner’s Batman: The Killing Joke feels more like a sanitized, kiddie version of the Alan Moore graphic novel, which is just weird… and also a shame.
Warner’s Blu-ray does at least present the film in fine quality, with crisp, clean, and perfect 1080p HD video (1.78:1 aspect ratio) straight from the render farm. The film’s soundtrack is provided in English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with a mix that’s smooth and modestly atmospheric. Additional audio options include 5.1 Dolby Digital in French, German, Castilian Spanish, and Latin Spanish, with optional subtitles in the same (plus English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing).
Extras on the Blu-ray include trailers for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Batman: Bad Blood, and Suicide Squad (all in HD), two episodes of Batman: The Animated Series (upconverted from SD, including Christmas with The Joker and Old Wounds), and a series of featurettes: Batman: The Killing Joke – The Many Shades of the Joker (17:43 – HD), A Sneak Peek at DCU Justice League Dark (8:14 – HD), A Sneak Peek at Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part One (12:36 – HD), A Sneak Peek at Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part Two (6:52 – HD), A Sneak Peek at DCU Batman: Assault on Arkham (7:28 – HD), and Madness Set to Music (11:54 – HD). Though overwhelmingly promotional in nature, most of this material is fine. Still, the only portion of it that’s especially compelling are the Batman: TAS episodes. One wishes that Warner would pony up to scan the original negatives for all those episodes in true HD and release the series on Blu-ray. The package also includes a DVD version of the film and a Digital HD download code on a paper insert.
This film is still worth checking out, especially if you’re a fan of DC animation, these characters, and/or the original graphic novel. But Batman: The Killing Joke is a horror story without the horror, a tale of darkness (both without and within) lacking any actual darkness. To really translate this material properly into animation, the filmmakers would have had to push the boundaries of decorum and taste well past where Warner would ever have allowed them to, especially when you consider that the studio continues to regard its animation as kiddie product. Still, even if Bruce Timm and company had adapted this story back in the 1990s, as an episode of Batman: The Animated Series, it might at least have fared better stylistically given the series’ grittier, low-budget look. As it is, Batman: The Killing Joke is genuinely unsettling, but only for how vanilla it is.
- Bill Hunt