"Cripple the b***h."
With those words, Barbara Gordon's fate was sealed. In some ways, she got off luckier than Robin did in the equally infamous A Death in the Family
. She survived, after all. But sometimes, surviving can be considered worse.
For those handful of you who aren't aware, The Killing Joke
is a 1988 comic book often considered to be one of the most... influential and noteworthy Joker stories ever. "Good" isn't quite how I'd describe it. But neither is "bad." It's one of those stories where you either love it or you hate it (it's pretty divisive and controversial to this day), but for better or for worse, there's no denying that it has had a huge influence on Batman-related fiction ever since its publication,
Written by Alan Moore and drawn by Brian Bolland, it tells the story of the Joker's attempt to destroy the Gordon family by crippling Barbara and driving her father, Commissioner Gordon, insane, all to, as he puts it, "prove a point" to his archenemy Batman. What point is that? Well, that life sucks and that irrationality is paradoxically the only rational response to such a hideously cruel and unfair universe, and that one bad day can be enough to push even sane people off the deep end. Besides the crippling of Barbara and the horrific image of a naked Commissioner Gordon shackled by circus midgets in bondage gear (Joker, you're a sick man), the comic is probably most noteworthy for giving us what may or may not be the backstory of the Joker, even if he himself admits he's unsure if he's remembering it correctly this time (which, he further confesses, he prefers, for a variety of reasons).
Ever since DC started doing direct to video movies based off of popular comics and graphic novels from throughout its run, The Killing Joke
was at the top of many fans' lists of stories they wanted to see adapted into animated movie form. And we finally got it. How is it? I'm wondering if I'm fit to properly judge it. See, I had never read the original comic until last week. Oh, sure, I knew about it and what happens in it. It's one of those things that is so well-known even people who haven't actually read it may still be aware of iconic elements from it. But I wasn't as attached to it as many others, positively or negatively, to have a truly visceral reaction to whether or not the movie succeeds or fails as an adaptation. Then again, maybe my status as a newcomer means I can judge it more fairly? Who knows.
I do know, though, that the comic has always been controversial for one reason or another, for a multitude of reasons. And it's always been divisive. When it was first published, aside from the adult content and the violence, some people had a strong dislike for John Higgins' use of bright colors, feeling it didn't quite suit the dark tone of the story. I'm inclined to agree, if only because, to me, Higgins' tendency to basically douse everything in one single color with a few highlights looks both lazy and haphazard, and reminds me of the bizarre 1977 colorization of Godzilla
done by Luigi Cozzi, where he "colorized" the film by just layering color strips over the B&W film. Higgins' colors often look like that; like he just laid big strips of color across the panels in a rainbow pattern without regard to anything actually occurring in the scene. Worse, it was horribly inconsistent from scene to scene. Others disagreed, insisting the colors provided the story with an off-kilter, dreamlike, almost psychedelic quality which did
, in its own weird way, fit the tone of the story.
The comic was often accused of sexism, considering what happens to Barbara. And it was originally much worse, and had to be toned down considerably for the final publication, and even then, it carried a warning on the cover insisting it was for mature readers only (which accomplished considerably little, of course, considering how many underage readers still managed to get their hands on it). Even leaving aside whether crippling Barbara was sexist (and editor Len Wein's famous quote, seen above, is
pretty damning), it reveals a pretty flippantly dismissive attitude towards characters that aren't Batman, particularly Batman's sidekicks. Len Wein was an editor
at DC, and he
was all for crippling Barbara, while, later that same year, fans voted overwhelmingly for Robin to die in A Death in the Family
. There's probably a lot that can be said for many people's hostility towards these characters, and their desire to see them either suffer horribly or be gotten rid of entirely, and what that says about them, but I won't go into it here. (Of course, no one in comics stays down and out, and both Barbara and Robin came back later on, so, eh, whatever.)
A later deluxe edition (the one I've got) saw Brian Bolland recolor the comic entirely, giving it a more sober look. Again, The Killing Joke
divided fans. Those who had disliked John Higgins' colors loved Bolland's work, while others felt it was too drab and uninteresting. To say nothing of the purists, who, like or dislike how the original comic looked, pooh-poohed the idea of going back and altering it. I'm the camp of "it looks better this way." But however you look at it, it's clear that controversy continued to follow The Killing Joke
, making it continue to divide fans. And this movie, it turns out, is no different. It was pretty much guaranteed to divide people just as the original comic had done.
The movie was directed by Sam Liu, who also directed Justice League: Gods and Monsters
, and produced by Bruce Timm, who of course worked on Batman: The Animated Series
in the 1990s. 100 Bullets writer Brian Azzarello did the script, and Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprise their Animated Series
roles as Batman and the Joker, with Tara Strong reprising Barbara/Batgirl, whom she had voiced in the Animated Series
' continuation, The New Batman Adventures
As influential as it was, The Killing Joke
is a bit on the short side, especially compared to the behemoth The Dark Knight Returns. Adapting it into a movie would require expanding it quite a bit. And in the end, I don't think that Liu, Timm and Azzarello did that properly. The first several minutes (roughly 28 or so, by my count) involve Batgirl going up against a charismatic villain named Paris Franz who has a psychotic obsession with her. I understand what they were trying to do with this: it's meant to mirror Batman's relationship with the Joker. I didn't have a problem with the story (even the by now probably infamous romantic relationship between Batman and Batgirl), but for two things.
One, Paris is a dull villain. He's every superficially charming young guy who rises to power by taking out a more levelheaded middle-aged bad guy you've ever seen (think Deacon Frost killing Dragonetti in Blade
), all charm, smarm and effortlessly succeeding at everything he tries despite lacking any believable reason to. He isn't particularly witty or skilled. And two, the entire thing becomes moot at about the middle mark. Barbara is shot and crippled and pretty much disappears from the story to languish in a hospital bed for the remainder of the running time, odd, considering the entire first half is her
story. I'm not against giving Barbara more to do, but considering she never affects the plot anymore after being shot, there's a real disconnect between the two halves of the story now.
As noted, Batgirl's fight with Paris, who is obsessed with her, was clearly meant to mirror the Batman/Joker dynamic, and this
is why Batman goes to see the Joker in Arkham Asylyum, but they felt the need to add a scene where Batman finds some past victims of the Joker's nobody knew about until now, and this pretty much means you could cut the entire 20+ minutes of the movie and have that
be why Batman goes to see the Joker, revealing just how poorly connected the first part of the movie is to the second.
Once we get to the Killing Joke
stuff, it all feels a little rushed because they don't expand most of it, even cutting some things here and there, which is absurd as it was already short enough already. They did
add an extended action sequence near the end where Batman fights the Joker's circus freak minions, but it struck me as coming a little too little too late. Instead of the stuff with Paris Franz and his attempt to take over his rich uncle's fortune, they could've expanded on, say, what Commissioner Gordon endures while he's the Joker's prisoner, or have had longer flashbacks to the Joker's "one bad day," for example showing us how he met Vinnie and Joe, or shown more or his home life, or one of his failed standup acts, or perhaps a scene where he goes to claim Jeannie's body at the hospital after she dies, or what he does after becoming the Joker. There was a lot they could've done with those flashbacks alone, but instead they chose to just adapt them more or less word for word from the comic in order to make room for the extended Batgirl prologue.
In the end, though, it is what it is; it's a more or less faithful adaptation of The Killing Joke
with an interesting but tedious Batgirl story tacked on to the beginning.