Shortly after San Diego Comic-Con 2016 I was treated to a pretty fantastic event. I was fortunate enough to be able to watch a one night only screening of Batman: The Killing Joke in a theater. While this may not seem like a big deal to some, being the huge Batman fan that I am, I was delighted at the opportunity to watch The Dark Knight duke it out with the Joker in an almost unprecedented scale. And yes, I did see the Christopher Nolan movie in theaters, but there is a special thrill in getting to watch the very talented DC Animation Studios do their thing on an epic scale. Coupling that with the always excellent voice acting of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hammil, I was going to enjoy the show if for no other reason than the experience itself.
Prior to going to the show, I had heard the rumblings from the always quick to criticize internet about the movie and the various problems that people had with it. Being a fan of the original work by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, however, I was not dissuaded. After all, if they treated the material as they did the Frank Miller classic The Dark Knight Returns I was going to be satisfied. After all, the story is pretty dark and grim to begin with, so it is right up my (crime) alley.
The opening portion of the film, before diving into The Killing Joke proper fills in the audience with some context as to who Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl is, and gives a bit of weight to the horrors that she will later endure. I personally didn’t have a problem with the added sequences as it gave an emotional connection to the character, showing Barbara as a determined, smart, and yet troubled woman. She is involved in an awkward working relationship with a man who she idolizes and at the same time who is so completely unavailable that he is unable to ask for help or allow others in to any meaningful degree. Her admiration turns into a crush and eventually she ends up acting on her feelings after a particularly heated argument she has with Batman, acting somewhat impulsively. Apparently this is one of the sections that really threw the internet into a tizzy.
My feelings on it are a bit mixed. I know it is in continuity according to the Batman Beyond comics, but at the same time, it does somehow feel wrong that the two are hooking up. I mean, they call the main group “Thej Bat Family,” so unless people are doing things with their family that I don’t, it seems a little weird to me. Beyond that however, I understand the character motivations at play here. Barbara is seeking to break through to Batman and infatuation turns into a rash decision. I get it, we all have done things in the heat of the moment that we probably wouldn’t have done if operating with a cooler head. On the other side, Batman is so closed off and alone that it does make a sort of twisted sense as to why he would give himself just a moment of respite from his constant war. Who would understand the trials and tribulations that he endures better than a comrade? Who would he feel safest letting his guard down with, even if it is just for a few moments? For someone so constantly closed off, it is a real feat to allow a bit of vulnerability to break through. So yeah, I get it.
The day after the two have sex, Barbara is instantly iced out by the emotionally stunted Batman. He is distant and unwilling to work with her. Barbara laments this fact, but tries to resolve it by speaking to Batman about the situation and at one point even tells him that it was just sex, and that they should be willing to work past it, but Batman can’t be reasoned with and completely rebuffs her. It’s in that moment that a lot of critics have harped on the fact that they feel like Batgirl comes off as needy and not a strong character. It’s odd, but I could not have felt differently. I watched the scene and felt that she was making a very mature decision. She recognizes the fact that things were heated, but as rational people they should be able to move on from the indiscretion. It’s not a reason to let the partnership fall apart. To my mind, it is Batman who acts childishly and can’t parse the situation and ultimately chooses to terminate their relationship. I see Batgirl as being the rational, strong willed one, because despite how she might feel, she understands what is at stake and wants to move past it and it is Batman who is overly emotional and not acting as the strong character.
From there the movie transitions into a pretty faithful retelling of The Killing Joke. It is actually here that I had more problems. I enjoyed the graphic novel but found myself feeling like the material just didn’t translate super well to the screen. The pieces were all there, and the acting was on point, but somehow I found it lacking.
I’m not sure if it was just the criticism I had heard prior to entering the theater, but for whatever reason I found myself enjoying the first part much more than I thought I would and thinking the The Killing Joke proper was just so-so in its execution.
The weirdness revolving around the Joker’s plot to drive Commissioner Gordon insane plays out in front of me, but somehow I found it more striking to read on the page than to witness in motion. I really was surprised by that. As someone who generally enjoys when things are translated to a new medium as long as the source material is honored, it was a really confusing moment.
Overall I would give the film a 6 out of 10 rating, but I feel like I may adjust my opinion once I get a little time away from it and watch it again at home, because I am of course buying a copy. I sincerely hope that I change my mind.
PS: The writers and director definitely pick a specific telling of the ending to the movie. I know that fan theories have floated around about it for a long time, but the film seems to confirm it. Let me know what you thought about the ending and the film in general in the comments below!
Until next time: Watch more Batman!