Warner Bros. Animation and Bruce Timm continue their decades-long juggernaut of a partnership with this animated adaptation of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s 1988 classic, Batman: The Killing Joke. A title long praised and panned in equal measure, many fans didn’t exactly count on an official animated take on this controversial one-off, let alone expect to see one with an all-star cast of talent associated with it.
Mark Hamill shines, returning to the Joker role he’s so well defined over the past 20+ years, bringing a particularly chilling rendition of the villain to life. Opposite Kevin Conroy’s legendary Batman, this defining clash of two unparalleled forces couldn’t possibly be bestowed with better voice talent, with Hamill’s whimsical gravel jovially countering Conroy’s deep articulation. Rounding out the voice talent is Tara Strong channeling an especially passionate Barbara Gordon and Batgirl, who is given extra screen time in the form of a somewhat unusual prologue to the story.
With Barbara’s presence in the original comic being very minimal, Timm and longtime DC writer Brian Azzarello sought to provide more context and backstory for where this iteration of Barbara is in her life, preceding the gruesome climax of the story. Making her into more of a character presence than plot device, as she was in the source material, we see a younger and less precise Batgirl than we’re used to, with many elements of her character echoing an early Jason Todd. This Batgirl is reckless and uncalculated, often putting herself into dicey situations and earning the admonishment of her mentor, Batman.
Distinct from the ambiguity of previous iterations, this Batgirl and Batman have something of an unrequited romantic tension between them, and it often shows in some rather forward dialogue, including a few uncharacteristic moments like Batman delivering coffee or Batgirl having a sudden breakdown on the line with a perpetually stone-faced Batman. Further taking this left turn into uncharted territory is a scene that goes from Batgirl taking out her anger on Batman through punches and takedowns to a sudden sex scene. Theatre response at the particular showing I went to was a mix of confusion and loud, tongue-in-cheek approval, much of the latter directed at Barbara’s swiftness in disrobing herself.
That particular scene plus a few bits of combat and dialogue give this adaptation a garnish of a “trying too hard to be edgy” feel, though those moments quickly melt away into some direct but satisfying fan service, and ultimately, the dynamic between the creators and their audience ends up being one of the most interesting parts of The Killing Joke.
In place of higher production value and smoother animation we’ve come to expect from DC animated films is a rawer, more visceral view of these familiar characters. From self-aware writing choices to cheeky references to other Batman stories (Kevin Conroy growling “Swear to me!” at a street thug and a still of The Joker in a very Heath Ledger-looking outfit among them), The Killing Joke serves as an imperfect telling of an imperfect story, but one that was clearly a labor of love for a team that viewers have grown to know and appreciate over the years.
The Killing Joke will probably fail to win over detractors or casual fans looking for more of what they’re used to seeing from WB and DC, but for lovers of the animated series, readers of dark one-off stories, and fans of the eternal dance Bruce Timm and friends coax Kevin Conroy’s Batman and Mark Hamill’s Joker into doing, this animated movie is dark, fun, and most surprisingly - refreshingly unique.