Twenty-eight years ago, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke was widely hailed as the best Joker story ever told. Last night at San Diego Comic-Con, a packed crowd watched the world premiere of the animated adaptation by director Sam Liu and executive producer Timm. Of course, Timm is an animation legend and one of the primary creators of Batman: The Animated Series, a show whose fingerprints are all over this movie. Most of the surviving voice cast from that series came back for this adaptation, but make no mistake, this is not a continuation of that series. However, there are certain themes from the series that recur in the film.
Brian Azzarello’s script adds quite a bit to the movie’s story, especially during the extended prologue that almost serves as a Batgirl movie. She shares the spotlight with Batman, but Barbara Gordon’s alter ego is clearly the lead of this part of the story and she even gets her own nemesis. Her relationship with Batman is also redefined in a way that is sure to be controversial, but it was something that Timm and company previously teased during Batman Beyond. Again, that show doesn’t have anything directly to do with this, but the idea was out there 17 years ago. It was refreshing to see that finally explored onscreen. There’s no mention of Robin by name, but there is a pretty prominent visual clue about what happened to the Boy Wonder layer in the movie.
Azzarello repeatedly told the crowd at San Diego that he wanted to give Barbara Gordon her own character arc in The Killing Joke, and he at least partially succeeds. There was some pushback after the screening about Barbara being defined by the men in her life. However, she is very compelling when she’s onscreen…and then she disappears for most of the movie. That’s because she was barely in the original graphic novel aside from the very famous sequence in which she encounters the Joker, and only twice after that. This time, Barbara Gordon literally gets the last word.
Strangely, Batman was only briefly glimpsed without his mask, and he’s never fully Bruce Wayne. That was also true to the story, which pits the Joker and Batman on a collision course over the fate of Commissioner Gordon and his daughter. Azzarello threw in a few new scenes here and there, but it’s almost verbatim with Moore’s original dialogue. About the only thing missing was a line about a camera lens.
I couldn’t help but think about Zack Snyder’s Watchmen while watching this movie. That was another slavishly recreated Moore story. But while Watchmen lacked suspense, The Killing Joke was riveting even when the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Execution is everything, and the animation team did an excellent job of keeping the intensity going, especially in the film’s final act.
There’s not enough praise that can fully articulate the collectively outstanding vocal performances. Tara Strong had the best material that she’s ever gotten as Barbara Gordon/Batgirl, while Kevin Conroy brought unexpected shadings to his iconic Batman. Ray Wise was also quite good as Commissioner Gordon, but Mark Hamill really knocked this one out of the park. The Killing Joke was Hamill’s dream project, and he delivered his most chilling and sinister take on the Joker. Hamill even managed to make the Joker sympathetic in his flashback sequences, and during his final confrontation with the Dark Knight.
As for the animation itself, it was gorgeous. It wasn’t quite an exact replica of Bolland’s style, but it was close enough and it looked great in motion. Several scenes from the comic were recreated almost exactly…and they still worked. The music was also pretty good, even if it lacked some of the best qualities of Batman: The Animated Series’ epic scores.
This adaptation may have some minor flaws, but it is easily the best DC animated home movie to date. It took nearly three decades for fans to see The Killing Joke get the adaptation that it deserved. And it was worth the wait.