There’s a point around 20 or so minutes into the animated adaptation of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman story, The Killing Joke, where I was forced to shout ‘FUCK OFF’ very loudly at the film, but sadly, it didn’t fuck off. It kept on going.
Before I explain, first some background. The Killing Joke is a work published 28 years ago. It was written at least two years before that because it took Bolland two years to draw it, making this one of Moore’s earliest ventures into American mainstream superhero comics (and one of his last genre entries of the decade). At the time it sold massively, made DC a load of cash and brought it massive amounts of prestige. Fast forward 28 years later and it’s still selling large amounts for the company. Moore himself has disowned it, stating that it’s not a work he’s proud of, and as with all film adaptations of work he doesn’t fully own, he’s taken his name off the credits. However, Bolland’s name is still there (but you won’t notice his influence here with the blandly generic animation style DC uses on most of their films). Again though, I get ahead of myself.
Fast forward to the nightmarish year of 2016; the year of Trump, Brexit, major celebrity deaths (like David Bowie and Prince), and the animated film adaptation of The Killing Joke. The film itself runs for 76 minutes – around 30 minutes of which is spent with possibly the most cack-handed attempt to build background and character I’ve seen in some time. And I’ve seen some utter shite in my time.
This prelude as it where to the actual adaptation (which is only around 45 minutes long) deals with Batgirl and how she’s reacting to fighting crime with Batman, who has taken her under his wing. Batgirl’s motivation here isn’t just to prove herself as a crime fighter though, she’s also trying to prove herself to Batman. To help us understand this narrative (and this is a film that in its first half hour treats its audience like idiots), it introduces a camp gay stereotype of a character. Bad, but having Batgirl then throw herself at Batman before a thankfully off camera sex scene (we’ll never know if the utility belt has a Bat-condom) which reduces Batgirl to being defined only by her vagina. It also turns Batman (who is a good decade or two older than Batgirl, whose secret identity is Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter. His best friends daughter!) into a creepy Savile-esque pervert who’ll drop any duty of care or responsibility he has to keep Barbara safe because he fancies a Bat-shag.
Hence why I shouted ‘FUCK OFF’ at a film that couldn’t answer back.
Blame for this lies at the feet of writer Brian Azzerallo, a writer of some pretty good crime comics like 100 Bullets, but in this case has written such execrable crap that the producers have to be asked why on earth they let him do it?
Things pick up when the film shifts from the Azzerallo material to the Moore material, and here the film finds its feet. When The Killing Joke is being a straightforward adaptation of the comic it does so well, but it also takes on the flaws of the comic. It does really well when it just lifts Moore’s dialogue verbatim and gets Kevin Conroy (again resuming his role as Batman) and Mark Hamill (again returning as The Joker) to speak it, and here’s the thing, Hamill turns out the performance of his life with this dialogue. The film is worth it purely to hear Hamill performing dialogue he’s clearly been dying to do for years. When the film isn’t focused on Hamill’s Joker, or the failed comedian who becomes The Joker in flashbacks (and again here, Hamill is superb) everything is, well, boring.
Problem is, when the film gets to the Moore material Azzerallo adds in some of his own touches to pad out the story, including a scene where Batman (trying to track down The Joker) speaks to some prostitutes who tell us that every time The Joker breaks out, he visits them first to get his end away. That’s the asexual murdering psychopath Joker here, who in another scene has Gotham gangsters terrified of him because of what he’s capable of. It’s a bizarre moment that sexualises The Joker, which means when we get to THAT SCENE with Barbara being shot, stripped and humiliated Azzerallo has already put the idea in the back of our heads that this is a sexual thing The Joker is doing, as opposed to torture and humiliation. This is bad enough, but by adding something not there what we end up with is Azzerallo’s Killing Joke and it is, frankly, rubbish. Added to this is the fact the animation conforms to a DC animation house style, so Bolland’s stylised art is lost here in a mush of stiff, bland figures sort of interacting with each other.
I get the point in adapting The Killing Joke; it is after all a comic DC has mined for ideas for nearly three decades. But this is terrible stuff apart from when Hamill’s Joker is on screen. I’ve thought for a while what DC will do when there’s no more Alan Moore material from his time there left for them to mine, and judging from this it seems they’ll do any old vaguely sexist stereotypical shite in order to get people to think of it as ‘adult’. This isn’t adult, it’s just slightly sad that a good opportunity to highlight the talent of some very good to exceptional voice actors has been so utterly wasted.