Warnings/disclaimers: The Killing Joke is not a typical Batman story. There are a lot of serious plot threads in this one and subject matter that might offend, insult, or be something of a trigger issue for people. You are warned. Proceed at your own risk.
First published in 1988, The Killing Joke was written by Alan Moore. It was a graphic novel that was originally meant to be a self-contained story, not part of the larger DC Universe. Later, the events that befell Barbara Gordon in this story became part of the official canon. Barbara eventually became Oracle, starting down that path in the Suicide Squad title (likely something that will not be part of the upcoming movie).
The Killing Joke was unique in several ways. It had some very adult themes and situations. It pushed things to a much darker place, which takes some doing in Gotham City. It was controversial for many of the things that happened in it. And it offered an origin for the Joker. Of course, even within the story, Joker himself comments that he remembers his past different ways. “If I have to have a past, I’d rather it be multiple choice,” he says at one point.
It won an Eisner Award and actually hit the New York Times Bestsellers’ list, which is a very rare event for a comic book or graphic novel.
I was surprised when I heard they were adapting the novel to an animated movie. Even with an R rating, I wasn’t sure how they’d handle a lot of the subject matter. As it turns out, they did pretty well. This was helped a lot by bringing back the veteran talents of Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamill as the Joker, and Tara Strong as Barbara Gordon/Batgirl.
I didn’t time it out or anything, but roughly the first third, if not more, of the movie was new material, not part of the original story. It mostly deals with a new criminal, a dangerous thug with the wince-worthy name of “Paris Franz.” At least they comment on it in the movie. He’s a slick, dangerous, and psychopathic criminal who ends up developing an obsession about Batgirl. Things play out in a somewhat wild manner. The two big surprises before the main story actually kicks off are Batgirl and Batman having sex (Batgirl ripping off the top of her costume before the fade to black) and Barbara later resigning from her costumed life. This matches some of the later stories, in which she says she wasn’t active as Batgirl when the events of The Killing Joke happened. All of this was a bit of character work, and, realistically, some padding to make the movie not run ridiculously short.
The main thrust of the story, and a really interesting idea on Alan Moore’s part, was the Joker’s belief that all that separated him from “normal” people was one really bad day. To prove his point, he decides to give that bad day to James Gordon, Batman’s long-time ally and arguably closest friend. He does this with a typically elaborate, theatrical plan that was utterly horrible in its specifics.
Opening the door to her apartment, Barbara is shot in her lower abdomen by the Joker. When his henchmen kidnap Jim, Joker takes her clothes off and takes a lot of pictures of her naked and bleeding. It was always maintained in later stories that Joker never actually raped her, not to minimize her being paralyzed, assaulted, and photographed. Batman, of course, goes on a rampage, tearing through the Gotham underworld looking for any clues about where Joker is.
As the various events happen, a series of flashbacks tell one of Joker’s possible origins. This explains how he ended up as the Red Hood before becoming Joker, and does something I would have thought was almost impossible: it makes me feel bad for the Joker. While working the case and checking his files, Batman has images from various points in Joker’s career up on his computer. There are throwbacks to the Joker’s first appearance, which were nice nods to history, but also one of him and Harley, who didn’t exist at the period this story was written.
Gordon is tortured both physically and psychologically. He gets sent on a carnival Haunted House ride, with pictures of Barbara’s assault projected on the walls. Joker even does what’s essentially a Broadway number about going insane. It’s eerie and horrifying but a surprisingly good song, done amazingly well by Hamill. In the end, Joker fails. Gordon doesn’t go mad, and Batman isn’t provoked enough to actually kill him. The end of their battle has a few trademark randomly insane moments from the Joker. The very end is one of the things that drew the most fan hate- the Joker tells a joke, and he and Batman both laugh at it. Many felt that Batman would never laugh at all, let alone with Joker.
One of the great tragedies of the story is that, while it ended Barbara Gordon’s career as Batgirl (at least until the dreaded DC Reboot a few decades later), neither Barbara nor Batgirl were Joker’s target. In fact, Joker never seems to make the connection until many years later. Barbara was just collateral damage in a plot aimed at her father. Barbara came back strong, later fashioning a new career and identity for herself as Oracle, founding the Birds of Prey. There’s even a nod to this in a mid-credit scene that was nice to see.
I thought it was a good adaptation overall, with a few puzzling choices. I get they needed more to the story for run-time, but I’m not sure what the whole Paris Franz story added, or why Batgirl needed a stalker. The rooftop sex scene was a weird choice too, especially considering how many fans are devoted to the Barbara Gordon/Dick Grayson pairing (I’m one of them, as is fan-favorite writer Gail Simone).
Another odd choice was how they handled nudity, which is to say, they didn’t. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not some perverted fan sitting here saying, “I wanted to see Barbara naked” (and I sure as hell didn’t want to see Jim naked). But with the R rating, their carefully avoiding any nudity just seemed puzzling, even forced.
What I liked: Conroy, Hamill, and Strong were amazing. They are very talented performers. To many of us, Conroy and Hamill are the definitive Batman and Joker, from Batman: The Animated Series forward. It was a mostly faithful adaptation of a very difficult story. The song, which could easily have been awkward or goofy, actually worked really well. I really do give them points for tackling a complicated, very adult story and doing well with it. They stayed true to Joker’s premise about everything changing with one bad day.
What I didn’t: This is a much shorter list. Some of the art got a bit odd in places. It seemed like almost every building in the background had green-tinted windows, which was just bizarre. There was also one point when they showed Detective Harvey Bullock from the side, and for a moment I really wondered why the Penguin was suddenly in the story. I’m really not sure about the Batman/Batgirl sex scene.
I’ll give this one a high 4 out of 5. The original story was groundbreaking and impressive, and the performances in this were fantastic. I will caution people that it’s a very dark adult story and it really isn’t for everyone, not even all Batman fans.