While the post-Nolan films based on DC characters have had less-than-ideal translations to the big screen, the small screen adaptations have been much more assured. Live-action TV series like 'Arrow' and 'The Flash' have been a tremendous success, and building on the legacy of 'Batman: The Animated Series', Warner Bros. Animation have been digging into the back catalogue of iconic comic mini-series and translating them into acclaimed animated TV films. In the past two years, they’ve tackled the Frank Miller classics 'Batman: Year One' and 'The Dark Knight Returns', but now they’ve taken on the biggest, baddest Batman story of them all - Alan Moore’s controversial and disturbing 'The Killing Joke'. Adapting this complex one-shot was always going to be tough, but has the translation to the screen moved in the right or wrong direction?
The essence of ‘The Killing Joke’ is a battle of wits between Batman (Kevin Conroy) and The Joker (Mark Hamill), with Commissioner Gordon (Ray Wise) and his daughter Barbara/Batgirl (Tara Strong) as the playing pieces. It’s delicious material, densely psychological and rich in character, but its extreme violence and questionable treatment of its few female characters make it equally difficult. Director Sam Liu and screenwriter Brian Azzarello have made a few changes to counteract that, but what seems to have been done with best intentions ends up diminishing the impact of the film completely.
The chief problem is a dull, clichéd prologue that expands Batgirl’s story in an effort to dampen her problematic portrayal in the comic. Her crime-fighting action sequences and achingly obvious dialogue are totally at odds with the dark psychology of the main story, and the addition of a sexual relationship with Batman is a step in totally the wrong direction, making her just another type of object. Once the story itself starts, the film gets a lot better, but the prologue just feels more unnecessary and leaves a bad taste, and isn’t helped by its epilogue either. ‘The Killing Joke’ could easily have functioned without it, and its existence demonstrates a clear lack of understanding about the novel.
While the section that covers the comic itself fairs much better, it’s still not without problems. Another distinct feature of the comic was Brian Bolland’s horrifically realistic illustrations, but that style isn’t carried over, instead adopting the block, almost anime style of the animated series. Because of this, the beauty of the dialogue seems totally at odds with the simplicity of the animation, and the whole thing just doesn’t gel together. The same comes with the voice acting - while Conroy and Hamill are both terrific, their performances lack the detail and nuance to make it work. Where this animated film of ‘The Killing Joke’ falls flat is its insistence on fitting Moore and Bolland’s book into the wider universe rather than as the singular work they intended.
‘The Killing Joke’ feels like a missed opportunity, held back by its creative teams’ lack of understanding of what made the comic itself so seminal.
In the end, ‘The Killing Joke’ feels like a missed opportunity, held back by its creative teams’ lack of understanding of what made the comic itself so seminal. The bones are there, but the dunderheaded prologue robs the film of success before it’s even begun. The artists behind the film have obviously had success before with translating the great DC comics to the screen, but in this instance they seem to have missed the boat entirely.
PICTURE & SOUND
‘The Killing Joke’ looks good but not great in its 1080p 1.78:1 transfer. As you would expect, the colours look fantastic, but budget limitations of the animation become very apparent, and the clarity we’ve come to expect from animation on Blu-ray isn’t quite as good here. Lines aren’t as defined and detail suffers from aliasing and slight shuddering. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is far more successful, though the balance of the mix can occasionally be a little off, the score drowning out the dialogue.
At first glance, it looks like ‘The Killing Joke’ comes with a pretty hefty selection of extras, but closer inspection reveals most of it to be promotional fluff. ‘Madness Set to Music’ (11:54) takes a surprisingly thorough look at the score composed for the film, while ‘Batman: The Killing Joke - The Many Shades of the Joker’ (17:43) offers an overview of the production and the history of the original graphic novel. While it skirts a bit over the controversial elements of the source material, it does go into a little detail about the adaptation process. However, that’s all the material that covers ‘The Killing Joke’ specifically. ‘From the DC Comics Vault’ includes two episodes of the Batman TV series, ‘Batman: The Animated Series “Christmas with the Joker”’ (22:26) and ‘The New Batman Adventures “Old Wounds”’ (21:11), both in standard definition. The rest of the extras are short promotional pieces on other DC animated films, including ‘Justice League Dark’ (8:14), ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part One’ (12:36), ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part Two’ (6:52) and ‘Batman: Assault on Arkham’ (7:29). Rounding off the disc are trailers for ‘Batman: Bad Blood’, ‘Suicide Squad’ and the DC All Access App.