Dodano: 29 July 2016
A good joke doesn’t need any additions
If you’re worried by the review’s title, let me reassure you – The Killing Joke is a good movie, doing its job well. Those of you who are unfamiliar with the graphic novel created by Moore and Bolland will experience an intense Batman movie, leaving the viewers with a lot to think about due to its cynical tone. Fans of the comic book shouldn’t be disappointed either, despite the unnecessary prologue, which most of them will find harmful. The animation is not perfect and surely won’t leave its mark on the genre. Luckily, the joke didn’t bomb, despite some changes introduced by Brian Azzarello and Bruce Timm here and there. That’s enough to say that the job was well done.
The movie opens with Batgirl’s backstory and her complicated partnership with Batman, who seems to be too grim and strict. Such a beginning is understandable – in the comic Barbara Gordon serves as a plot device to show the Joker’s existential nihilism and who is completely abandoned after it turns out that she is now paralyzed. She had to get more screen time in the animated movie due to political correctness and in order to tame both the feminists, who hate The Killing Joke, and the fans, who expect Azzarello to tell a compelling story about a woman who becomes the computer genius known as Oracle. Not an easy task, considering the short running time of the movie, and also the attempts to be faithful to the source material while also trying to please many diverse groups of audiences – especially nowadays, when more and more women in the US are into pop culture and have different expectations towards the plot and which of its elements should be emphasized.
As always in such cases, the intentions were good and honest. Too bad that the road to hell is paved with them. Barbara in the animated adaptation of The Killing Joke in no way resembles the smart, clever, resourceful girl from Chuck Dixon’s comics. She does, however, have all the flaws of a female character created by chauvinistic writers – she’s careless, can’t separate emotions from work, easily gets into trouble (she’s practically looking for them!). To make matters worse, she’s as horny as a 30-year-old who feels her biological clock ticking. This leads to a now controversial sex scene between her and Batman who, surprisingly, doesn’t have a problem with making love with his protégé and his best friend’s daughter.
You’re probably wondering, do these stereotypes are justified by the prologue’s plot? Not really, unfortunately, since it’s a pretty standard mob story that often uses deus ex machina solutions, such as characters moving from point A to point B located many kilometers away. This, unfortunately, had to be expected. For a long time now, Bruce Timm has been giving signals that there is an attraction between Bruce and Barbara. He doesn’t shy away from chauvinistic tones in his pictures that he posts on the Internet, not to mention the fact that, according to the fans who attend comic book conventions, he seems to be tired with the pop culture industry and superheroes. And what bout Azzarello? It’s a well-known fact that he despises Batman. He’s much more interested in his antagonists, these are the characters that he finds fascinating. You can read his Hellblazer, containing a sharp satire on the Bat-Family, to see what he thinks about them. While Azzarello, with his fascination with evil and grit, is a perfect choice for Warner to adapt The Killing Joke, he doesn’t fit at all to a story about cheerful characters – such as Barbara, Dick Grayson’s one true love – despite being a talented writer.
Let’s change a perspective. Let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment. The themes we’re discussing here are certainly encouraging that. What if the use of the tropes one can find in the masculine cinema of the 80s, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, was intentional? What if there’s a method to this male madness? Perhaps Barbara had to become the victim of generalization of her creators in order to show Batman’s dehumanization, focused solely on his mission and running away from taking responsibility for love? In a way, such motives are understandable to me. The movie is not a part of any universe, it’s a separate entity. Moreover, the narrative techniques and plot devices that work in the comic book don’t have to work in an animated movie. They can actually do them more harm than good, given how both media approach the passage of time and the way the audience responds to a story.
Let’s change the subject: too much time was devoted to showing the Joker’s cruelty. Even Batman himself, in Moore’s comic, has a grim, obsessive expression on his face, which was pushed aside in the movie. Therefore, the evolution of Barbara’s character, from carelessness to taking responsibility for her life and finding strength that Batman severely lacks, makes sense – in the end, inside the Dark Knight’s adult body hides a traumatized little boy, too scared to even think of love that he can lose at any moment, just like his parents. Too bad, however, that not only does it hurt a likeable female character, but Batman himself as well. If the Dark Knight allows himself for moral relativism by having sex with his protégé and doesn’t have any problem with that, how can we believe in his strict following of his moral code? Or perhaps we live in the times when the authorities no longer matter and it’s better not to believe in any kind of nobility?
As a result, they decided to go all out. According to Timm and Azzarello, the heroes that we know from our childhood should be depicted in an adult superhero movie as human. In other words: they make mistakes, they hold grudges, they are torn apart by their passions, they get carried away by a moment, which they immediately regret and which makes them inconsistent. Is this a flaw? Depends on the viewer’s approach and his worldview. For someone, who by some miracle has never read The Killing Joke before, the story does influence the ending, partially taking away its universal timelessness and ambiguity. Because it’s not about forgiveness, absolution or even reconciliation, but revenge, motivated deep down by passion. Fortunately, the way the movie is constructed clearly separates the prologue from the rest of the story and you can basically forget about its first 30 minutes. I’m sure that many fans and experts will completely reject them, like an unwanted bastard, and the message boards will fill with such advices as “start watching at the 27 minute mark.” This is no exaggeration – the animated adaptation of The Killing Joke is in fact two movies. The first one that you don’t care about and quickly forget and the second one that you wait for with bated breath.
When the time arrives for the second half, the gloves are off and the angelic choirs are singing “Hallelujah!” That’s how well the story drawn by Bolland was adapted from one medium to the other. I could tell you the obvious, that Mark Hamill steals the show, that Kevin Conroy’s laugh is terrifyingly sad and bitter, that we’re dealing with an intense film, asking difficult questions, leaving the viewer with the awareness of the abyss gazing at us. It’s all true. Watching that spectacle of death was engaging and terrifying, even though the animation was lacking at times (could it be the budget cuts caused by Batman v Superman disappointing at the box office?). We’ve never seen a Batman movie like that and it’s clear why The Killing Joke is so different from most comics about Gotham City. It takes all these concepts and tropes that we know to the edge of the cliff to see if they’ll fall apart at the last moment. It’s really terrifying.
If I have to nitpick, I’ll say that the second, spectacular part of the movie can be at times… too faithful. I’m wondering, for example, would it be better not to show the Joker’s flashback to one of his possible origins? This version is depicted in the movie as the closest to truth, with Batman acting like the godfather in a ritual which transforms the poor comedian into a homicidal maniac. We know from the comic book, however, that that’s not the case… Also, that second ending, showing Barbara’s new life, after the tragedy. That was also predictable, but maybe for the best? Maybe in times like these, where fear is so palpable and life can so easily turn into a joke, such transformations and feats of strength are necessary? One may even come to the incredible conclusion that this wretched prologue had a point after all.
The author of this review is Michał Chudoliński. You can find out more about him here.
Proofreading: Jakub Michalik.
Batman: The Killing Joke
Directed by: Jay Oliva
Written by: Brian Azzarello
Starring: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Ray Wise, John DiMaggio
Music by: Kristopher Carter, Michael McCuistion, Lolita Ritmanis
Produced by: Bruce Timm, Alan Burnett, Sam Register
Released in: 2016
Running time: 76 minutes