To get this part out of the way, yes, I do like Alan Moore’s 1988 graphic novel, The Killing Joke. It primarily works as an analysis of the similarities and differences between Batman and The Joker, filled with gorgeous artwork that highlights the psychological disturbances at play. Yet, despite liking the comic, it’s hard to deny the criticisms that have been brought against it in the 28 years since its release—primarily that it uses the brutalization of its single, underpersonified female character to advance a story about more capable men reacting to it. Anyone familiar with Moore’s work should be familiar with his poor track record writing female characters, so that fault isn’t exactly surprising, but it is a mark against an otherwise deeply insightful story. The film adaptation attempts to rectify this problem, but unfortunately doesn’t accomplish that feat, instead coming across as sloppy and ill-conceived.
I’m referring to the film’s first act—if “act” is even the right word for it—which focuses on Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, in her exploits to join Batman in his pursuit of a lesser crime lord. It’s a very sloppy addition that feels like a very special R-rated episode of Batman: The Animated Series, complete with cursing, blood, and sex, all of which has no bearing on the rest of the film. Batgirl’s mini character arc is built around her ineptitude at catching the crime lord, constantly relying on Batman to rescue her from getting in over her head, and thereby realizing that the crimefighting life is not for her. It comes across as a genuine attempt to give Batgirl more agency in a story that ultimately affords her none, yet only exacerbates the problem by implying that the tragedies that befall Barbara are actually a good thing in how they lead her into a more useful role as Oracle.
Those hoping for a faithful translation of The Killing Joke will need to wait approximately twenty minutes in order to get there, but once that ball gets rolling, fans of the book should have their expectations met. The Joker kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and attempts to drive him to madness in an attempt to prove to Batman that it only takes one bad day to turn a man insane, which includes shooting his daughter Barbara and photographing her now-paralyzed body in the nude. The film’s telling is lifted almost directly from the page, which makes for some great visuals that stick in the mind as well as those classic comic panels. The real reason to see the film, though, is Mark Hamill’s return as The Joker. His performance has evolved over the years to suit the darker tones of the shows, movies, and video games The Joker has appeared in, and he nails just the right balance of menace and maniacal glee that Moore brought to the character. If there was something to double down on in order to extend the length of this story to a feature runtime, it should have been done by exploring The Joker’s psyche and past, as Hamill delivers an equally compelling performance during The Joker’s origin flashbacks, which get a bit of a short shrift compared to the present day storyline.
What ultimately holds The Killing Joke back as a good adaptation is pacing, both overall throughout the film and in the limited animation. There are moments that feel improperly condensed, like the nameless comedian’s sudden transformation into The Joker, where it’s visually unclear that what caused him to snap was a view of his own reflection. This may be due in part to such a faithful adherence to the art of Moore’s comic that the animation team doesn’t have much room to get creative. As I said, the film’s faithfulness allows for a great still translation to the screen, but the animations are stiff so as to best replicate the imagery of the comic, which prevents the film from being engaging on a technical level.
Overall, The Killing Joke is a bit of a wash. When it’s in its groove as a faithful retelling of the book, it works well, if only because Mark Hamill has enough charisma to make the stiff animations seem secondary. However, everything that was added to the story is superfluous and only aggravates the problems inherent in the source material. Fans of the book will get what they were looking for, but don’t expect this film to bring any new converts.