Batman: The Killing Joke clears up the most aggravating problem that I have with the latest glut of superhero movies – the producers always seem afraid to let their characters be characters. As much as I’ve praised the recent spate of Marvel movies, I must admit that underneath my admiration there always rests a tiny volley of unanswered questions: Who are these people? What makes them tick? What does fighting megaloggins from outer space do to them psychologically? Admittedly, the recent Superman movies have attempted to answer these questions but they are so incoherent that you walk away feeling like you just got slapped upside the head with a giant textbook.
Batman: The Killing Joke may be the first feature film to really get close to answering those key questions. Much like The Dark Knight, it tries dig under this bat person and his cackling nemesis and find out not only what makes them tick, but what keeps them ticking.
Based on a 25 year old graphic novel by Alan Moore, the story has influenced a great deal of how Batman has been portrayed over the past quarter century. It has been said that when Tim Burton wanted make Batman he told producers that “The Killing Joke” was what he had in mind. Later, Christopher Nolan had it in mind when he put together The Dark Knight. Now the story has its own movie and I’m glad it comes in the tapestry of Batman: The Animated Series because I think if the film were live action, there would be too much temptation on Hollywood’s part to give it more muscle and less heart.
The film debuted this year to a packed house (4,000 attendees) at Comic Con and premiered in select cities across the country as a Fathom event this past Monday night before it goes to DVD and Blu Ray on August 2nd. It is unusual in a lot of ways, not the least of which that this is the first R-rated animated film ever from Warner Bros. (it could easily have been PG-13, but okay). This is a grim story, full of the darkness that makes the modern Batman stories so palatable. It’s also the first animated Batman movie to have its wide debut on theater screens since Batman: Mask of the Phantasm back in ’93. Plus, it also reunites Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as the voices of Batman and The Joker respectively. Hamill’s involvement is special since this is the third time he’s played the character since twice announcing on Twitter that he retiring from the role.
Having read “The Killing Joke” I can say that the movie gets it right. I have always been impressed by Batman in animated form because he’s always given more room for human dimensions. If you’ve seen Batman: The Animated Series or the strikingly original Batman: Mask of the Phantasm then you know what I’m talking about. The story here is very simple but it’s effective because it is based on motivation, not the demand for action beats.
The first half-hour is devoted to a story arch that wasn’t part of Moore’s work. In fact, in that time we don’t even see the Joker. Instead, we follow the strained relationship between Bruce Wayne and Barbara Gordon (a.k.a. Batgirl) while working a complicated case. Bruce wants her to back down because the case is getting too personal but she’s determined to see it through. On a personal level Bruce admits that he has been to the edge of the abyss and (the movie suggests without words) he’s already lost one beloved sidekick and fears losing another.
This addition clears up the greatest problem with the original material wherein Barbara was more or less placed haphazardly in the story as a victim for the Joker. Here the extra time gives her greater motivation and when she backs away from the Batgirl role it makes her downfall at the hands of the Joker hit much harder and more personal. It’s her downfall rather than an exploitation of her tragedy as a prop for the problems of the male characters.
The rest of the story is almost beat for beat, word for word from Moore’s graphic novel. The Joker goes on a mission of madness to prove that he can turn one man – in this case James Gordon – into a tormented pile of screaming neurosis. His plan is overly complicated but you wouldn’t expect any plan from the Joker to be anything but elaborate. In a strange twist, Batman wants to get inside his head. At one point he confesses that he knows that someday one will kill the other and he sees that day in his mind’s eye. Yet, maybe there’s some consolation between the two that won’t leave that day ending with a lot of question marks.
The question of the need for Batman is laid out here in subtle ways, not with a blunt instrument. The police and the justice system are there to correct and punish those who choose to defy it. The Joker goes to extremes to turn the world into chaos and prove that insanity is just a mind-trip away. Between those extremes, the movie suggests, there is a need for a vigilante in a cape. It’s a very simple idea that is given weight because we feel it from the characters, not by the manipulations of the plot.
How the story resolves itself is kind of wonderful. I’ve complained recently that all tentpole movies seem required to have a bang-boom fight-to-the-finish third act that goes on for 45 minutes. I saw it in Independence Day: Resurgence, Warcraft, Ninja Turtles, Ghostbusters, Star Trek Beyond and at least a dozen others. I get impatient. Can’t filmmakers come up with a clever third act that doesn’t rely on crashing and bashing? Batman: The Killing Joke ends on a note that I like. I won’t spoil it but I’ll say that it is based on the characters and their psychological links to one another rather than any explosion. Well, there is a small kind of explosion, but it’s not what you expect.
What I appreciated most about Batman: The Killing Joke is that is allows the characters room to breathe. There is a moment when Barbara and Bruce are speaking over their communicators; Barbara asks an important question that Bruce doesn’t answer. Because of the tension between them that silence comes with so much more dramatic weight than any explosion or car crash. This is a movie about mind over matter and that’s what has kept these characters going and what keeps me coming back. This is about the psychology of people who must wear masks to correct the insanity happening in the world when justice and common sense just won’t do.