by Mitchell Brown, Reporter
Every art form has a pinnacle era, a golden age if you will, and fans will debate over which era was the best of times for their beloved art form.
When it comes to comic books, my money for a time of major benchmark setting is on the late 1980s, often referred to as “the grim and gritty era.” It was the era that produced “The Crow,” “Watchmen,” and “Batman: The Killing Joke.”
Beyond all the bullets and brutality “The Crow” is a love story. “Watchmen” is a commentary on the Cold War. “Batman: The Killing Joke” is a story of madness and laughter: What separates the sane from the insane? How deep do the rivers of madness run within the Joker, and can he pull others in with him? “Batman: The Killing Joke” is a psychological horror story.
Months ago when I found out an animated “Killing Joke” was due to be released, I wasn’t all that interested, but days before the release date part of the draw, and one of the selling points, of the film was that it reunited the vocal talents of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and the Joker. Now grown ’90s kids will immediately recognize both voices from “Batman: The Animated Series.”
The worst possible scenario I imagined was that the movie would simply windup being something like a regurgitation of the series, but it wasn’t so.
Elements similar to the series were displayed, but the overall tone was much darker. Conroy’s voicing of Batman sounded even more stoic and authoritative, and Hamill’s vocals contained a greater sense of menace.
The vocal and visual energy in “Batman: The Animated Series” is that of a kid’s cartoon with a grittier edge, and “Batman: The Killing Joke” has the vibe of a nightmare brought to life. Honestly, it’s as though Batman and the Joker are drawn larger and more detailed than in the animated series. On the big screen, the interaction between the two hits with the impact of two planets colliding. The purples associated with the Joker are bright and saturated. Gotham is animated as all darkness and mists, with city lights protruding through. The contrast works well.
Most of the film does justice to the original source material, with a glaring exception being the first 20 minutes.
As the movie begins we are introduced to Barbara Gordon as Batgirl. She is a kick-ass heroine with modern female problems. The prologue was unnecessary and felt disjointed. Its theme and feel didn’t match the rest of the movie. When watching the first part of “Killing Joke,” I felt like I was watching an episode of “Sex and the City” with capes and crime-fighting thrown in.
I have a guess as to why the movie started out centered on Batgirl, to appease feminists and social justice warriors. “The Killing Joke” graphic novel has had accusations of sexism flung at it, with claims that Barbra Gordon was used as a mere prop. Then there is the issue of the Joker raping Gordon, which is alluded to, yet not shown in detail.
My speculation is that to appease certain sensitivities, the makers of this animated film decided to show Batgirl in an ultra-strong light to counterbalance how powerless and helpless she is left in the face of the Joker’s attack. This part of the movie obscured the focus. The focus of the story is the Joker and his psychosis and how he tries to pull others into mental madness.
The macabre tone of the graphic novel is captured on screen, with a large chunk of the dialogue lifted from the pages of the original source material, combine that with the animation and an ominous musical score, and you have one of the better comic book to screen adaptations ever released.
Like with most big screen comic adaptations the makers are at liberty to takeaway parts of the book and add elements that were not in the comic book. The kidnapping of Commissioner Gordon is from the book itself, and the song and dance number from the graphic novel is brought to life in a Broadway musical style, and the song will get stuck in your head. The musical number is an example of animation being able to do what ink and panels on paper cannot. All of the on screen motion bestows these images with a new life of their own.
Like in the comic, the audience is left to ponder what can drive someone mad: Is it circumstances, is it genetics? Is it environment? Can one bad day become the catalyst for insanity?
Although Joker was unsuccessful in his attempt to drive commissioner Gordon crazy, after the final fight, and a riveting dialogue between Batman and the Joker, the audience is left with the impression that the two are more than just rivals, but they are actually different manifestations of a similar madness, channeled into two different directions. “Batman: The Killing Joke” is a wild ride that is worth viewing.
“Batman: The Killing Joke” will be available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital on Aug. 2.