Origin films seem to focus primarily on the protagonist, the hero of the film or franchise. That’s not unreasonable because usually the good guy is far more interesting than the bad guy. But what happens when that’s not the case, as with Batman’s most frightening villain, The Joker? We know the quick sketch of his origin, a petty thief who is horribly disfigured when he falls into a vat of caustic chemicals during a botched robbery. He goes insane and The Joker is born.
But as a foil to Batman’s relentless grim visage, The Joker also acts as Yang to Batman’s Yin, the two of them trapped in a weird, unhealthy and dangerous co-dependent relationship. It’s an exploration of this relationship that primarily propels the powerful Batman: The Killing Joke animated feature film. And it’s quite a ride!
Based on the edgy and controversial graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, with story by Alan Moore and art by Brian Bolland, the animated film is written by Brian Azzarello, directed by Sam Liu, and stars the voice talents of Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamill as The Joker, Tara Strong as Batgirl and Ray Wise as Commissioner Gordon.
The story begins with tension, the uncomfortable relationship between Batman and his ostensible sidekick Batgirl. She admires him to no end and even tells her best friend that she’s “seeing someone, I guess” without sharing his identity. Batman really can’t handle emotional connection, however, and he’s rude, abrupt and peremptory towards her, treating her with a haughtiness that borders on contempt in moments. Is he covering up his vulnerability or is he truly disconnected from his humanity?
Nonetheless, Batman and Batgirl, um, “flap wings”, though even that doesn’t thaw the block of ice that is Batman. Then The Joker shows up and in flashbacks we learn his back story, his experiences as a hapless loser of a comedian who weeps in frustration that he can’t earn a buck and provide for his beloved pregnant wife. He falls in with the wrong guys and gets pulled into helping with a robbery that goes wrong, he falls into that iconic vat of chemicals and The Joker comes out of the muck.
And so begins the only relationship in the film that really matters, the tension and co-dependence between Batman and The Joker. Batgirl is still in the picture, as is her father Commissioner Gordon, but they’re bit players in this drama. At one point Batman even acknowledges his dysfunctional relationship with The Joker, saying resignedly “This is going to end with one of us killing the other.”
It’s interesting to note that while Batman is the main character in the film, with the most screen time, we never once see him as Bruce Wayne, though Batgirl’s identity as Barbara Gordon is very much a part of her identity and character in the story. The “human” side of Wayne’s secret identity is not relevant to this particular storyline, he’s the dark, brooding, angry Batman, an archetype, not a man.
There are a number of troubling scenes both on screen and implied, making this film controversial and provocative. The Wall Street Journal describes it as “a shocking film”, Gizmodo says “The Killing Joke Movie is a Disaster” and MoviePilot.com says that the film has “a huge problem”. And yet it’s time for superhero films to come back to Earth and address the everyday themes we all face, issues of morals, ethics, mortality, love, vulnerability and betrayal. For the bad guy to be ambiguous and the hero to be, well, not always so heroic after all.
I really enjoyed Batman: The Killing Joke and found it well worth my time, as did the packed theater of comic book geeks and fans who shared the experience with me and cheered (and, yes, jeered a bit) at the ending. Recommended.
Tip: Rated “R” for violence and tense situations, I think a hard PG13 is more accurate: I’d take my 16yo son to see this, but not my 12yo daughter. FYI.