n 1988, writer Alan Moore and illustrator Brian Bolland changed history. Not mankind or technology nor anything as profound, but DC’s history. This was the year that Batman: The Killing Joke released, a graphic novel offering both a sympathetic origin for the elusive Joker, as well as a tragically harsh consequence for Batgirl. As a comic, Moore accomplished yet another cog in his wheelhouse of darkly mature storytelling. As a piece of literary canon, it extended the boundaries of where comics could venture and flourish. Its influence can be felt in numerous iterations both on the page and in the populist films of the modern era. Now, for the first time, the story has moved past print and into this recently released feature film version.
The Killing Joke tells the tragic tale of the Joker’s attempt to demonstrate to Batman that ANY MAN has the propensity for insanity, given the appropriate levels of duress. After his ingenious escape from Arkham Asylum, Joker sets up show at a local amusement park and begins the heinous nature of his plan: Kidnap Commissioner Jim Gordon, torture his daughter Barbara (also known as Batgirl) and, quite simply, drive Gordon mad. Batman functions primarily as a secondary character in this story, as Joker and his horrific leanings are very much front-and-center.
As we converge on both stories, we are also treated to flashbacks to what is – theoretically – Joker’s past. I say theoretically because this illustration is painted so eloquently that it goes invariably without saying that this origin might just be the reflections of a mind no longer able to accurately reflect.
When The Killing Joke sticks to the original graphic novel, this is a piece of bravura animated storytelling rarely seen in today’s ‘play-it-safe’ environment. Even with a rudimentary animated style (Pixar was obviously unavailable), this is a near Shakespearean tale of depth and tragedy. As the Joker strips Gordon naked, injects disturbing images amid constant verbal punishment, and even flashes demoralizing pictures of Barbara, we equally endure the incessant depravity this Joker is capable of.
Unfortunately, the creators felt it was also important to setup Moore’s story with a prologue that treads dangerously close to Joel Schumacher levels of cheesy interactions and stylistically poor choices. Batman and Batgirl begin by chasing down another villain in Paris France, who is more a castaway 60s punch-line than master criminal. Much has been made of an unnecessary sex scene in this opening 20 minutes or so, yet that has nothing on the abysmal character interactions and conflict between Batman (Kevin Conroy) and Batgirl (Tara Strong) that severely threatens the entirety of the story. Batgirl is a solid character with a terrifying arc in the second half, yet this opening forces you to loathe her before that turn of events can even unfold. Rarely have I seen a film pieced together so blatantly unconnected in tone and talent than I have between this portion of the film and what remains.
Thankfully, the second Mark Hamill shows up – gracefully returning as the second greatest Joker ever to grace the screen – the film solidly recovers from a near plummet into the comic abyss. So many think of Hamill as Luke Skywalker with nary one iota of how brilliantly he has captured one of cinema’s greatest villains solely through his vocal inflections and maniacal laugh. If ever you need proof, watch as he single-handedly saves The Killing Joke from its crushing opening, delivering a solid film that is not completely the hero we deserve right now.
If never have you gazed upon the nuanced writing in Moore’s original graphic novel nor the astounding performance of Hamill as the Joker, now is the time. Just take my advice and begin where the comic does, or the joke’s on you.