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Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Animation Of The Week: Batman - The Killing Joke (2016) [REVISED]


One of the unwarranted criticisms levelled at the recent Suicide Squad movie was that it felt like two movies forced together.

That criticism would be better directed at the latest DC Comics animation from Warner Bros, Batman: The Killing Joke.

The final acts of this one hour 16 minute film are based on Alan Moore's controversial 1988 graphic novel of the same name, but the first half-hour is all original material penned by Brian Azzarello (not one of my favourite comic book authors), establishing a kind of backstory for Barbara Gordon as Batgirl (voiced by Tara Strong).

She is introduced to us as Batman's spunky young partner - in a Robin-like role - but she has a bit of an unrequited student-teacher crush on Batman (voiced by the legendary Kevin Conroy, the definitive voice of animated Batman).

However, a sleazy mobster called Paris (Maury Sterling) develops an unhealthy obsession with her when she and Batman start investigating his crimes.

Batman tells Barbara to stay away from the case as it's becoming too personal. They argue and end up having sex on a rooftop!

And you're suddenly like, whaaaattttt??? Where did that come from? Batman's old enough to be father, and is her mentor, and it just feels really wrong and creepy.

Batman butts heads with his allies all the time, it's part of his shtick, but that doesn't mean he then has sex with them!

I had no issues with Barbara's romantic fascination with Batman, I can understand that as a young vigilante, she could be attracted to his power and confidence, but for him to take advantage when she makes a move on him is just so wrong and out of character for such a disciplined personality as Batman's.

Eventually, Barbara loses her cool in a punch-up with Paris and decides she's had enough, stepping away from the Batgirl persona, hanging up the cape and cowl.

Then the film changes dramatically as it's now bringing Alan Moore's novel to life. Hammering home the clash of styles and content between the film's two weirdly disjointed halves is the fact that the first half has a Batgirl voiceover narration, which then goes away even before her character is famously gunned down by The Joker.

The Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill, who needs no introduction) escapes Arkham Asylum, shoots Barbara, and kidnaps Commissioner Gordon (Ray Wise), with the aim of driving Jim Gordon mad to prove to Batman that everyone is just "one bad day" away from becoming like him.

This is where the film really comes into its own, unfolding like an intimate, character-driven, horror story, pitting the Batman against The Joker in a psychological and ideological - rather than purely physical - duel.

The latter half of the animation is intercut with flashbacks to one possible version of The Joker's origin story (that of a failed stand-up comedian forced to turn to crime to support his pregnant wife), but he admits that his own insanity means he has multiple memories of his transformation in to The Joker and can't tell which is real.

Where the abrupt ending of the tale worked fine in the graphic novel, it seems a bit odd and slightly underwhelming in the film.

Thankfully, there was the post-credits coda which brought the story back to to Barbara, kickstarting her transformation into the role of Oracle, and - to a degree - unifying the two seemingly disparate halves of the narrative.

It's been many, many years since I read The Killing Joke, but I also don't remember such overt suggestions (although no outright statements) that The Joker may have raped Barbara. Isn't it bad enough that he could have paralysed her for life, from the gunshot wound, and then sexually humiliated her in the series of photographs he used to torment her father? Again, for me, that seems out of character for The Joker.

In an attempt to echo Brian Bolland's fantastic art from the source material (and some moments look like they are lifted right off the page) there's an odd, static, and quite dated, appearance to much of the animation (a lot of the story takes place in front of inanimate backgrounds - even when populated by other human beings).

Large sections of dialogue also feel like they were lifted verbatim from the source material, which makes for some uncomfortably long monologues that other characters just stand about listening to.

Ultimately, Batman: The Killing Joke is a patchy affair, with the strongest story and character elements coming in the latter parts that were taken from Alan Moore's story, but the Batman/Batgirl relationship just plunges into "creepy old uncle" territory and really should have been kicked to the kerb when it was first proposed at a planning meeting.

There was a lot of proud pontificating about how this was to be the first "R" rated animation of its kind, but just shoehorning sex into something doesn't make it edgy or adult, just a bit sleazy and ill-considered.

[Please note this review was revised at 9pm, UK time, because it was drawn to my attention that I had missed a crucial post-credits scene]

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