Based on the acclaimed graphic novel of the same name, Batman: The Killing Joke takes a journey into the dark psyche of the Clown Prince of Crime – from his humble beginnings as a struggling comedian to his fateful encounter with Batman that changes both of their lives forever. Years later, and now escaped from Arkham Asylum, The Joker devises a plan to prove that one bad day can make anyone as insane as he is – setting his sights on Commissioner Gordon. It’s up to the Dark Knight to put a stop to The Joker’s latest scheme and save one of Gotham City’s finest. Following a gripping prologue introducing Barbara Gordon’s heroic adventures alongside Batman as Batgirl, Batman: The Killing Joke stays true to the authentic tale that has held fans’ imaginations for nearly three decades – spotlighting the birth of a Super-Villain, the fortitude of a Super Hero and the punchline that will leave you speechless.
If The Joker is right, all you need is one bad day for everything to go wrong in your life. The creators of 'Batman: The Killing Joke' must have had a very, very bad day. Of all the DC Universe animated titles to be announced and released, this was the one I was looking forward to the most...and it's a huge disappointment. It's not quite a disaster – it would be hard to accomplish that since it's based on one of the best graphic novels ever made – but it's difficult to believe they have screwed such a good story up this badly. It's going to be impossible for me to talk about the problems with 'The Killing Joke' without spoilers, so on the off chance you've never read the graphic novel on which this animated movie is based and don't want it ruined for you, please don't read further, SPOILERS AHEAD. However, if you'd like to know why I'm so angry, read on as I unleash my ire on Gotham City.
It was pretty well publicized before 'The Killing Joke' animated movie came out that the creators were working on a prologue to the Alan Moore/Brian Bolland story, since the graphic novel itself isn't particularly long and they'd have a hard time padding it out for a movie-length presentation. The intent was to give viewers a better idea of who Batgirl is so that when (here's where the spoilers start, folks) Barbara Gordon (the voice of Tara Strong) is shot by The Joker (Mark Hamill, in probably his last performance as the character), viewers will be a little more attached emotionally to her. I had no issues with that concept and actually thought it was a pretty good idea...until I saw what they did with Batgirl in this movie.
The Batgirl presented in the opening (which runs about 28 minutes before the story finally gets to the graphic novel's tale) is obviously the result of a group of male writers (the screenplay is solely attributed to Brian Azzarello, but who knows how many other cooks were in his kitchen for this release) sitting down and deciding what their female superhero should act like. Yes, she's strong and capable when it comes to fighting the bad guys, but that's about as far as her admirable female attributes go. She's whiny (always complaining to Batman that she never gets to go with him to nab the criminals), impulsive, and – worst yet – sexually attracted to Batman (voiced here once again by Kevin Conroy). And it's not just the innocent flirtations of a college-aged girl. No, when she gets into an argument with Batman that turns physical, she mounts him, rips off her clothes, and has sex with him. That tells you what these DC filmmakers think about women (do they think every woman is sexually turned on when a guy is beating on her?)...but just as bad, what does this sexual encounter say about Batman? Batgirl may be immature and spontaneous here, but Batman isn't...what kind of "hero" allows this encounter to happen? To say nothing of how Batman treats Batgirl after the fact (until she's shot by The Joker, Batman is a complete jerk towards her).
Finally, after sitting through this horrible opening, 'The Killing Joke' gets to telling the original graphic novel's story, and it's pretty much a word-for-word mirror of Moore's original dialogue, with a huge effort to animate the rest of the movie as closely as possible to Bolland's artwork (with one huge caveat, which I'll get to later on). Once this part of the movie gets underway, it's a lot more engaging, and one can almost forget about the horrible prologue (in fact, I actually recommend that viewers – if they can resist – start their viewings at 28 minutes in, and just ignore all that Batgirl stuff). All the great material one remembers from the graphic novel is recreated here: from Barbara's shooting, to Commissioner Gordon (the voice of Ray Wise) being kidnapped and The Joker trying to drive him insane, to the best part of 'The Killing Joke': flashbacks to the events that may have (depending on if they're true or just imagined in The Joker's head) turned The Joker into the criminal he is today.
Then, just when you think that 'The Killing Joke' is going to redeem itself by providing a great animated rendition of the graphic novel's final panels, it cops out on us. As those familiar with the Moore/Bolland story are already aware, 'The Killing Joke' ends with The Joker telling Batman an ironic joke about two inmates escaping an asylum and then Batman embraces his sworn enemy in a shared laugh...during which Batman possibly...maybe...strangles The Joker to death. It was a great ambiguous (some would claim not so ambiguous since the name of the story is, in fact, 'The Killing Joke') ending that has been debated among fans for years. So certainly the creators of the animated version wouldn't rob us of that moment would they? Yep, they do. The final shot here simply has Batman putting his hands on both of Joker's shoulders, the camera panning down, and the credits rolling. Then, just to ruin any darkness that ending may have had (and, honestly, there's little to be found), they tack on a "stinger" during the credits where a wheelchaired Barbara Gordon takes on the mantle of Oracle – which is, of course, what happens to her character, but it really has no business being in this movie.
Since this is the first (and perhaps the only) animated release from the DC Universe that will have an "R" rating, you might find it interesting to know that had they just followed the original story, this may have still been given a PG-13. Surprisingly, the most offensive violence (such as a guy getting shot in the head) comes in that 28-minute prologue and not in the moments taken from the graphic novel. Sure, there's some stuff they throw in those parts too, but I think this movie could easily be edited down to a PG-13 without losing a thing. The "R" rating here seems to be more of a stunt by DC to boost sales than anything else.
So what is the sum total here? An animated film with a long, annoying opening, a pretty solid middle and closing, but topping off with a horrible ending. It's hard for me to believe that people like Mike Carlin and Bruce Timm – guys who really know Batman and assumingly are really big fans of this story –could allow this to happen to their movie. Done right, 'The Killing Joke' could have been the best animated release ever to come from DC. As it stands, it's actually one of the worst. Looks like the joke's on us this time around.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Batman: The Killing Joke' laughs its way onto home video in this Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD combo pack. The 25GB Blu-ray and dual-layer DVD come housed inside and eco-friendly Elite keepcase. An insert contains a digital code for an UltraViolet version of the movie. An embossed slipcover with the same artwork as the keepcase slides overtop. Both the Blu-ray and the DVD are front-loaded with a trailer for Batman v Superman and a promo ad for Warners' digital full-season passes for their network superhero series. The main menu is a still of the box cover image of The Joker, with menu selections running horizontally across the bottom – it's the same standard Warner Bros. menu design for those familiar with their home video releases.
Like many of these animated DC titles, Warners is offering up some retailer exclusives with 'The Killing Joke'. Target has an exclusive steelbook, Amazon has a deluxe edition with a Joker figurine, while Best Buy is offering a version that comes with both the Joker figurine and a copy of the graphic novel 'Batman: The Man Who Laughs'.
The Blu-ray in this release is region-free.
'Batman: The Killing Joke' is presented in the 1.78 aspect ratio and more or less has the same look and suffers the same video issues as prior DC/Warner Bros. animated releases. In terms of appearance, the image continues the colorful, but slightly choppy, animated appearance of prior titles. The major difference here is that the animators have gone out of their way to make some of the animation look exactly like the artwork in the original graphic novel. As for the issues, there's still noticeable banding throughout the presentation – something I suppose we're just going to have to expect, as I can't remember a DC Universe release that didn't have banding. There's also some mild pixelation here and there, but nothing to obvious or distracting.
Those who have seen or already own prior DC releases should have a pretty good idea of what they'll get here in terms of appearance and quality. The animation may not be on par with a big-budget release (although this movie did get a two-night theatrical presentation thanks to the folks at Fathom Events), but as direct-to-video titles go, it's not bad and there are no major glitches or problems to report.
The featured track is an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio one and while it isn't nearly as active or immersive as past DC Universe animated releases, a lot of that has to do with the story presented here, rather than any issues with the track itself. The creators of 'The Killing Joke' certainly try to pour on some extra action in their added Batgirl prologue, perhaps knowing that not a whole lot in terms of gunplay and explosions are going to happen later on. Most of the dialogue is front and center – although I did hear at least one spoken reply come from the back right speaker. For the most part, the surrounds are used for things like ambient noises, most notably the several rainstorms that occur in the movie – particularly at the title's conclusion.
I didn't notice any glitches in the audio – so there are no problems with dropouts or with any hissing, voices that are hard to make out, or things that don't sound as if they're properly mixed with the rest of the track.
In addition to the lossless English track, Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are available in French, German, and Spanish (Latin). A Dolby Digital 2.0 track is available in Spanish (Castilian). Subtitles are an option in English SDH, French, German, Spanish (Latin), and Spanish (Castilian).
Only the folks at DC could take what was seemingly the definitive Joker story and muck it up. Thanks to a dull-as-dishwater (and borderline offensive) tacked-on opening and a failure to convey both the richness and darkness of Alan Moore's original story, 'The Killing Joke' turns out to be a huge disappointment. It really only works when they're copying Moore's words (and Brian Bolland's artwork). Rent it.