It can be hard to talk about comics like The Killing Joke sometimes, not because there isn’t anything to say, but that so much of it has been said already. Time and time again, Alan Moore’s masterpiece has been called extraordinary, a defining masterpiece, one of the best Batmen stories ever told. It has been analyzed, scrutinized, criticized, and held under magnifying glass for going on 30 years now. And yet this newest Batman film, a 76 minute adaptation of a 48 page comic, has something new too say; and its marvelous.
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT
Screenwriter Brian Azzarello (best known for Vertigo Comic 100 Bullets and New 52 Wonder Woman) does a remarkable job crafting both new material, and adapting storylines that already exist. A number of bold choices, from a wonderfully kooky Broadway-esque musical number, too an additional storyline expanding Batgirl help to flesh out a short comic without becoming to fatty. The Killing Joke was already an very adult story, and Azzarello brings his Vertigo sensibilities to the table, making this one of the few superhero films very much designed for the 18 and older crowd. Make no mistake; despite a lack of full frontal nudity or overtly graphic violence, this is very much an R rated movie.
Some of these more adult moments are no doubt going to be controversial, but importably, they are not done for the sake of gratuity. Too often in comics, women are overly sexualized, used as tools to promote their male counterparts, and undervalued. Moore’s The Killing Joke is guilty of this as well; Barbra’s paralization is used as a story telling device to expand on Batman and Commissioner Gordon, hardly venturing into the nightmarish reality Barb now finds herself in.
Azzarello’s Killing Joke however, tries to avoid this; before her fateful night with that clown in an Hawaiian shirt, we get to see Barbra as Batgirl, her relationship with Batman, her flaws, her motivations, her lusts and love. And importantly, we see why Barbras role as Batgirl was doomed to begin with, not ended only with a bullet, but unrequited passion. In what will likely be the most controversial twist in the film, Batman and Batgirl are more than just a crime fighting duo; they’re lovers. It’s only one brief encounter, a rare moment of weakness for Batman, a moment of spontaneous excitement for Barb. But it’s a more telling examination of these characters than gut check reactions will give it credit for.
Yes, the sex is certianly different, and at first it’s a bit weird, but the sex doesn’t ring false. The Duos physical closeness acts as a contrast to their ideological difference. Barbra could never be Batman; she is to joyous, spontaneous, full of life. As Batman says, to become him, she would have to “look into the abyss”, something Bruce is unwilling to let her do. Do they love each other? Maybe, but that isn’t the point. Batman is Batman, and he could never let someone else in, no matter his feelings. To let someone in, would be to break them too. And that’s where the tragedy lies. Because despite his precautions, despite his sacrifices, under Bruce’s watch Barbra is broken anyway.
It is a terrible irony that in shooting Barbra through the spine, The Joker did not even intend to hurt Batman. But as the clown prince of crime says, life is full of pain, tremendous acts of violence and hurt delivered seemingly at random by an uncaring Universe. It is with a crime not intended to hurt Batman that Joker hurts him worst of all; and that is in its own dark way, kind of funny. The Joker might be the craziest person in the world, but he consistently seems to be the only one who gets whats going on. In a world so cruel and random as ares, what logical choice is there but to go mad?
Of course Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill nail it as Batman and Joker respectively, and the animation even with DC’s high standards is stunning; these things almost go without saying. But despite the near constant praise, I still believe people don’t give this version of The Joker the credit he deserves. As much as everyone tends to love Heath Ledger, or Jack Nicholson (and rightfully so), The Killing Joke has always been for me the best rendition of the mad clown, and regardless of medium, one of the greatest villains of all time. Joker here isn’t merely a madman, an an anarchist, or prankster. He’s a man with layers, one who does awful, horrible things, but not because he was born an bad person, or even because he had an overtly tragic life; just an average man who had one really bad day.
That bad day was all it took to turn a flawed man evil, a sane man completely mad. Batman might stare into the Pit of Abyss, but The Joker has fallen into it. And once your down there, nothing in this world can get you out. Perhaps had he found help earlier Joker could have been saved. But as he tells Batman now “It’s far too late for that.” The world can smash ones life into a million, broke pieces in the blink of an eye, with no hope of putting them back together, and there’s absolutely nothing that can be done about it. If that’s not worth going mad over, I’m not sure what is.
But Batman and Gordon, through massive strength and unbelievable resilience, face tragedies every bit the equal of Joker and stay sane, if not hopeful. Life might be random and mad, but it is what you make it. Whatever point you find, whatever meaning you choose to instill, that is how you take ahold of this life and carry on. It’s the small things in the midst of chaos that make us who we are. A kiss on a rooftop, a jog in the park, a quiet moment glueing pictures in a scrapbook; all tiny, insignificant things, all meaningless against the uncaring expanse of the Universe, but all wonderful, beautiful parts of being alive. You’d have to be insane to waste your life being mad in a World that has so much to take in, and so little time to do it. The Joker is wrong here; the Universe might be chaos, but all of us our better than our worse day, no matter how bad that day might be.
Philosophy and analyzation aside, The Killing Joke is a perfect adaptation of what has over the years become one of the comics I’ve loved beyond all others. It’s brutal, it’s tragic, and it’s sad, but above all else, The Killing Joke is resoundingly true. A cartoon that treats it audience like adults, a story that tries and give answer to one of the questions that plagues all that live in this life; The Killing Joke is a mesmerizing, outstanding film, one of the greatest adaptations ever made, an animated masterpiece that defies the humongous expectations that had already been thrust upon it. It’s a masterwork in storytelling, and one of the smartest, finest comic book movies I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy.
5 Knives out of 5
Jeff is Head Writer for The Blood Shed and eats, drinks, and bleeds horror. You can send him harassing messages at firstname.lastname@example.org
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