There has been an array of animated films from Warner Brothers that feature the Caped Crusader front and center – but the very best of the crop have been overseen by arguably the best of the best, Bruce Timm. Timm was responsible for bringing us, to me, the only true Batman and Joker in both Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. Since 1992, the two have been a tour-de-force that deliver the best of their characters in even the most average of stories. From Batman: The Animated Series, a long series of direct-to-video movies, and even EA/Rocksteady’s ever-popular Arkham Trilogy, the two thesps keep their chemistry going all these years later. To me, their defining moment has always been 1993’s Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm. The first and only big screen Bruce Timm movie, the story highlighted Batman’s ongoing battle against The Joker with an old flame, Andrea Beaumont, in the very center. The Alan Burnett/Bruce Timm film hasn’t aged a day and still boasts the most enthralling work Conroy and Hamill have completed. (Dare I mention the feature is also better than many Batman films? Yeah. I dare.)
That is, until this very day. It’s truly no secret that writer mastermind Alan Moore loathes any of his tales to receive an adaptation. He’s been cold to the criminally underrated V For Vendetta. Moore felt Zack Snyder lacked any grasp or depth on his fabled Watchmen property, though that movie is probably one of the most faithful comic adaptations to grace the big screen. And we won’t mutter a word about League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen nor From Hell. But to take his immortal DC graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke and make it the feature fans have longed for, the idea takes balls. Naturally, Bruce Timm has felt he’s the only man to tackle the job. He’s spent over a decade trying to persuade Warner Brothers to let him produce the graphic novel into animated form, sparing none of the violence ad retaining a R rating. Over that time, Timm even took a mental break from DC Animation to regroup and relax. (His last producing effort was the very faithful The Dark Knight Returns five years ago, and was the stuff that Zack Snyder wishes he could even helm.)
So – does Timm pull off the impossible? Despite my trepidation to see Moore’s work get translated to screen, the answer is a resounding yes. Swirling with controversy and holding back none of the discomfort that Brian Bolland’s art elicited, Batman: The Killing Joke is a love letter to Moore’s landmark page turner whilst adding in questionable material to flesh out Batgirl’s story. By the time the credits roll, you’ll feel disturbed but absolutely overjoyed that the man who truly understands Batman most guided this project home without losing sight of the Batman/Joker psychological relationship.
WARNING – SPOILERS WITHIN.
Acclaimed writer Brian Azzarello of 100 Bullets fame scripts with Timm’s oversight, ripping Moore’s gorgeous wordplay into the screenplay without finding the need to change the direction of the story. All 48 pages of the 1988 one-shot are adapted without losing a beat, and the entire time being Moore’s exact words that drew in readers. Now, knowing full well that bringing the story to life would have resulted in more a short feature than a full film, Azzarello has woven a brand new epilogue to kickstart the story. Batgirl finds herself tussling with a Mafioso’s nephew, who is more your normal sociopath criminal than a fantastical villain. I for one welcome seeing the newer material. You are drawn into the head of Barbara Gordon, as spirited as she’s always been, trying to prove herself without needing Batman to be there to clean up the mess. The start is truly an emotional gut punch, retaining real world elements instead of trying to get too big too fast. The 25-ish minutes Azzarello scripted work incredibly well and gel perfectly with The Joker’s scheme that unfolds as The Killing Joke progresses. Moore may not approve of the new story but, in the long run, seeing the relationship between Batgirl and Batman enhances the dynamic between the two.
Brian Bolland’s pencils are brought to life in beautiful simplistic detail, much like admiring his penciling in the one-shot. The animation, which as of late has employed a more anime aesthetic to character design, harkens back to Timm’s approach to design and shading that launched the DC Animated Universe in 1992, a much welcome back-to-basics method that owes Brian Bolland a slew of credit. The costume and character designs, the backgrounds, I legitimately felt as if the pages were turning on the screen before me. While the newer films lack the same kind of impact the earlier DC Animation films left in their wake (see both Batman/Superman movies as well as Justice League: Doom), The Killing Joke is a needed return to form for fans of new and old. The story isn’t just 76 minutes of ass kicking and mayhem. It’s very much a long narrative with fight sequences to propel the film forward.
The welcome return of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill doesn’t hurt either. Tara Strong too returns, who voiced Barbara Gordon/Batgirl in Batman: The Animated Series over twenty years ago. The chemistry of all three together leaves a strong resonance in their performances and could easily net some awards come 2017. Hamill come out of self-imposed Joker retirement is almost a no-brainer too. Hamill infamously left the role of The Joker behind to focus on other work and made it public he’d only return to work with Kevin Conroy (truly the best Batman we’ll ever get in any medium) and also if Timm managed to get The Killing Joke produced. True to his word, both men dusted off their chairs and got back to work. I can’t imagine this film having the same impact without either man voicing the characters that have been the backbone of each others careers. Hamill, most especially, deserves the biggest praise he can receive. He may be good ole Mister J at the end of the day, but he’s never had a performance this cruel, this devious, and this impactful. The Killing Joke has The Joker’s origin in full display, and Hamill’s uncanny ability to flip from murderous madman to down-and-out failing comedian is worthy of laud. Hamill reading Moore’s dialogue word-for-word is bone chilling, yet emotionally heart wrenching.
The main question that has everyone buzzing, especially after the film’s screening at San Diego Comic Con last week, was the necessity of the inclusion of Barbara’s sexual attraction to Bruce. I have to say, the addition of the thematic material does make for an interesting quagmire. We’ve always seen Barbara Gordon/Batgirl as the young hotshot trying to be the reliable partner to Batman. She’s youthful, daring, and brash, out to prove herself capable of holding her own in Gotham without needing help. What if Batgirl got herself so deep in a no-win scenario against a criminal too much of a deadly narcissist that she wouldn’t be able to go toe-to-toe? And, out of her desire to enable Bruce to see her abilities be worthy of his trust, that she lets her guard slip in a moment of anger? The scene only lasts a handful of seconds, but I’m oddly not opposed to Azzarello’s scripting of this. The care the two have for each other does make some sense once we reach the narrative of Alan Moore’s story later in the film and does, I suppose, add a new layer I wouldn’t have foreseen making the slightest of sense. Looking back, you could see the connection the two have had in previous Timm incarnations but reaching this climax makes the scene leave a lasting impact. The drama doesn’t hurt the story, nor does it damage the characters either.
My concerns over changes to Moore’s actual story were subsided quickly by the time Azzarello’s new story elements ended and Moore’s graphic novel interpretation began. Truly it is both amazing and stirring to see The Killing Joke brought to life with such attention given to every little detail. As I’ve said, Moore’s words are taken line by line and delivered with gusto by the leads. Reading the graphic novel has always been a delight, but to hear Conroy and Hamill delivering the lines leaves a much more resounding stamp on the material. The panels are brought to life page by page, and even a little ditty that Hamill croons as Gordon begins his descent into madness is chilling. The showdown between Batman and the Joker is left fully intact and even that ending that has been a point of contention for decades. The 76 minute run time is over too fast and Timm’s feature leaves a mark more than any Batman feature has in years. Yes, more so than Nolan. The Killing Joke is the definitive Batman/Joker tale for the ages that is not for kids. This is for the adults that have grown up reading Batman tales that aren’t childish but have a heart and despair interwoven into the narrative.
If you need a change of pace from the Jason O’Mara Batman – less of a detective, more of a bone-breaking badass – don’t hesitate to pick up The Killing Joke. As of this writing, Alan Moore has yet to make any kind of public statement on his distaste for Timm’s incarnation. I won’t doubt that he’ll leave a scathing review somewhere. But you have to commend Bruce Timm for having a hefty set for never letting his dream fade away. The only way to get the latest from DC Animation made was that R rating. The impact of the violence, the thematic material hurled against James Gordon by the perversion committed against Barbara Gordon, and the turmoil inside Batman’s noggin isn’t meant for a youthful audience. This is the Batman movie that we’ve needed to see, two titans of comics engaged in psychological and sociological warfare with a denouement that packs a punch and leaves you with a laugh. I truly hope Bruce Timm doesn’t walk away again. I respect he needed time off to recharge his creativity, but please, don’t let we fans left waiting on baited breath for more. Timm is the true grandmaster of comic storytelling, embracing his passion for the characters he’s held close since his youth, and generations new and old only benefit from his genius churning out movies of this caliber.
Reber’s Rating – 94/100