When I was a kid of maybe 13-ish or 14-ish, there was a one-shot Batman graphic novel called The Killing Joke which I thought was the bomb. I was just the right age to think 60s Adam West Batman on TV was absolutely ridiculous (although truth be told, I’d thought that from a reasonably young age!), so a comic that was grimdark as all heck – not that I knew the term at the time – was beyond amazing to me. It felt hardcore… psychological… deep… all the stuff an early teen mind felt was “really adult”.
Years passed and I bought a nice edition of it sometime in my… 20s, maybe? Re-reading it, I didn’t feel quite the same attraction as when I was a kid, but I still really liked the artwork (I’d later learn that artist Brian Bolland was inspired by the film, The Man Who Laughs), and being a Joker origin story always gave it that little bit of spice. It still felt like a stand-out story in the Batman universe, even if some aspects of it sat less well with me after some years had gone by and I’d grown up a little more.
I mean, let’s pull the band-aid off right now. This is the story where, as we head towards the climax, the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon, paralysing her. He strips her naked and photographs her in dozens of poses. These photos are then enlarged and displayed through a fun fair ride that Commissioner Gordon is forced to take – while also stripped naked and we presume under an hallucinogenic drug – in a bid to drive him mad. Stopping bank robbers at the First Bank of Gotham, this story is not.
For a long time I didn’t even think about the story until I was going through a boxset of Batman Blu-rays recently. “Oh, this has an animated version of The Killing Joke in it. I wonder if it’s any good?” So I popped it on, noting the MA15+ rating. “Jeez, they must have gone to town on this,” I thought, trying to remember what in particular might give it that rating. That might seem weird, especially after the scenes I mentioned in the previous paragraph, but I’ve read hundreds (if not thousands), of books and comics in dozens of genres over the years and sometimes I have no idea what happened in something I read some time back, or I think a particular storyline happened in a completely different book.
I found this film… tedious. Whole sections seemed unfamiliar to me – especially Batgirl having a fight with Batman on a city rooftop that quickly leads to them shagging?! – but I was to later learn this just wasn’t a by-product of not having read the graphic novel for some time. The people who made the animation actually added a bunch of stuff what was never, ever, in the original graphic novel.
Honestly, the whole production feels off. Yes, it has Mark Hamill doing the Joker’s voice, and Kevin Conroy doing Batman. They’re both legendary at this stuff. And sure, the animation style is perfectly fine. But the overall way the story has been adapted just doesn’t work for me. I mentioned Batman shagging Batgirl, but put that aside, it’s only one small scene. There’s plenty of other scenes, and pieces of dialogue, where it just didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel like it was connecting with me.
I was very disappointed with this animation. I fully realise I’m not as into The Killing Joke – as a story – as I was back in the late 80s when it felt like literally everyone used it as a touchstone as to how new and exciting comics could feel. But at the same time, I went back and re-read the graphic novel and it’s still way better than the film. And just to be clear, that’s even taking into consideration stuff in the graphic novel that I feel radically different about than when I was a teenager of over 30 years ago.
So should you watch it? I think if you’ve already read the graphic novel and have an itch to see it interpreted as an animation, it couldn’t hurt to see it at least once. Just so you know what it’s like. Or perhaps you’re a completest and just want to see all the Batman animations? Fair play to you. But you’ll note that neither are red-hot, this-is-amazing-and-you-must-see-it recommendations.