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ANIMATED FEATURE REVIEW

Batman: The Killing Joke
Studio: Warner Bros. Animation
Release Date: July 23rd, 2016 - Digital; August 2nd, 2016 - Blu-ray, DVD

Synopsis: 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.

Published by DC Comics in 1988, the two-time Eisner Award winning Batman: The Killing Joke graphic novel has maintained an unparalleled popularity throughout its 28 years of existence – as evidenced by its recent ranking as the best-selling graphic novel of 2015.

The celebrity-laden cast is led by Kevin Conroy (Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League) and Mark Hamill (Star Wars franchise) as they reprise their seminal roles as the voices of Batman/Bruce Wayne and The Joker, respectively. The cast also features Tara Strong (Teen Titans; Batman: Arkham games), as Barbara Gordon and Ray Wise (Twin Peaks, RoboCop) as Commissioner Gordon. Batman: The Killing Joke is directed by Sam Liu (Justice League vs. Teen Titans) from a script by Eisner Award-winning writer Brian Azzarello. Bruce Timm and Sam Register are executive producers, and Alan Burnett is co-producer. Benjamin Melniker & Michael Uslan are executive producers.



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Batman: The Killing Joke Feature Review
By James Harvey

To simply label this movie as misguided would be a gross oversimplification of it. There are moments and aspects of it that exceed expectations, but unfortunately others that just don't click as they should. Batman: The Killing Joke will remain a divisive movie, and the choices made by the creative team here will definitely be discussed for some time to come. They took some major risks adapting what it essentially an out-dated, misogynistic comic that, while attempting to address some fundamental issues with the source material, also makes some grave mistakes that ultimately results in a very mixed product.

So, before this continues further, I really feel the need to immediately point out the film's score - it's amazing, and rivals Batman: The Dark Knight Returns as the best score in the DC Universe Animated Original Movie line. The score is powerful, emotional, haunting at times, and is just pitch-perfect from start to finish. I don't want to call it perfect, for fear of over-selling it, but it's damn near close. It was likely my favorite aspect of the entire movie. The composers - the Dynamic Music Partners - seriously hit every note perfectly, without flaw and without fail, and the result is an absolutely stunning piece of work. Thankfully, it's available to own on compact disc and digital download, and I recommend everyone hunt it down immediately.

Adapting the classic Batman graphic novel of the same name, Batman: The Killing Joke finds The Joker once again lashing out at those closest to Batman all to prove a point that everyone is just as close to madness as he is. This animated adaptation also includes a special prologue to the actual adaptation, fleshing out the story of Barbara Gordon, and her final nights as Batgirl, which lead up to the events depicted in original graphic novel.

Given the short length of the original graphic novel, it's a solid idea to add some new material to flesh it out and get the film's length up to the standard 75-minute running time. However, the new material added will likely end up more controversial than the actual original Batman: The Killing Joke comic. This will clearly be a movie that many won't see eye-to-eye on. Some will love how slavish it is to the source material - original prologue material excluded - while others will find it a staggering misfire. How much of a fan one is for the source material will likely also determine how much they get out of this (it's a classic, yes, but it's not exactly a book I'd consider required reading).

The idea of expanding on Batgirl’s backstory to make the events in the actual Batman: The Killing Joke portion of the movie resonate is a brilliant idea. It helps to elevate, though doesn’t completely fix, Barbara Gordon’s role in the story. It makes her more than just a plot point whose suffering is used to drive Batman and Gordon’s story. It’s a troubling depiction and a terrible waste of a great character, but here, in the animated adaptation, they have a chance to fix that. However, the original story developed here is a shocking misfire, making Batgirl into a whiney, impulsive near-stalker who is obsessed with Batman. The tension between Batgirl and Batman inevitably leads to a creepy, uncomfortable sex scene (which encapsulates all that's wrong with this portion of the movie). Granted, nothing is shown, but it’s not exactly subtle, and it comes up repeatedly in the dialogue afterwards. Toss in a laughably outdated misogynistic gangster foil who eggs on Batgirl and eventually gets under her skin, and the result is a damaging, objectifying portrayal of Batgirl, turning her from a strong character to an impulsive, weak-willed annoyance. She becomes so distracted with her superhero boyfriend that she ends up making mistake after mistake before just throwing in the towel and ending her run as Batgirl. Just insulting.

Now, this isn’t the first time a romantic relationship between Batman and Batgirl has popped up. It became a plot point in Batman Beyond, and was referenced in Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman, but it was handled in a way that actually worked. It didn’t feel off-putting or simply wrong, like it does here. The intent of what he creators were trying to do is clear, to build Batgirl's story, but it’s handled in entirely the wrong fashion and actually ends up hurting the character more. It also doesn't help that none of the prologue really has any bearing on the remainder of the film, and the pacing of it is slow and meandering at times. It's like a wholly separate beast, one which has no actual bearing on the second half of the film itself, that seems more like it should be a bonus short on the Blu-ray than a part of the movie. The tone, the pacing, the execution - all of it is different compared to the latter half of the movie.

Moving on to the actual Batman: The Killing Joke adaptation, fans should be pleased with the results. It’s very faithful and does a great job in bringing the story to life in animated form. Granted, as a result of the limited budget, the character designs are likely not as detailed as some would hope, but they still do an excellent job at evoking Brian Bolland’s original designs. There’s a clear inspiration there and it works. Lots of the film’s moments are pulled right from the comic, and actually appear exactly as one would expect them in an animated movie such as this. There’s a fair amount of creepy imagery, be it the dead dentists at the start of the story, the twisted fun house, all of it works. There are even a few shots of The Joker that are legitimately unnerving. It's a solid adaptation of the original comic book, even if it can't hit the same artistic heights as the original material, resulting in a bit of a bland, murky look. Azzerallo does a fine job adapting Moore's prose, adding in a few small bits here and there but otherwise staying ridiculously close to the original classic novel. A couple small bits from the original story are also removed, but nothing is lost. For a comic that's very much of it's time (in this case, the late 1980s), it is pretty dated in the way certain characters are treated, but fans who really enjoy the source material should be pleased with what's on screen.

Director Sam Liu does solid job directing the piece, finding the right pace to let things play out organically. The only notable stumbling block is the flashbacks, as those seem to start and end abruptly, the exception being that final pivotal flashback when Batman and the Red Hood meet. The different color scheme used for the flashback – it seems like this adaptation of Batman: The Killing Joke used the recolored Deluxe Edition from a few years ago – does help with the transition, though it seems like it could’ve been handled a little smoother.

While the script is a bit problematic, the voice work is pretty stellar across the board. Hamill does a spectacular job as the Joker. While he doesn't reach the height of his performance in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, he gets really close here. This Joker feels more sadistic, more creepy and just flat-out evil. It's a fantastic turn by Hamill, who even gets to flex some new muscle with the flashback sequences. His performance as the man Joker (possibly) used to be is so calm it's almost unnerving. You get the sense of a man who is completely on the brink, ready to go over the edge. There's a slight quiver in his voice that speaks of a man hanging on for dear life, and Hamill pulls it off beautifully. Conroy pulls out another great Batman performance. He doesn't get as much dialogue as you'd expect, save for a few key scenes, but he once again pulls out an excellent performance, even bringing a touch of world-weariness to the role.

Strong does a great job as Barbara Gordon and Batgirl, playing Barbara as more grounded and Batgirl a little more emotional. It's noticeable during the movie, specifically during the first portion of the film as scenes shift back and forth between the female hero both in costume and in her civilian life. Her most effective moment is easily the verbal rooftop spat with Batman as she lashes out. You can really hear Strong pouring herself into that moment and it helps sell Batgirl's anger and frustration toward Batman. An excellent moment in the otherwise misguided prologue.

Despite the flawed final product, with so many good aspects buried down under severely misguided prologue segment that taints nearly everything else about the movie, I would still recommend fans check out Batman: The Killing Joke for themselves. Fans and critics have returned wildly different opinions on this feature and, while this review is my own opinion, it falls somewhere in the middle of both sides. The prologue segment is a major misstep, a misogynistic mess that steps all over what makes Batgirl such a great an enduring character. Her treatment and depiction here is so baffling and off-key that it leaves a bad taste that's never really wiped away from the rest of the movie, even when it reaches the actual Batman: The Killing Joke adaptation portion. If fans want to just see Batman: The Killing Joke adapted, they should just skip about halfway into the feature and they'll have themselves a solid adaptation of the classic Batman story. The story itself doesn't really have the impact it once had, and those new to the source material might feel a little underwhelmed in what it has to say (and shocked at how Batgirl is treated as less of a character and more of a plot point to get Batman and Gordon upset and angry), but this animated movie does give life to something certain fans have wanted to see adapted for ages. And, honestly, there are some major positives here, including some fantastic voice work and an utterly spectacular score (seriously, go buy that soundtrack already).

In the end, the movie really works when it sticks with the source material, but even then a viewer's mileage may vary by how much they enjoyed the 1980s graphic novel of the same name. Fans of the original Batman: The Killing Joke story? Give it a whirl. Not a fan? Well, skip it. And honestly, if you've never read the original comic and are intrigued, give it a go. A fresh set of eyes may find a new angle that other may not be able to see. I'd recommend checking this one out at your own risk.

[ Continue on to the Batman: The Killing Joke Blu-ray review ]

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