Batman: The Killing Joke begins with Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl (Tara Strong), stating in voiceover that she understands this isn’t the beginning you were expecting. This is because it’s not. The first frame of the iconic Alan Moore comic is of water thumping onto the pavement in the night, not a shot of the night’s sky. With this opening line, the film is keying the viewer into its extended opening, one that does not appear in the comic.
This opening has been cause for much controversy; why add to the tight story that is found in Moore’s version? The simple answer is that
The Killing Joke is a thin volume. The longer answer could possibly be that screenwriter Brian Azzarello felt the need to set-up Barbara Gordon’s character for the uninitiated and to make her character arc more impactful. This makes some sense, although it comes with the unavoidable outcome that fans of the comic will be disappointed.
Furthermore, this opening is strange. Not only does it add sexual themes that feel unwarranted, but it is tonally different from the The Killing Joke storyline. It also sidelines the title character for a long time. The opening of the comic book is transcendent, ruminative over the circular logic of the Batman-Joker relationship. It is also a scene that acts as perfect bookends to the storyline. The need to alter source material for a film adaptation is understandable, but without these bookends the narrative of the film feels too loosely constructed.
This said, when we (finally) get Mark Hamill as Moore’s Joker it is refreshing. It might be 30 minutes in, but once the source material does appear on screen it is worth watching. Any scene that is shot-for-shot adapted retains the pacing and parallel transitions that make The Killing Joke poignant and tense.
This is a common trend with Batman: The Killing Joke. Where it adheres most closely to the source material, it shines. The Joker’s cheeky monologue about librarians and books in one of the story’s most pivotal scenes is sinister and great, because it is ripped straight out of the book. Of course, this is a limiting factor. Why watch the movie when the comic book has already perfected the material the first time around?
For one, there is the voice acting. Hamill and Kevin Conroy both provide their usually strong voice talents to the characters. And the comic is very cinematic in nature, with the ability to make for a quality adaptation. Unfortunately, The Killing Joke slogs its way through a first act before getting to scenes that bite with intensity. Even then, it feels like the film is missing the deliberate forward momentum that it needs to fill the shoes of its source.
Thus is the unfortunate fate of Batman: The Killing Joke. Sometimes adding motion to pictures cannot enhance the material. Moore’s near-perfect construction of story and style is something that needs to be read. Batman: The Killing Joke, on the other hand, is not a movie that needs to be seen, even when it contains flourishes of the original magic.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)