Take a journey into the dark psyche of the Clown Prince of Crime – from his humble beginnings as a struggling comedian to a 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 and sets 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. (From DC’s official synopsis)
Given that Sam Liu’s DC Animated Universe (DCAU) adaptation of Alan Moore & Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke (originally published 1988) was released in a limited theatrical capacity and for digital download well before I received my Blu-ray screener, I don’t suppose I have a whole lot to add to the torrent of post-San Diego Comic Con reviews and think-pieces. For that matter, the original comic is still inspiring fervent discussion all its own, from The Joker’s fate at the end of the story, to its part in the proliferation of the misogynistic/sexist ”fridging” trope” in modern comics and Moore’s general apathy for the final product. I personally come down on the side of remembering The Killing Joke as a significant product of its era that is technically relevant to the current superhero climate, but not particularly interesting, given the improvements and progressions since its release. That isn’t to say it won’t continue being relevant in the future, either – its ‘dark ‘80s’ counterparts, Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen (originally published between 1986 and ‘87) and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (originally published 1986), each became more compelling during the first decade of the new millennium and have inspired countless new comic adaptations – it’s just seems weird to revisit it right now, especially as an animated, (mostly) straight-to-video movie with the violence amplified for an unnecessary R-rating.
One of the bigger issues fans seem to have taken is with the expanded opening act, which includes an affair between Batman and Batgirl. In this adaptation’s defense, I would like to remind/inform readers that this isn’t the first time Bruce Wayne and Barbara Gordon have indulged in carnal desires for a cartoon story. In the 1999 series Batman Beyond (which ties into the same canon as Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League, et cetera), an older Commissioner Barbara Gordon tells the new Batman, Terry McGinnis, that she and Bruce had in an ill-fated affair. This relationship drives a wedge between the two of them, as well as Bruce and the original Robin, Dick Grayson, who dated Barbara while they were in college. It seems to me that producers Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett were merely building on their own mythology. This only sets precedent, though, it doesn’t excuse the fact that the Batman/Batgirl relationship ends up magnifying the more problematic elements of Moore’s story by further objectifying Barbara and even implying sexual assault. Apparently, the creative team were actually trying to mitigate the objectionable elements by expanding Batgirl’s character and their instincts backfired spectacularly. Even separated from the controversy, the material added to lengthen the scant story treads old ground, doesn’t really connect to the original story, and paints Batgirl as kind of a mopey, love-sick failure of a crime fighter.
When it sticks to the source material, Batman: The Killing Joke is an okay representation of the comic, but the ineffective supplementary plot, coupled with some surprisingly bland performances (minus Mark Hamill, who stretches his skills between “tragic back-story Joker” and “joyful supervillain Joker”), and underwhelming animation probably aren’t going to impress fans of the comic, either. It’s also possible that, because other Batman properties, including Tim Burton’s original movie, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), and Bruce Timm & Eric Radomski’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, 1993) already pilfered Moore’s original story, the final product ends up feeling dry and antiquated. Given the shocking initial reactions, I certainly didn’t expect to be bored.
Batman: The Killing Joke is a typical DCAU movie in terms of its animation quality. The character designs are loosely based on Bolland’s pen & ink work, minus the crosshatching details and shadows that makes the art so evocative. The comic-inspired framing works nicely, but the animation itself cuts corners with lowish frame rates and minimal camera movement. It is about as dynamic as any of DC/WB’s television cartoons, but without the big action scenes that help hide their static narrative sequences. This 1.78:1, 1080p transfer looks a lot like the studio’s other STV movies in terms of crisp details and clean black outlines. There’s a hint of edge enhancement and banding effects throughout some of the softer gradations, but this is a minor issue, since most of the cell animation is filled with solid colors and a single shadow hue. The computer painted backgrounds feature more complex textures and tightly-knit highlights. These show off the HD clarity a bit better than the flatly colored cell frames. The palette is, unfortunately, not based on John Higgins’ original psychedelic color schemes, but Bolland’s 2008 Deluxe Edition recoloring. The desaturated and naturalistic hues are disappointing, but also consistent and relatively clean, aside from some slight blocking noise in the neutral grays.
The Killing Joke is presented in a reasonably busy DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. The sound design can’t quite compete with big-budget animated feature counterparts, but it keeps busy during the non-action scenes with appropriate environmental ambience. In turn, those action beats have plenty of whooshing fists, spinning Batarangs, and ricocheting bullets throughout the stereo and surround channels. Explosions and booming Batmobile engines rumble-up the LFE, as well. The driving symphonic music is credited to Kristopher Carter, Michael McCuistion, and Lolita Ritmanis. There aren’t any memorable themes, but the three composers manage to create a coherent score and the nearly constant stream of music – including a short musical number – sets a nice mood.
Madness Set to Music (11:54, HD) – The composing and production teams discuss the film’s symphonic soundtrack and recasting the original Animated Series voice actors. It includes behind-the-scenes footage of the voice and symphonic recording processes.
Batman: The Killing Joke – The Many Shades of The Joker (17:43, HD) – A look at the original comic book. The cast, crew, and various genre culture experts/insiders discuss its influence on various Joker stories in the decades since its release and the challenges of adapting it to animation.
From the DC Comics Vault: Batman: The Animated Series – Christmas with The Joker (22:26, SD), The New Batman Adventures – Old Wounds (21:11, SD)
Sneak Peek at Justice League Dark (8:14, HD)
Sneak Peek at The Dark Knight Returns: Part One (12:36, HD) and Part Two (6:52, HD)
Sneak Peek at Batman: Assault on Arkham (7:29, HD)
Note: I haven’t kept all of the discs I’ve reviewed over the years, so some, like this one, will not include screen-caps. The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray’s image quality.