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Review – Batman: The Killing Joke


FILM REVIEW
BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE
. With the voices of Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Ray Wise. Written by Brian Azzarello. Directed by Sam Liu. Rated R for some bloody images and disturbing content. 76 minutes.

“Just because it’s a classic doesn’t mean it’s good,” hisses Mark Hamill’s Joker in this icky animated adaptation of a seminal 1988 graphic novel that was perhaps better left alone. BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE is a singularly unpleasant viewing experience, confounding in its wrongheadedness and noxious in its cruelty. The project reunites the principal voice actors from “Batman: The Animated Series” and yokes the beloved afterschool TV program’s aesthetic to a miserably dated exercise in shock value for its own sake. Basically this is a Batman cartoon that looks and sounds like the one you used to watch when you were a little kid, except now it’s rated R and full of torture and sexual assault. When it was over, I wanted nothing more than to take a shower.

Published a couple of years after Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” announced that superheroes aren’t just for children anymore, writer Alan Moore and illustrator Brian Bolland’s exceedingly nasty “The Killing Joke” provided a tragic backstory for Gotham City’s most malevolent clown and pushed the Caped Crusader to the brink of murdering his longtime nemesis. After escaping once again from Arkham Asylum, The Joker attempts to demonstrate that only one bad day stands between good men and madness by shooting Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara (who is secretly Batgirl) through the spine and torturing her father in a carnival funhouse decorated with photographs of the girl’s bloody, naked body.

As you might imagine, this all seemed very heady when I was thirteen years old, dressed in black all the time and hated my parents for getting divorced. But as influential as it unfortunately remains to this day, “The Killing Joke” has not aged particularly well. Moore (who refused to allow his name on this adaptation) often apologizes for writing it and in a 2009 interview lamented that superhero stories “are stuck, it seems, in this kind of depressive ghetto of grimness and psychosis. I’m not too proud of being the author of that regrettable trend.” (And to think he said this seven years before “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”)

What pushes this adaptation over the line from merely misguided into madness is an all-new, twenty-eight minute prologue scripted by Brian Azzarello and apparently intended to give Barbara Gordon something to do in the story besides just get shot. It’s one of the most cluelessly misogynistic portrayals I have ever seen, presenting Batgirl as a bumbling flake with a massive crush on her emotionally aloof crime-fighting mentor. (She even gets a crassly stereotypical gay best friend to confide in, because I guess this is a ‘90s sitcom.) After a gangster’s perverted son named Paris France (for real) becomes sexually obsessed with Barbara, she and Master Wayne wind up boning on a rooftop beneath a hilariously disapproving stone gargoyle. After that, Batman stops returning her calls and she eventually quits being Batgirl.

Azzarello’s additions turn an already problematic piece into an atrocity. Leaving aside out the bizarre notion that a monastic, self-flagellating hero like Batman would bang his best friend’s daughter and then ghost the poor kid, this production is hyper-sexualized in an incredibly creepy way, with leering butt-shots of countless cartoon hookers and lingering, appreciative views of Barbara in her underwear. Batgirl is constantly objectified, humiliated into giving up her career, then ultimately paralyzed, so “The Killing Joke” now reads as if she’s being punished for sleeping with her father figure. It’s telling that Azzarello never bothers to show us that Barbara survived the shooting, but he does add a scene between Batman and some dockside prostitutes heavily implying that she was raped.

So who is this movie for? The crude animation tries to mimic the panels of the original comic but it’s missing all the richness and detail of Bolland’s drawings. Similarly, Moore’s florid dialogue was obviously meant to be read and not recited, as voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill trip over speech patterns distractingly different than the ones we heard in the first half-hour. (The only one who pulls it off is “Twin Peaks” alum Ray Wise as Commissioner Gordon, but maybe that’s just because we’re used to hearing him cry about his daughter.) Why again was “The Killing Joke,” of all Batman stories, translated into the style of a popular animated program for children?

Earlier this month, several female colleagues of mine were viciously harassed online for days on end after giving negative reviews to the abysmal DC Comics adaptation “Suicide Squad.” (A few dudes I know got some blowback, but the majority was heaped upon the ladies.) It’s an objectively terrible movie, incoherent in ways I never imagined possible from a major studio release. Characters are introduced–or not introduced–then introduced again, with so many major plot points elided while others are incessantly repeated; it is extremely difficult to believe that anyone at Warner Brothers could have actually watched “Suicide Squad” from start to finish and deemed it in releasable condition.

One must wonder what it is about these superhero sagas that inspires their devotees and defenders to call my friends the c-word while threatening them with sexual assault? The biggest laugh in “Suicide Squad” comes when Ben Affleck’s Batman punches Margot Robbie in the face, which is one of the few times the camera isn’t pointed at her ass. These adolescent power fantasies have grown toxic, and their treatment of women reveals a pathological, deep-seated fear and loathing on the part of fans and creators. After all, what kind of healthy, grown adult old enough to see an R-rated movie wants to watch a cartoon in which Batgirl gets crippled and raped?•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1 out of 5.Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

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About Sean Burns

Sean Burns is a Staff Writer at WBUR's The ARTery. His reviews, interviews and essays have also appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at www.splicedpersonality.com

5 responses »

  1. You do understand that by your logic you can’t have women be sexually assaulted in works of fiction with out it being misogynistic. Also bat girl was not raped almost everything in this review was either wrong or stupid. I could spend a lot more time angrily complaining about this review but I am not a fan of internet comment sections.

    Reply
  2. I agree with this review, it seems to me that D.C. Are desperately trying to please fans without giving thought to the quality of there content

    Reply
  3. I think you are misunderstanding (perhaps intentionally) the tone of the prologue. Batgirl is not being portrayed as a bumbling flake with a massive crush on Batman. She is being portrayed as one of his sidekicks (who are notorious for appearing to be bumbling when compared to Batman) who is struggling with the conflict of some real feelings for Batman and her respect for him and following his instructions as her mentor.

    Then you misunderstand Batman’s part in the roof boning. You say that the movie got him wrong as a character because it is out of place for Batman to bone his best friend’s daughter and then ghost her. And you’re right, so maybe look deeper into why he’s acting this way. First thing, it’s not very Batman-like to randomly bone someone. I think this shows that his feelings are mutual and he’s keeping Batgirl out of the investigation not because she’s a bumbling flake but because he’s protective of her and this gangster’s obsession with her makes him worried. He doesn’t want to have to choose between catching the bad guy and saving Batgirl so he eliminates her from the equation. This kind of logic is very consistent with Batman. But he got lost in the moment (because he’s only human) and boned her. He then “ghosts” her because he himself is not entirely sure how to move forward. But he knows he can’t have her fighting alongside him.

    Then we get to the end of the prologue where Batgirl saves Batman (who’s the bumbling flake now?) and beats the gangster dude within an inch of death. THAT is why she quits being Batgirl (before being asked to quit, which it isn’t even totally clear is what Batman would have done). She quits because she realizes that she can’t fully trust herself to resist killing someone. She, and the audience, are more understanding now of both her character and batman’s because this displays the effects of the “abyss” that Batman often talks about. This comes into play in the theme of the movie as Joker tries to bring Gordon to the abyss to prove a point.

    Your interpretation is problematic because it seems as though you are looking for ways for female leads to be compromised. Why should you make such an effort to ensure that the females in a movie cannot be perceived positively? Maybe you have some underlying sexism you need to work through. Furthermore, you reviewed the prologue more than the rest of the movie.

    P.S. They do show evidence that Barbara survived. Clearly you didn’t watch the credits. Even if there’s no post-credits scene to watch, no self-respecting film buff skips credits, especially when you intend to write a review on the movie in question.

    Reply
  4. Thoughtful, well-argued review, Sean. There’s no question that an entire generation of middle-aged men have coopted superheroes from their intended audience — children — and, worse still, have perverted those characters in the process. When we’re now seeing, on a regular basis, R-rated movies featuring Batman, Superman, Wolverine, et al., it might be time to take a hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves why we refuse to cede the bedtime stories of our youth to the next generation. It’s getting to be a cultural embarrassment, an issue I have written about extensively on my own blog.

    Funny enough, Alan Moore has become a leading cultural critic of superheroes, and has expressed his views through, among other venues, this illuminating interview from 2014, where he said: “The subject of comic-related-films (or film-related-comics) had understandably arisen and, when asked, I had ventured my honest opinion that I found something worrying about the fact that the superhero film audience was now almost entirely composed of adults, men and women in their thirties, forties and fifties who were eagerly lining up to watch characters and situations that had been expressly created to entertain the twelve year-old boys of fifty years ago.”

    I’m hoping we’re reaching a tipping point with respect to our cultural obsession — our deification — of superheroes. When I was a kid, Adam West, Christopher Reeve, and Lynda Carter inspired my imagination; nowadays, these movies — certainly the meaningless, nihilistic entries in the so-called “DCEU” — are nothing more than expensive exercises in nostalgia for a generation submitting to willing infantilization.

    Sean Carlin

    Reply
  5. Another politically charged review that tries harder to indoctrinate its readers than to actually review the material at hand. Get those third-wave, extremist feminist glasses off and you’ll be able to see a lot more than what your simple-minded, angry misandrist overlords allow you to report.

    Reply

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