There’s Nothing Funny About this Joke

In my reviews I’ve often said that I become concerned when a story is changed from one medium to another as something is usually altered or lost in the translation which waters down the story’s original intent.  But every now and again, a translation comes around that shows great reverence for the source material and maintains its original beauty.  Batman:  The Killing Joke is just such a translation.

This film version of Alan Moore’s legendary graphic novel stays true to Moore’s gritty tale almost word for word and manages to add a little something as well thanks to a well written screenplay by Brian Azzarello.  Azzarello added a lengthy monologue to bolster the character of Batgirl/Barbara Gordon and extend this story to theatrical length.

Let’s get something straight from the beginning.  Though this is an animated film, it is not for children.  The film carries an R rating due to its dark and grim thematic elements.  For those of you unfamiliar with the tale, the story centers around the Joker’s desire to prove that all it takes is one bad day and someone can be driven as mad as he is.  He attempts to prove his point by psychologically torturing Commissioner James Gordon.  This torture involves the brutalization of his daughter, Barbara.

Two points have long fascinated me about Moore’s story.  The first was the painstaking care he took in showing that Batman and Joker are simply two sides of the same coin.  Joker is given an origin story in this film in which he had one bad day which drove him stark, slavering buggo.  Batman also had a bad day which made him what he is.  The difference is that he didn’t break and he used that bad day to fuel a greater good.  This is what makes their war so mesmerizing.

The second is that Moore actually delves into a rare area:  the humanity of Batman and Joker.  Batman’s humanity is somewhat taken for granted as he is a hero.  But this story takes it one step further as he tries to reach out to Joker and genuinely rehabilitate him to get them off their doomed road.  Prior to this story, Joker’s humanity had never been touched on.  But this tale shows that somewhere within this beast exists a kernel of decency long buried by tragedy.

Bringing these ideals to light would be incredibly difficult if not for the amazing talents of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill.

If voice actors could be nominated for Oscars, Mark Hamill would easily earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his take on the Clown Prince of Crime.  Hamill has always managed to keep the role fresh and original despite having voiced the Harlequin of Hate on and off for the past 22 years, but he rose to unprecedented heights in this film.

In this go-around, Hamill finally gives us a truly vile and merciless Joker with a guttural voice and truly malevolent laughter.  As scary and disgusting as he is, Hamill manages to make us feel some pity for the Joker as we view his life as a failed comedian before his transformation.  But Hamill’s crowning achievement occurs near the end of the film as the Joker considers Batman’s offer of help.  If there is any doubt that Mark Hamill is the best of the Jokers, this interpretation will wipe them all away.

A Joker is only as good as his Batman and Kevin Conroy also comes out all guns a blazing with his essaying of the Dark Knight.  Like Hamill, Conroy has also played his iconic role for the better part of two decades and brings all of that experience to this film.  The nuance Conroy can put into a rasp is truly astounding as you can hear Batman’s sincerity as he pleads with the Joker to let him help, his concern and care for Barbara, and his anger when he hunts the Joker.

Tara Strong gives a strong and dignified take in the role of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl.  For her crimefighting is an adventure and thrill, not a lifelong mission as it is for Batman and her voice reflects that zest.  The character of Batgirl generated quite a bit of controversy due to a moment that takes place between her and Batman in the prologue.  You’ll know it when you see it, but I thought it made perfect sense in the universe of this Batman as the incident was referenced in a previous film.  Rather than weakening the character, I thought it humanized her and helped her understand Batman better when she faces her own abyss.

Ray Wise is paternal and noble as Commissioner Gordon.  The love he has for his daughter is palpable as is his agony when he suffers from the Joker’s tortures.  Yet he also manages to be a pillar of strength, demanding that Joker be brought in by the book to prove that the way of law and order works.

Director Sam Liu does good work in keeping the pace of the story going as well as tying the rather disparate prologue together with the core story.  Wes Gleason’s voice direction is nothing but aces, especially with the stellar work by Hamill and Conroy.  I also appreciated that the animators did not try to mimic Brian Bolland’s artwork for the film.  Rather they came up with animation that evoked memories of that work, but managed to be an original take as well.

Batman:  The Killing Joke is the movie for which Batman fans have been pining for years.  It’s been a long wait, but it was certainly worthwhile as we get a story completely faithful to the core material and with all the pathos and nuance intact.

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