Sunday, August 14, 2016

Animated 'Killing Joke' expands, nails the original

A very busy work schedule this week means I'm continuing to catch up on my back-logged reviews I've been meaning to post! After you read it, post some comments and let's talk shop, CCCers! 

The animated film adaptation of "Batman: The Killing Joke" attempts to right the wrongs that I've always seen in the 1988 graphic novel.

The first 30 minutes gives more heft to the victim who sets this story in motion: Batgirl (aka Barbara Gordon), again voiced to perfection by Tara Strong.

As Batgirl says in a voice-over, it's not where you'd expect to start the story. But it's only right that "The Killing Joke" should start with Babs as it should be her story as much as it is the Joker's origin or even one of the most memorable Batman-Joker stories.

Fans have argued that the added material simply pads "The Killing Joke," making the graphic novel an 82-minute long film. While that assertion holds some merit — and certainly that Batgirl's impetuous rooftop sex with Batman is completely out of character for both heroes, my perspective is that giving more screen time to Batgirl gives more impact to the Joker shooting her at point-blank range.

Also, this material should show how traumatic it is for Babs to go from the height of her athletic and crime-fighting form to deciding to retire to being unable to walk.

(The megalomaniac bad guy in the pre-Joker shooting case has an inappropriate attraction to Batgirl. She eventually learns what Batman means when he says she hadn't faced a situation that has taken her to the edge of the abyss during their three years of fighting crime together. Babs also understands that this case — and being shot by the Joker even more so — is a game-changer.)

But just like the original KILLING JOKE story, there's little done with the psychological impact of Babs' paralysis and and victimization. Both the print and animated versions basically throw away and forget her once the focus switches to Batman and the Joker. There is however a mid-credits scene which shows that Gordon has owned being in a wheelchair and channeled her desire for justice into the being Oracle.

These three panels by artist Brian Bolland from the KILLING JOKE graphic novel of the moment just before
Barbara Gordon is shot remain powerful.
The reality is that the last 60 minutes of the film is all about Batman and his arch nemesis.
So again "The Killing Joke" victimizes Batgirl/Barbara Gordon.

Babs suffers another injustice; instead of taking time to show the victim dealing with being shot and
then having her bloody and severely injured body photographed by the Joker, each story abruptly transitions to attempting to make the Joker a more sympathetic character.

Another way to look at the Joker's possible backstory is it's at least supposed to help us understand how just "one bad day" turns a failed comedian who loses his wife in a freak accident — and then falls into a vat of chemicals upon being talked into disguising himself as the gangster the Red Hood — into an insane psychotic.

As I said earlier, "The Killing Joke" should be Barbara Gordon's story as much as it is the Joker's. But it isn't — in the graphic novel or this animated movie. (And coincidentally, the DC Entertainment representatives and Team "Killing Joke" do little more than pay her lip service in the otherwise insightful featurette, "The Many Shades of Joker." Really?! Ugh … )

After all, original writer Alan Moore obviously saw paralyzing Babs as a door into addressing the affect of "one bad day" on the Joker, Batman and Commissioner Jim Gordon.

Even though the Joker taunts Gordon with the horrifying images of his brutalized daughter, the commissioner doesn't become the broken man as he had hoped.

No, Gordon still wants Batman to bring in and stop the Joker "by the book." And Batman remains as stoic as ever, although there seems to be more venom with each blow he delivers to the Clown Prince of Crime.

(Did you notice Moore doesn't get a storytelling credit when the credits roll?

It mentions that "The Killing Joke" is based on the work drawn by Brian Bolland. I have to think either the ever-reclusive Moore has distanced himself from his own creation or DCE/Warner Bros. Animation officials couldn't get in contact with him to get his OK with mentioning his name. Even more likely is that Moore — who IMHO has a reputation of being a cocky a**hole if there ever was one and who resembles the second coming of Charles Manson — may have threatened to sue if his name was used without his permission. And he likely thought he was giving the Powers That Be the middle finger by refusing to answer any of their legal inquiries.)

Most everything else works very well.

The Joker's monologue to Gordon as he shows the photos of his daughter's bloody and naked body during the train ride in the "funhouse" has been turned into a song-and-dance number. It seems an odd choice, I'll grant you that. But consider this: Mark Hamill (whose Joker voice remains perfect) shows just how damn talented he is by singing the creepy Broadway-like tune in character!

The score creates a great atmosphere, lets the story breathe at the right moments and adds tension just when it's needed.

The character designs and artwork nicely complement the tremendous comic-book panels originally drawn by Bolland, whose art in the graphic novel remains as brilliant, expressive, horrifying and downright iconic as it was when BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE was released nearly 30 years ago. Many of the scenes are taken from and based on the original art, often directly from Bolland's memorable panels.

Needless to say, Kevin Conroy's Batman and Hamill's Joker voices are brilliant. It's fitting this Dynamic Duo from "Batman: The Animated Series" should voice one of the most influential Joker stories ever written. (As you can guess, I'm in the minority about THE KILLING JOKE. I respect Moore's story and enjoy it as much as I can given its shortcomings, but I don't see it as the ultimate Joker story as most fans do.)

Conroy and Hamill are as much "my" Batman and the Joker as anything in the comics from any era. Indeed, they are the Dynamic Duo for voicing each character.
Check out who liked my brief review of "Batman: The Killing Joke" I tweeted!
That just made my day — not to mention my week.
Screenshot by CARY ASHBY/CARY'S COMICS CRAZE

Conroy's gravelly baritone gives the proper depth to Batman, truly nailing the Dark Knight personification. The authority he brings to Batman's voice also makes it difficult for Batgirl to argue against his unilateral decision to take her off the case earlier in the film.

Michael Keaton is the first movie star to deliver the iconic Batman growl/whisper, but each actor who has played the Dark Knight since Conroy got the "B:TAS" voice gig has done some variation of what he did. There's indeed a reason I call Conroy "the Batman Voice" — or sometimes simply the Voice. (This is also why I list Conroy as delivering one of the definitive incarnations of Batman.)

Hamill is as brilliant as ever.

His Joker voice is the perfect mix of lunacy and insanity. While I'm not wild about the song-and-dance number — and I certainly don't hate it, I have to respect that the Luke Skywalker actor can sing as the Joker.

As executive producer Bruce Timm says in one of the extras, nobody knows where or how Hamill channels that Joker voice, but he has chilled — and thrilled — fans for the last 25 or so years. His Joker is every bit as memorable as any live-action version. Indeed, Mark Hamill is as much the Voice as Kevin Conroy.

Grade: A-

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