The Killing Joke is a 1988 one-shot graphic novel written by beardy wordsmith, Alan Moore (Watchmen, V For Vendetta) and impeccably drawn by Brian Bolland (2000AD, Judge Dredd). Despite the fact that it’s almost three decades old, The Killing Joke remains one of the most iconic, memorable, and controversial comics ever printed by DC. The story focuses on Batman’s attempt to try and connect with The Joker, to make him stop his escalating madness before either or both of them are dead. The Joker, meanwhile, has something very different in mind: to prove to Batman that everyone is just “one bad day” away from chaos and insanity.
It’s a dense, dark read, featuring Moore’s signature heavy, layered dialogue, and containing truly disturbing sequences, including implied sexual violence and the crippling of a major Batman character. It’s also very static, with a lot of talk and not much action, so when the animated movie was announced, it seemed a baffling choice for adaptation.
The good news is that the end result is a quality animated movie. A large part of the credit needs to go to Mark Hamill, whose turn as The Joker from Batman: The Animated Series and the Arkham Asylum games is followed up here with his best performance to date. Hamill positively relishes Moore’s dark, pun-heavy monologues, and digs into them with gusto. He’s so good, in fact, that Kevin Conroy’s Batman can’t help but feel a little bland by comparison. The rest of the voice cast comprises Ray Wise as Commissioner Gordon and Tara Strong as Barbara Gordon/Batgirl, and they both provide solid performances.
The Killing Joke is at its best when it’s a straight adaptation. Unfortunately, because the graphic novel is quite short, an additional 15-minute Batgirl-heavy prologue is added, and while it’s nice to see Batgirl in action, it smacks a little of filler. The prologue also features an attempt to recontextualise the relationship between Batman and Batgirl that will no doubt prove polarising, to say the least. That said, Batgirl offers a brief ray of sunshine in a story that takes place over a very dark night.
Presentation-wise, the animation is fine, but the art style never really captures Bolland’s intricate, mesmerising lines. The story is well executed, but like a lot of Moore’s work, it reads better on the page. In terms of the much-touted “R rating” (which translates as MA in Australia), the film is quite disturbing and violent, but nothing terribly envelope pushing. Ultimately, The Killing Joke is a solid, if unspectacular, adaptation of the source material. It’s worth watching for Mark Hamill’s performance alone, and a new way to experience one of comic history’s most enduring and infamous stories.
The Killing Joke will screen on July 24 only at cinemas around Australia. Check online to find a theatre near you.