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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Batman: The Killing Joke



Batman: The Killing Joke unflinchingly and uncomfortably tells two sordid tales. At once DC Animation's controversial, R-rated adaptation of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's seminal graphic novel about The Joker crossing the line to "prove a point" that all it takes is "one bad day" for his madness to be inflicted upon anyone, The Killing Joke also surprisingly veers from the source material and delves into the tragic final days of Barbara Gordon as Batgirl. Batgirl emerges as the true hero of The Killing Joke, by virtue of being the character who suffers the most by far, but she manages to rise above the terrible circumstances heaped upon her (by comic book creators and animators). Poor Batgirl. She can at least take small solace that, by DC Comics' standards of how they abuse their female characters, she didn't find herself stuffed in a refrigerator by The Joker.

The first act of The Killing Joke is an original tale, narrated by Barbara, about her exciting nights swinging across Gotham's rooftops at the side of the Batman. They are, by Batman's definition, "partners but not equals," which makes her bristle. He is her mentor, her teacher (she describes him as her "yoga instructor" to her gay best friend in her civilian life), her crimefighting supervisor and... more. The Killing Joke pushes the envelope when Batgirl submits to her sexual attraction to Batman and they have sex on a rooftop under the watchful eyes of one of Gotham City's many gargoyles. This type of adult topic, and its myriad emotional complications, is an awkward fit for an animated superhero movie, and The Killing Joke ends up rather laughable for the attempt. As she deals with her hots for Batman, and his distancing himself from her because of it, she in turn is the unwilling object of the affections of an upstart crime boss named "Paris Franz." (Seriously.) Paris' own henchmen don't get what he sees in "Batman's bitch," but this is an obsession that nearly claims the lives of Batgirl and Batman. Batgirl finally beating Paris nearly to death but stopping herself just short of "crossing into the abyss" is a Phyrric victory. It only gets worse for Batgirl from there.

In both the graphic novel and the movie, The Joker pays a visit to Barbara Gordon's apartment ands shoots her without warning in the gut. She is paralyzed from the waist down. But The Joker isn't done; he disrobes Barbara and photographs her nude, bleeding, injured body. (The graphic novel implies The Joker also rapes her. The movie thankfully does not; rather it substitutes a scene of Batman interrogating prostitutes, who reveal The Joker's proclivities when he comes around as a paying customer. Yeesh.)  The Joker does all of this to torture Barbara's father, Commissioner James Gordon, into madness. He kidnaps the older Gordon, strips him nude, clamps BDSM gear onto him, and forces him to endure both a parade of his violated daughter's nude photographs and a grotesque song and dance number by The Joker in an abandoned carnival. As Barbara is hospitalized but survives, Batman spends the bulk of The Killing Joke playing catch up; his status as the World's Greatest Detective is suspect. The Joker literally sends an invitation to Batman to the abandoned carnival for their fateful encounter.

The Killing Joke also serves as a de facto origin for The Joker, though The Joker himself admits sometimes he "remembers things differently." But according to The Killing Joke, the man who would become The Joker was once a failed stand up comedian who resorted to a one-time night of crime as "The Red Hood" to earn enough money to move his pregnant wife and unborn child out of their grungy Gotham flophouse. When an accident claims their lives, he's forced to be the Red Hood anyway. As he led his criminal cohorts through a chemical factory (for some reason, the gangsters wanted to rob a playing card factory next door), the Batman's interference caused him to fall into a vat of chemicals, transforming him into The Joker. This origin from the graphic novel would form the basis of how Jack Nicholson's Jack Napier became The Joker in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman film.

The riveting words of Alan Moore paired with the evocative artwork by Brian Bolland made this story scintillating on the page. Moore and Bolland managed to generate a degree of sympathy for The Joker but as an animated movie, the stark emotions and tragedy play rote and feel limp. The celebrated talents of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, returning to voice Batman and The Joker, give a gung ho effort. Tara Strong as Batgirl heroically manages to provoke the necessary pathos and emotional heft. The Killing Joke takes pains to note in a denouement that Barbara Gordon does overcome her handicap, becoming both a hero and a symbol as the superhero information network Oracle. While The Killing Joke is no laughing matter, it does end with a joke, and the way Hamill delivers the punchline, his zinger surprisingly generates a genuine laugh from the audience. But sympathy for The Joker? Or for this movie? That's a laugh.