There’s a whole lot to unpack in Batman: The Killing Joke, an animated effort shown in theaters for two nights before its debut on DVD and Blu-ray this week. Based on a lionized 1988 comics story written by Alan Moore (Watchmen) and drawn by Brian Bolland, the movie supposedly asks, as the comic did, why some people respond to trauma by going mad while others get stronger. Moore’s story did this by setting up the classic antagonists Batman and the Joker as two men deformed by grief in their own ways. One man became a hero, determined to make sure no one else was murdered in an alley like his parents were. The other man became a supervillain, an anarch cackling at the cold cruelty of the universe. Dark as Batman is, he’s essentially an optimist — he believes his holy war on crime matters — while the Joker is a nihilist.
Whatever depth survives into the movie comes from Moore’s script — a script he himself disavowed years ago, uncomfortable with its grimness and with the way it handled Batgirl, a.k.a. Barbara Gordon, the crimefighting daughter of Batman’s tacit colleague on the Gotham police force, Commissioner Gordon. The Joker disables Barbara with a bullet to her spine, then kidnaps her father and torments him with photos of her naked and in anguish. Why? To prove that anyone is only “one bad day” away from being a basket case like the Joker, who on top of being disfigured also lost his wife and unborn child in a random accident.
The Killing Joke comic is rather short, so the movie pads things out by devoting its first full half hour to Batgirl. Screenwriter Brian Azzarello invents a smooth gangster who calls himself Paris Franz, who’s obsessed with Batgirl. When she isn’t trying to catch Franz, Batgirl is mooning after Batman and, eventually, having sex with him on a rooftop under the watchful eye of a gargoyle. Aside from being pointless, this extended prologue makes the story about Batgirl, a focus and emphasis it was never designed to bear. Yes, Moore later regretted what he’d done to Batgirl (with DC Comics’ enthusiastic editorial indulgence, creepily enough), and the way his story uses her as a way to test her dad’s mettle is unfortunate at best. But expanding her role before the story proper begins doesn’t add any weight to her suffering; it just turns the story into The Sorrows of Young Barbara, first sexualized by Franz, then rebuffed by Batman, and finally brutalized by the Joker.
It’s good, though, that a post-credits scene sets Barbara up as Oracle, a wheelchair-bound but brilliant and powerful hero who fought crime via computers for years after her injury. And there’s little quibbling to be made about the vocal talent here — Killing Joke reunites Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Tara Strong, who respectively voiced Batman, the Joker, and Batgirl in The New Batman Adventures. There are some Easter eggs for longtime Batfans, such as a monitor in the Batcave showing various iterations of the Joker over the decades, nodding to Nicholson and Ledger. If you don’t expect this Killing Joke to pack the wallop it did when you first read it 28 years ago, it’s smoothly rendered. Once it gets to Moore’s story, it’s slavishly faithful, which means it eagerly reproduces every element that has struck readers as problematic for the last few decades (including its continuing insistence on referring to the dark ride Commissioner Gordon takes as a “ghost train”). Still, as with the animated adaptations of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, if all you ever wanted was to see the iconic Batman story in motion, here it is.
One other thing: Batman: The Killing Joke is rated R (for “bloody images and disturbing content”). It’s not the first DC superhero film to be so classified: the “ultimate edition” of Batman v Superman released on Blu-ray a couple weeks back earned an R for increased violence. This sort of thing — age-restricted versions of superheroes that began as kids’ entertainment — is what Alan Moore came to disdain, though his own work popularized the trend towards grim and gritty. More off-putting than the violence here — which, aside from a bloody head shot here and there, isn’t much worse than in the PG-13 Dark Knight Returns — is a moment when a gangster refers to the Caped Crusader and Batgirl as “Batman and his bitch” (an addition by Azzarello, not Moore). Not to sound paternalistic, but I think young girls who like Batman (and Batgirl) and might want to see this movie can probably wait a few years before hearing that particular insult. They’ll be hearing it soon enough and often enough. They don’t need to hear it in a movie about a man — or a woman — who dresses as a bat and fights crime.