Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Review of Batman: The Killing Joke -- Two Masked Men At Their Darkest

I should preface this review by first saying that while I have a deep affection for Batman, I am by no means a Dark Knight connoisseur.

I probably know more about Batman than the average person, but I hesitate to call myself a "fan" because that title is, at least in my mind, reserved for people who really know the comics inside out (and it is fair to say that this movie is in many ways aimed at such hardcore fans.)

I don't read a lot of comics, and I've only read a handful of Batman ones. Rather, my relationship to the Caped Crusader stems mainly from the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy, as well as perhaps the pinnacle of superhero-comics-as-games, Rocksteady's Arkham Trilogy.

Most importantly, however, it is my childhood fondness for Paul Dini's Batman: The Animated Series that shapes who Batman is to me (and a whole generation of millennials, for that matter.)

As such, the voices of Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy are the Joker and Batman, respectively. Any time a producer is able to wrangle these two voice actors back together for any Batman project, it lends a heavy weight of credibility for me and many like me.

(As a side note, Kevin Conroy as cranky old Bruce Wayne in Batman Beyond is probably the best I've ever heard him in his decades-spanning role.)

The Killing Joke film being an adaptation of an era-defining classic comic, it hardly needed any more "credibility" to be taken seriously, but the fact that these two actors were onboard was probably the biggest reason I went to see it.

(I should point out that, lest anyone be misled, this movie is rated-R for a reason. We have long left the innocent territory of the Animated Series. This movie is violent, gory, and in some places quite disturbing. No explicit sexual content is shown, but heavily implied, including a sexual assault.)

As prefaced earlier, I am not deep into Batman comic lore, and had not actually read The Killing Joke prior to seeing the film. I caught wind of a few details beforehand, but by and large the story was new to me. So while I have been told that the majority of the film follows the comic almost shot-for-shot, I cannot speak to this personally.

What I can say is overall the relationship between Batman and the Joker is explored more deeply in this film than any I've seen. In TKJ, Joker is at his darkest and most sadistic, and Batman is forced to confront the fact that the only real way their dysfunctional dance will end is if one of them is killed.

Whether Batman is capable of doing it, and whether or not he can avoid tumbling into an abyss after breaking his character-defining rule of not killing, is the ultimate question posed (but maybe not answered?) by the film.

[Warning: Spoilers Ahead]

The flashbacks to Joker's past are beautifully done and do very well to humanize an otherwise utterly inhuman character. We even see a brief moment of this humanity peek through when Batman offers to help the Joker return to sanity, and Joker pauses to reflect, only to make it clear he has given up hope on himself.

While I certainly appreciated this extra dimension to Joker, I was not entirely convinced by his backstory of a relatively normal person who, after a series of terrible events, is pushed straight into pure insanity. Joker's level of depravity makes such a leap too difficult to buy, and even though I like seeing into his past, made me almost wish they had left it unknown.

One of the most controversial bits of this film is the added content in the first 20 or so minutes detailing the relationship between Barbara Gordon AKA Batgirl (voiced by Tara Strong) and Batman.

Romantic undertones have always been implied between these two, but in this film, that relationship is-- shall we say-- fully "fleshed out".

One one hand, this is a very odd story choice. Batman has always traditionally fulfilled a mentor or fatherly role for Barbara, whose romantic affections towards him are little more than a juvenile crush, and eventually redirected to the more appropriately-aged Robin.

Their love scene in particular was very poorly done and rather sinister in nature, which only brought the feeling of creepiness to the forefront.

Naturally, a lot of people are very upset about this rather abrupt change in the relationship. The romantic interlude tailed by an immediate falling out, tailed by her being brutally attacked by Joker and then ending with her working with Batman once more as Oracle with no apparent emotional reservation is... tough to swallow.

At the same time I do understand it-- her near-death at the hands of Joker is suddenly given much more emotional impact and heightens Batman's sense of revenge. Unfortunately, I don't feel that at-the-edge-of-madness rage that Batman feels after the incident are very well communicated in the dialogue, and the entire point of adding that relationship feels wasted.

But what about everything else?

This movie is beautifully animated, written, and executed. It has some very memorable shots. Joker's eyes twinkling in the lights of his new abandoned theme-park-turned-hellscape is flawless. The pacing is great. 

I particularly appreciated the level of attention given to the sound design. If you were to close your eyes in the theater, you could easily forget it was animated-- no low-budget SFX or music score taint this film. Explosions feel huge, the Batmobile sounds as souped-up as ever and the dialogue is nice and crisp.

If you like Batman at all, and can appreciate good animation, you would be well-served to experience this piece of classic Dark Knight storytelling.

The film is available on Digital HD this week and comes out on Blu-ray and for rental in early August.

No comments: