One of the most acclaimed – and controversial – Batman comic-book series of all times, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke remains for many the definitive take on the Joker, managing the unique feat of demystifying the Dark Knight’s ultimate foe while making sure he loses none of what makes him so effective.
In animated form, none of the effect is lost. This is helped by voiceover big guns Kevin Conroy (Batman), Tara Strong (Batgirl) and Mark Hamill (The Joker) being brought back on board, their unparalleled takes on the characters (outside live action, at least) helping to anchor the story in its classic origins. That the story itself remains virtually unchanged from its journey to the screen stands as testament to the original storytelling.
Even before this though, we get some scene-setting that shows the minds behind this adaptation have more to give than just a straightforward translation. Before we get to the meat of the main story we witness a sizeable – and unexpected – exploration of the relationship between Batman and Batgirl, which serves to both flesh her out beyond the basic ‘victim’ cipher she embodied in the original story and make her eventual fate all the more affecting.
But while Batgirl’s role has been expanded, it’s not necessarily for the better. It functions as one interpretation of their relationship, although it’s not likely to be one that every fan will be on board with, especially Batgirl fans – and without spoiling things, it’s easy to understand why. As we mentioned before, the character is rendered less of a victim than she was in the original comic, but as a portrayal of her characters it feels like two steps forward, two steps back
Furthermore, the two narratives of the original Killing Joke storyline and the new material don’t exactly mesh: they feel like two separate stories rather than a cohesive whole, and there are points where you have to question its inclusion in the narrative at all.
Amid all this is Hamill’s Joker. While there are few weaknesses with the original story, ultimately you’re just waiting for him to turn up – and when he does, you won’t be disappointed. As previously mentioned, simultaneously humanising the Joker while ensuring that he remains terrifying is no mean feat, yet it is managed here. Aided by the most – for lack of a better word – adult approach to a DC animated production for a while, and you have an unforgettable take on one of comics’ most terrifying bad guys.
Alan Moore probably wouldn’t appreciate us saying it, but The Killing Joke story itself feels made for the screen. It’s hard to truly critique something when it takes its cues from a truly excellent comic-book storyline, so we’ll simply average it out: 2 stars for the first half, 4 stars for the second.