How do you screw up a movie based on one of the great Batman stories of all-time? No, I'm not asking that question in relation to Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was based in part on The Dark Knight Returns. I'm talking about Warner Bros. Animation's Batman: The Killing Joke, based on the classic Alan Moore story that attempts to explore the devastating forces that allowed for the Joker to exist.
And yet the film version, lauded for its R-rated grit, fails to tell us much of anything about the Joker, instead focusing its energies on a poorly-conceived love affair between Batman (voiced by the great Kevin Conroy) and Barbara Gordon aka Batgirl (Tara Strong), with much of the story centered on her. That's right, arguably the definitive Joker story ever is now a movie about Batgirl, which would be one thing if it told us anything about her, but instead it reduces her in ways many will find offensive, and for good reason.
The poorly constructed story begins with an overlong prologue in which Batgirl becomes infatuated with a handsome-yet-psychotic criminal named Paris Franz. He becomes obsessed with her, even killing to impress her, which she finds "flattering" (Say what!?). Batman tries to warn her off but she won't listen, and it ends up nearly getting her killed. Has she become addicted to the thrill? The danger? Turns out her reasons for such risk-taking are because she has the hots for Batman, leading to sexual fling that is...awkward, to say the least. Want to know how Batman reacts after a one-night-stand? Let's just say it's probably a good idea not to wait by the phone for his call.
This ridiculous setup ends with a thud, and the transition over to Joker's story isn't smooth. Here, we learn about Joker (with Mark Hamill doing great voicework once again) and his sad-sack origin as a loser wannabe comedian who can't support his pregnant wife. He falls in with a bad crowd, then literally falls into a vat of acid thanks to Batman, turning crazy in the process. But none of that really goes anywhere in explaining why he's of such a demented mind that he shoots, paralyzes, and sexually abuses Barbara, before kidnapping and torturing her father, Commissioner Jim Gordon (Ray Wise). The assault she suffers has no weight, it has no meaning other than that she banged Batman once, which is about as lowly a way to portray such a great superheroine as I can think of.
The second half of the movie post-prologue is pretty faithful to the comic, but portrayed in a choppy, episodic manner that dulls its impact. Batman and Joker are two sides of a coin, and with Bats fearing their bloody rivalry will end in one of their deaths, he sets out to try and rehabilitate his mortal enemy. At least on screen this makes no sense, not in light of the actions Joker has committed. Moore and artist Brian Bolland were wise enough to leave a dark ambiguity to their conclusion, but the film, directed by Sam Liu, is strangely comical at the worst possible time. There's no edge to be found here and certainly no insight into a handful of DC's greatest comic book characters. While there is plenty of brutal violence and sex to go around, along with the typically solid animation, that isn't enough to make Batman: The Killing Joke anything other than a disappointment unworthy of its source material.