Saturday, 3 December 2016

Movie Review: Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)



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Yep, it’s a Caped Crusader double-feature today as I look at yet another animated film about Batman. However, rather than being connected to the nostalgia of the 60’s, this is instead connected to the nostalgia of the 90’s with a production by Bruce Timm. The number of comic book fans that owe their entire childhoods to Timm is staggering, given he’s the man largely responsible for the modern DC animated universe starting with Batman: The Animated Series, considered by some to be the definitive depiction of the Batman universe. Not only that, this is an adaptation of a certified classic Batman story originally penned by Alan Moore, the man who also gave us the source material for Watchmen and V For Vendetta. Once again, we have an iteration with high hopes behind the scenes. But how does this compare to what we’ve already seen this year? How does it compare as a superhero film in its own right? Time to find out: This is Batman: The Killing Joke.

The plot: Batman (Kevin Conroy), having been called to yet another murder scene, discovers that mad criminal the Joker (Mark Hamill) is the culprit. Having escaped from Arkham Asylum without anyone noticing, he plans on breaking the will of police commissioner Gordon (Ray Wise) using whatever methods are necessary, up to and including making an example of his daughter Barbara (Tara Strong). It’s up to Batman to stop the Joker before he causes any more damage.

The reason why I highlighted B:TAS as the definitive version of the character is down to one basic fact: The actors in the show gave us the single best depictions of their characters that no live-action iteration has been able to match. And true to that, the acting here is phenomenally good. Conroy’s balls-the-size-of-basketballs vocal delivery still nails the majesty that is the Batman perfectly, same as Hamill’s incredibly unnerving performance as the Joker. Strong works with her character, in spite of… well, reasons, Wise gets the gruff commissioner down, and Maury Sterling as gangster Paris Franz (yes, seriously) is okay despite his weak material. Who’s Paris Franz, those of you whom have read the original comic book may be asking? Good. Fucking. Question.

Before we even get to the actual story of The Killing Joke, we have a 30-minute prologue centred on the character of Barbara Gordon, AKA Batgirl. Now, in a way, this does make sense; the original story may have been insanely influential, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect, especially when it comes to the treatment of Barbara. It’s only until she went from the crucial moment in the original story to becoming the uber-hacker Oracle that her disabling became even tolerable, as at least that moment lead to her being the linchpin in one of the best comic book series DC ever published with Birds Of Prey. Unfortunately, as an attempt to flesh out her character, this is absolutely horrendous. Rather than giving her a form of agency within the story proper, it just ends up reinforcing the writing attitude that she is a character-by-association to bigger names like Batman and the Joker. It’s sad when there’s a completely out-of-context sex scene between her and Batman, and that isn’t even the worst part about the segment. Instead, it’s her opponent Paris Franz who, in a story meant to rescue Barbara from the sexist mentality of the time, displays chauvinism at its most obnoxious in a way that unintentionally ends up revealing more about the writer himself Brian Azzarello than it does Barbara. It’s incredibly insulting to her character, and to the audience by proxy, creating the kind of character assassination that nudges dangerously close to Lian Harper territory.

Then we get past all that rubbish and into the real meat of the story and… well, it’s not even close to being one about Barbara. What made the original comic as influential as it was was because of how it portrayed the Joker, delving into the kind of psychoanalysis that storytellers have built on since its publication; you have this story to thank for how the Joker was written in Tim Burton’s Batman. In terms of delivering this story, both in regards to his origin story and his plot to break the Commissioner’s sanity, it actually works astoundingly well. There is a very sudden gear shift between the prologue and the actual story, marked by a downfall of rain and a drastic increase in the quality of the writing. It shows brilliantly well not only why the story has gone on to influence so much, but why it’s actually a damn good story on its own. Hamill gets to bring some incredible menace and chills to the character, aided by some real bone-rattling scenes created by the animation and writing. Even if it would have gone far below cinematic length, this would have been perfectly good on its own if this was the whole story.

Unfortunately, as much as it can be ignored with a simple fast-forward, the prologue does end up souring the entirety by its very existence next to it. Now, while I agree that The Killing Joke is a good Batman yarn, I’m not denying that the treatment of Barbara was ill-advised, to say the friggin’ least. However, after the half-arsed half-hour spent trying and failing to properly define Barbara’s character within the story, it ends up making what happens to her here feel even worse than it did before. As much as I genuinely don’t want to defend sexist writing tropes of the era, her crippling in the original story fit the extremely dark and grim tone of the story. Yeah, it was incredibly exploitative, but at the hands of the unrepentant sadist that is the Joker, it at least makes sense. In this version of events, it feels more like Barbara is suffering at the hands of the unrepentant sadist that is Azzarello, somehow making a story about a woman permanently losing the use of her legs even more unpleasant. Hell, Barbara’s main reason for being crippled (as part of the Joker’s plan to break her father) ends up being spurious all on its own, as by film’s end, Gordon appears to be not much worse for wear. So, it ends up hitting the trifecta of inept, disgusting and ultimately pointless to create this terrible cloud that casts a shadow over the rest of the story.

All in all, it’s because of films like this that the fan edit exists. What should have been a really damn effective retelling of a seminal Batman tale is brought down through a ridiculously misguided attempt to give one of the more affected characters of the story a more complete character. I guess that’ll happen when you get the kind of guy who calls someone a pussy when people call him out on his sexist writing to try and redeem past sexist characterization. I could just ignore the opening and treat the actual story as the whole, and I definitely recommend this to watch so long as you don’t watch the first half-hour. But ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away, and I sincerely hope that this kind of hackery doesn’t happen again… okay, doubtless that it will, but at least we should get a nice long reprieve from it. It’s better than Central Intelligence, as when this film genuinely works, it isn’t held back by lame and overused ideas. However, for a marginally more intelligent but far more consistently fun watch, it falls short of Sisters.

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