Monday, October 4, 2021

DCU Animated Bat-Watch: The Killing Joke (2016)

Watched:  10/03/2021
Format:  HBOmax
Viewing:  First
Decade:  2010's
Director:  Sam Liu

Look.  This... should never have been a movie.  I know what DC/ WB Animation was thinking, but I have no idea what DC/ WB Animation was thinking.

Winding it way back, in 1988 I would have been about 13 when I stumbled across The Killing Joke as a comic book.  And, yes, at one point I had a first printing of the comic, which rises and falls in value on a regular basis.  

It's worth noting - Moore and Bolland were commissioned to do the comic en route to the Keaton-starring Batman movie.  Moore now distances himself from the comic as he has all things DC.  It was, I assume meant to be something of the moment and to give people curious about Batman and the Joker and modern comics something they could pick up as a "graphic novel" at B. Dalton Booksellers.  

This was the era just before 1989's Batman movie, and DC was pushing occasional random things out there and making sure to have collections on the shelf of Year One, Year Two, Dark Knight Returns and the ever popular Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told.  A beautifully crafted story by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland was a slam dunk - focusing on Batman and the Joker to give it synergy - what could go wrong?

Your answers are multiple choice.

The graphic novella is ... rough going.  If you break down what happens to characters as context-free events, and aren't considering how it fits together as a whole, those events simply add up to meaningless cruelty, violence, possible sexual assault (depending on your read), and some of the most graphic images to appear in a comic featuring a mainstream, licensable character you were going to find.  

And, that's been the comic's legacy and reputation for many coming to it after the fact.  I'm not saying the readers who see it and who are offended are wrong or those things aren't in there... because they are.  And I know the current conversation is that (especially female) characters shouldn't suffer to give a male lead motivation to act, and that is definitely part of what happens.    


The comic is short.  And it contains Barbara Gordon, formerly Batgirl, opening the door to her father's apartment and realizing the Joker is standing there, when he immediately opens fire with a revolver, putting a bullet in her gut and spine.  As his goons kidnap Commissioner Gordon, The Joker strips Barbara and takes photos, which he then turns into a slideshow for Gordon as part of an attempt to drive him insane.  

My read at the time, and upon dozens of re-reads (as this was a comic I never put away, I just read and re-read until I graduated high school) was that the Joker is essentially neuter or at least didn't perform rape.  The photos were the point.  I know what occurs on page is still very much a form of sexual assault, and I don't want to split hairs here, but.  That's been my read.  And, that may not change your opinion at all, because none of it is good.  The Joker is a villain - he is murderous and cruel and lays waste to other human lives while having a chuckle.  There's a reason the 1980's began to explore what it meant for a character to be this vicious as the audience skewed older.

And, yes, it's a lot for a Batman reading 13 year old who was like "I think it's neat there's a bunch of Clayfaces".  

I can't be objective about the comic as the comic had tremendous impact on me as a kid and young adult - but I'm not sure the "you can't do that" low-key censorship is objective, either.  But it is a comic that I have imprinted on my brain.  I can reference near every panel in my mind's eye, and - as the film rolled - I could tell you what lines were from the comic, which were not, and what adjustments were made, for the most part.

I guess I see it this way (and this is true not just of this comic, but... apply this writ large): this is a fictional story about fictional people.  It's not a documentary.  It does commit the crime of injuring people who are not the lead to provide motivation, which is a complicated complaint as we don't have comics without a few dead billion Kryptonians, dead Waynes, dead Uncle Bens, dead Buckys, etc...  I do get that what we see here is graphic and upsetting.  I get the point of Women in Refrigerators (and was online following Gail at YABS before she was writing comics, thank you), and take it as much a creative challenge as a social one that comics have needed to react to.  And I get that the fictional horrors represented and how they are depicted hit people differently.  But I'm also wary of censorship, and I'm wary of anyone picking offensive items from a work of fiction (or especially non-fiction) as a reason that item shouldn't exist.  If you don't want to read it - that's fine.

But, also, people in actual real life do respond because of things that happen to people they care about.  And so... it's complicated at best.

A desire not to see a character hurt is legitimate.  I can only imagine how hardcore Batgirl fans took the scene *and* that it became woven into continuity, which seemed like an unintended consequence (it's clear Moore and Bolland were out of the loop on post-Crisis continuity and had planned this as a stand-alone story).  And while it depicts horrific events happening - so do most comics, and maybe in particular Batman comics.  Showing the horror of The Joker's actions here is a feature, not a bug, and that's a tough thing to sit with... in theory.  If 1/2 of network television weren't crime procedurals of cops chasing down dead and abused people and treating it like paperwork.  

I don't think it's a huge mystery as to how the comic didn't receive the same criticism in the 1980's in the vastly male space of comics as it's received as women entered the space in far greater numbers.  This was coming on the heels of the brutal slaying of Jason Todd (which no one seems to blink about and no one feels merits similar consideration), and part of the turn of the Joker from a clown prince of crime to a figure of horror and the far end of gallows humor that saw the New 52 Joker cut off his own face and staple it back on.  

I cringed a bit hearing they were taking the slim volume of The Killing Joke and making a 90 minute film out of the thing.  I figured it was good for 45-60 minutes of content.  This take would be prescient. 

Moore and Bolland's comic works as a sort of rhythmically paced meditation on a particular topic - one Moore now feels wasn't worth the telling - the comparison and contrasting of Joker and Batman.  In the steady pacing of the comic, something Moore had perfected with Watchmen, you can once again almost feel the ticking of a clock with each panel - many of which contain no speech bubbles - relying instead on the snapshot visuals of each panel and the pacing between those moments as a reader.  Minus a fade between each scene or cut, I wasn't sure how even animation could manifest this same sort of pacing.  Snyder had managed to catch the specific visuals of Watchmen, but never reached for the same pacing - and the dialog all fit neatly into those panels.  

It wasn't a matter of the dialog cramming into a single panel and surrounding anyone with balloons.  Instead, only so much is said per panel, and then we move on to the next moment.  And Bolland's art - some of the finest in comics - is mesmerizing.  From ripples in puddles (and you can almost hear the rain falling) to the creases in faces - but still maintaining the hyper-reality of Gotham, and Batman and comics.  His Bruce Wayne is a pillar of human - almost as unreal in form as his Joker - one in agreement with Jim Aparo about the jawline.  But, goddamn, the eyes in the comic.

As animation, everything needs to be simplified.  The cartoon does what it can, but the Barbara of the cartoon tilts toward Timm-style streamingling while other characters are given detail.  Still, it's a reminder of the strength of DC's Animation unit and what they're doing and have done that Marvel only recently made a stab at equaling by pursuing a completely different style with What If..?.

Look, the movie is weird. 

DC knew they didn't have enough story, but they did have Brian Azzarello, who I think is a good writer and creator, but he's very, very different from Alan Moore.  I wasn't a huge fan of his Batman work, but it was solid.  He tends to go dark, which is great.  But he was commissioned to add 30 minutes of story and, I guess, make some moderate changes to the original comic.  

Flat out - this shouldn't have happened.  

The extra thirty minutes occurs at the start, a small-time case by Bat-standards that sees Batgirl and Batman at odds as he Bat-bullies her, and the all-new Bat-element that Barbara is in bat-lust with Bruce/ Batman.  In the middle of an argument, the two... go to bone town town.  Utilize the Batpole.  Raise the Batsignal.  

It's kinda weird and unmotivated.  And leads to Barbara quitting her gig as Batgirl.  Which also feels unmotivated?  There's a lot swirling around, and the 7 minutes or so of movietime devoted to this step isn't developed enough to do more than raise more questions than it answers, while also making Batman seem like either a deeply irresponsible boss who needs an HR department or, worse, like we're in the end of the first act of one of those "problematic" romances like Fifty Shades of Grey.  

As a stand-alone story, and not to be a prude - sure.  I'd be curious to see this story as a separate story.  What does Robin think?  What does Alfred have to say?  Does Bruce have to show up with posies and shake hands with Jim Gordon?  Does a relationship compromise the work?  The work with others?  

Instead - we cut over to The Killing Joke, one of the best selling, most familiar bat-comics of all time.  It's like someone deciding to do a laser show of Dark Side of the Moon, and when you show up, FIRST they treat you to 20 minutes of some stuff they've been noodling on, and then it cuts over to Speak To Me/ Breathe.  It doesn't really matter how good those noodles were - what the @#$% was that?

If the purpose of 30 minutes with Bruce and Babs was to make her assault *more personal* or make it have more context, it's - I hate to say it - utterly unnecessary.  And because we haven't even pondered the Joker here til minute 30, it's @#$%ing bad storytelling to suddenly pivot to what is 75% at least just the story of of Batman and Joker's doom spiral, mixed in with a possible (and, if I have a "head canon", definitive) origin for The Joker, a character I think works best with no name or prior life until he just shows up in Gotham (see: Dark Knight).  

Honestly, the two parts feel like two completely separate films.  And one of them is better and more interesting than the other - there's a gravitas to the proceedings on the titular portion that, I'm afraid to say: Batgirl having a sexual hangup on Batman and it playing out like watching college kids fumbling around and dating badly just doesn't have.  

Because the Killing Joke portion has vastly retained the language and pacing of the comic, we also move from standard-issue DC cartoon language with some swears thrown in (this is a Rated-R cartoon, by the way), into some of the best, most intentional dialog I can recall in a comic not by Neil Gaiman.  Every line of that comic has weight and exists for a reason.  

And, honestly, you can tell that the producers understood that.  

I know the art department tried here - they barely deviate from Bolland's designs, including putting a curve in Batman's cowl-ears.  When Bolland was treating Batman in his cape as a sort of immovable object, the animation follows suit.  There's some amazing and innovative stuff here, and it's a testament to the studio WB Animation has built, and what the producers have pulled together.  

But you can't capture everything in animation that Bolland brought with ink and line to the page.  The anguish on Barbara's face when she wakes up in the hospital, the mirroring panels of the Joker reaching out to the clown behind glass and his memory of his wife.  Even the color palette (which DC keeps jerking around with in reprints) is muted to stay even across the film when the comic went bold and surreal (it does match the re-color job provided by Bolland about a decade back - and I don't want to argue with the artist too much, but the original colors were infinitely more interesting).  And found ways to make ripples in water have meaning as police lights fell across the water.

But, hey, the movie DOES have Joker's song about going loony (which I used to have memorized) set to music - and it HAPPENS.  And for that, I am wildly grateful.

The movie also has back voice favorites Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, giving Hamill perhaps more to do in this film than anything prior.  

Anyway - I didn't hate the movie - but if I were to watch it again, I'd skip to the 30 minute mark and just watch the part that adapts the actual graphic novel.  And that tells me DC should have thought harder about their goals.  It feels like commerce and arbitrary rules about the length of a video overtaking the best outcomes for the project.  

And, of course, I have my opinions about the content of the comic, but they seemed a bit unaware of the dialog around the comic in the early 2010's.  It's not the first or last time DC will grab a lightning rod without realizing it.  

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