The Killing Joke is one of the most beloved, and darkest, Batman comic books out there. Fans have been eagerly awaiting this animated adaptation for years and the final result is unlikely to disappoint. Though it’s far from flawless, Batman: The Killing Joke once again displays that, at least in the animated sphere, DC has a strong understanding of what makes their heroes so compelling, even if the film’s narrative is disappointingly muddled.
As far as stories within the Batman canon go, The Killing Joke has all the trappings you’d expect. Initially focusing on Batman’s (Kevin Conroy) difficult relationship with Barbara Gordon (Tara Strong), known primarily as her alter ego Batgirl, before shifting into a classic Caped Crusader against The Joker (Mark Hamill) narrative. The former feels a little too predictable, with Batman being overly protective of his sidekick much to her frustration until she snaps and has a rooftop shouting match with him. It’s been seen before across countless Batman comics, television shows, and animated movies. The latter storyline is also very much a known quantity, but it’s hard to get tired of seeing the conflict between Batman’s order and The Joker’s chaos play out, and that’s no different here.
The Killing Joke can be rather neatly split into two halves, each revolving around either Batgirl or The Joker, which creates a disjointed feeling. It’s akin to two unrelated episodes of Batman: The Animated Series being unceremoniously stitched together. The whole first half sees Batman and Batgirl tracking down a mob boss but this ultimately amounts to very little and is just a device to cause friction between the two heroes. Once The Joker is introduced, the mob narrative is all but abandoned, making the whole first act (and most of the second) feel like mere padding—enjoyable padding, but padding nonetheless.
One interesting twist is that The Killing Joke explores The Joker’s backstory quite substantially, which turns out to be somewhat of a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s fascinating to see the events that turned a normal family man into a psychopathic trickster, but unfortunately it takes a lot of the mystery out of the character, a trait which has come to define the villain in the past. It’s not helped that his origins are about as cliché as possible. Mark Hamill is the best Joker out there (yes, even better than the late Heath Ledger), so he manages to save a few rather run-of-the-mill flashbacks thanks to strong voice performance.
What’s most disappointing about The Killing Joke however is how cheap it looks. There are some impressively drawn backgrounds, particularly the opening sweep of Gotham City, but otherwise the film is even less visually interesting than The New Batman Adventures. Objects in the foreground often have a blocky quality, making them dull and not in the least bit dynamic. The character models aren’t much better; there’s a real lack of detail on key characters such as Batgirl. The poor aesthetics are barely forgivable, but they do unfortunately blunt the effectiveness of one critical scene, as it all looks so basic that the intended emotional high is never reached.
The voice work is all generally of a strong standard. Thankfully Kevin Conroy returns as Batman (interestingly Bruce Wayne doesn’t feature at all) to reignite his wonderful chemistry with Mark Hamill’s Joker. For much of the movie, Batman is more of a secondary character which is a nice change of pace. He’s been explored countless times, so getting to see his allies/enemies take a little more of the spotlight is a welcome shakeup. Tara Strong really shines as Batgirl, displaying the effect that crime fighting has on a more mentally well-adjusted person, and her ultimate fate is as hard to watch as it is iconic.
Batman: The Killing Joke is another strong entry into the DC animated features collection, standing alongside excellent previous efforts like Under the Red Hood and Mask of the Phantasm. The surprisingly dark tone and few graphic scenes make up for the rather disjointed plot: this is one of the most mature Batman movies to date displaying how grim the world the crime fighter inhabits really is. Afterwards, you may wonder if Gotham City is really worth saving.