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Monday, July 25, 2016

Immediate reactions to BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE!

This might get a bit long and rambling, but I just got home from BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE and I have a few thoughts...

About a year ago, a friend asked me how I felt about The Killing Joke being adapted into an animated movie. I was really torn then and remained torn for the most part until I saw the movie tonight. The original graphic novel is a complex and controversial piece of work that is somehow both ahead of its time and deeply rooted in it. It was a "trigger warning" before we had a phrase for it, but at the same time is a metafictional dissection of trigger warnings. It is lambasted today for its violence against a woman for the sake of a man's story (referred to as "women in refrigerators" amongst comic scholars), but could just as easily be lauded for the way in which it criticizes that very concept. You can read it multiple ways and get multiple results--some good and some bad. For my money, it is probably the best Joker story in all of Batman's mythology, but at the same time I know it is a story that could not be told in its fashion today. It might the greatest Batman story of all time, but it is also the most horrifying.

The animated feature film that debuted tonight (and will be released digitally tomorrow) toes a very interesting line. The first act is an all new story that focus on Barbara Gordon and provides a context for her story that was missing in the original work. It is an interesting addition in that it both serves as an apologetic preface for the original story, but at the same time is a gigantic middle finger to those that read The Killing Joke solely negatively. It makes the situation all the more complex. I'm not sure that it was necessary to tell a good story, but it does provide the film with a framing device (with the after credits scene) that shows the importance of hope in the hopeless world. It is an answer to the abyss that is the Killing Joke. Without giving anything away, it is a counterpoint to the central argument of The Killing Joke and could be seen as a definitive answer to the ambiguous ending of both the original source and the new film. But it also takes the entire thing for a really fucking weird left turn that will likely be discussed and debated for many years to come.

The film itself is...intense. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill provide perhaps their best performances as Batman and the Joker. The animation feels like a natural extension for the Timm-verse, I was really surprised to see how much influence I saw from some big time Japanese anime. Imagine the original Batman: The Animated series mixed with heavy doses of Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Cowboy Bebop. The score is amazing. The script by Brian Azzarello is strong. Both the visuals and the dialogue lifted heavily from the source in the best possible way while still being unafraid of deterring from Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's original work. As an adaptation it is pretty much perfect.

All in all, I have to say that I absolutely loved the film in the same way that I love the original Killing Joke. It does not shy away from the controversial concepts--instead it charges into them head-on and in many ways intensifies them. At the same time, it understands that the Killing Joke is more than women in refrigerators. It is as much about senseless violence as it portraying it. It is within itself a conversation on its own controversy. I cannot say that it is a necessary adaption--there are easier Batman stories to adapt that are less problematic, but it is an important story that brings up important questions. It is as shocking as ever, but it is also highly entertaining.

I only have one gripe about the film--a scene that expands up on a single panel in the original comic, but does so in a way to completely direct the viewer into a very definitive angle from which to tackle the film. It could take away much of the ambiguity of the film. It put a really bad taste in my mouth, which I think is precisely what they wanted to do with the scene. I cannot say more without giving away much of the plot, but I'll be interested to see how other's view this scene and what it means to the larger story. To me, it shows the filmmakers' hands in a way that the original story deliberately did not and does so in a way that confirms what many fear about the original. Without that scene, the movie remains highly ambiguous about major plot points--with it, it might as well slap you in the face with them.

In conclusion, despite my reservations, I could not recommend The Killing Joke more.

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