Batman: The Killing Joke came out as a graphic novel in 1988, so why has it taken all these years to adapt it for the big screen?
When you compare the dark, violent, disturbing tale of The Killing Joke with Tim Burton’s big-screen reboot starring Michael Keaton just a year later, it’s easy to see the disparity between the film and comic book versions of Batman at the time.
While the Burton movie was visually dark and the cinematography gave us a feel for Gotham as a maze of angles and alleys perpetually shrouded in night, neither Batman nor the Joker was particularly dark in that movie. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is mostly silly with occasional underlying flashes of sinister. Michael Keaton’s Batman was much more intense than the comic roles we had seen him play up to that point, but it could hardly be described as dark and brooding. Compared to the portrayals that were to come, both now seem like caricatures – effective and very entertaining – but with very little true darkness and existential dread.
Since the late 80s, movie portrayals of Batman and the Joker have become significantly more serious. In the Christopher Nolan trilogy, Batman struggles with his purpose and Heath Ledger’s Joker is terrifyingly insane. The trend continued this year with Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, where Ben Affleck’s Batman is short-tempered and directionless, with questionable motives and violent in a way we’ve never seen Batman on screen. Jared Leto’s Joker, though not as large a role in Suicide Squad as the marketing led us to believe, is likewise more unhinged.
Which is all a way of saying, the movie versions of Batman and the Joker seem finally to have reached a similar depth of darkness to that of the graphic novel The Killing Joke in 1988. And while that may be one reason The Killing Joke has finally been adapted, another reason would be the surge in popularity of the characters thanks to this year’s tent-pole summer blockbusters Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad.
It also doesn’t hurt that Mark Hamill has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity since he skywalked back onto the big screen in Star Wars, Episode 7: The Force Awakens late last year. Hamill, who retired after years of voicing the Joker in the animated series and straight-to-video movies, said he wouldn’t reprise the role unless The Killing Joke was adapted. This is the Joker’s movie, and Hamill shows why some serious Batman fans say he’s the best Joker ever. So what if it’s a cartoon?
The plot of The Killing Joke is straightforward, as you could expect, given its 76-minute run time. And a 2016 adaptation necessarily suffers from the fact that the graphic novel has been source material for some of the recent live-action movies. So no matter how shocking it seemed in 1988, even the surprising parts of The Killing Joke are not as surprising or disturbing as they would have been when the graphic novel came out.
It starts with Batgirl (Tara Strong) breaking up a burglary, and delves into her relationship with Batman, though when the Joker appears, that romantic plot line is abandoned entirely and isn’t revisited. Batman isn’t much of a character in this movie. We don’t see him as Bruce Wayne at all, and he seems to exist only as a foil to the Joker. Fans were excited that Kevin Conroy would be voicing Batman again, but he isn’t given much opportunity to shine.
However, Hamill’s Joker is a fascinating, fully-formed character. The story is action-packed, and fans of the live action movies who have never given the animated movies or series a chance won’t be disappointed with Batman: The Killing Joke.