Last night, I had the opportunity to attend the Fathom Events special presentation of the new DC Animated film BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE. Based on the iconic book written by Alan Moore, and featuring the now-legendary voice talent of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as The Dark Knight and The Joker, respectively, the film had everything going for it. It was even curiously touted as a Bruce Timm film, despite the fact that primary directing credit goes to Sam Liu.
Moore, Conroy, Hamill, Timm.
Hallowed names, to be sure. So what could go wrong?
A lot, apparently.
Right off the bat, I couldn’t shake the sense that the animation was too stiff; too emotionless. What looks cool in a single frame, or as a comic book panel, looks stilted and cold in motion. That created an instant obstacle for me, but still, I tried my best to get sucked in.
The added prologue, featuring a Batgirl-centric storyline, felt creepy. Without delving into spoilers, this expanded backstory for Barbara Gordon takes her relationship with Bruce Wayne to unhealthy and- wisely- uncharted territory. One has to wonder why the filmmakers felt the need to add it at all, since the film is already being based on a beloved book and really didn’t need any added material.
Things pick up once we get into the main THE KILLING JOKE plot line, but even then it doesn’t really take off. The film, essentially, never leaves the runway.
Hamstrung by the cold animation style, there’s only so much that the iconic voices of Conroy and Hamill can do. Hamill, in particular, feels wasted here. This should have been a Holy Grail moment, merging the most iconic voice actor to play The Joker with one of the character’s greatest stories. Instead, Hamill has to scale down his performance so that it would match the fairly subdued Joker that the artists drew for him.
This was never more prevalent than during one of the most iconic DC monologues ever. I’d been waiting all year to hear Hamill tackle Joker’s “Madness” monologue from Moore’s book and, when it finally happened, I almost didn’t realize it at first. The artwork contains so little drama, so little emotion, and is presented so plainly that you can practically hear Hamill pulling back and simply trying to get the words out in time. It packed no punch. None at all, except for the fanboy thrill of hearing Hamill’s voice utter Moore’s words. I guess.
Conroy does his stoic best, which is about all you can ask for. Batman doesn’t have a very complex story in this one, so the limitations of the artwork don’t seem quite as brazen with his performance. That said, the fact that he spends 99.7% of the film delivering his lines in his signature stoic growl makes the film’s ending land with a thud. Had there been more layers to Batman, and had Conroy been given the opportunity to deliver a more multidimensional take on The Dark Knight, then his out-of-character moment during the film’s climax might not have fell so flat. But, as it stands, the actor is only given two notes to play, with no bridge between them, making the second note feel like it belongs on an island by itself.
The only thrill to be found here is in getting to see Moore’s version of The Joker’s backstory come to life, and hearing Hamill perform a pre-madness rendition of the character.
BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE was a rare misfire from DC, whose animated films have been consistently great. The fact that it’s based on such a classic book, and that it includes such top tier talent, turns a simple misfire into a downright tragedy.