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Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)

[*or "did you hear the one about the movie they should have made 20 years ago...?"]

This was always going to be a difficult ask: how to animate one of comic fandom’s most beloved, most-mythologised books, Alan Moore’s 1988 smash-hit foray into the Batman universe, ‘The Killing Joke’. And this was always going to be a difficult ask for me: how to review fairly the animated adaptation of a graphic novel I’ve loved for nearly 30 years.

‘The Killing Joke’ reunited Alan Moore, a writer arguably at the peak of his powers having completed ‘Watchmen’ two years earlier and shortly to release ‘V for Vendetta’, and one of the finest British comic artists, the fulsomely-talented Brian Bolland, with whom Moore had worked at British science-fiction comic ‘2000AD’.

The story weaves The Joker’s origin-story into a typically-tortuous revenge plot, rebooting the 1951 story Batman arc ‘The Man Behind The Red Hood’ (which has also resurfaced in Warner’s excellent TV series, ‘Gotham’).

Director Tim Burton, no less, described ‘The Killing Joke’ as “the first comic I’ve ever loved”, and it’s not difficult to see why; Moore’s crisp, sardonic dialogue is a perfect pair with Bolland’s meticulous ink, taking us down a helter-skelter into the warped mind of the Joker as he weaves a devious trap for his nemesis in an abandoned fun-fair.

Quite why Warner have taken so long to produce the movie version is anyone’s guess, (Hamill even trailed his enthusiasm for voicing it at the 2011 San Diego ComicCon), but they may just have left it too long, because this, like most long jokes, ultimately falls flat.

Even Batman is puzzled at how long it has taken Warner to bring this to the screen

Extending the run-time – for ‘The Killing Joke’ is not the lengthiest tale – our first act sets up a wholly unnecessary romantic entanglement for Batman; we do not need such dramatic ham-fistedness to convince us of his determination to keep The Joker incarcerated. (My colleague Jill Baker has posted a compelling point-by-point takedown of this addition here)

From then, director Sam Liu, a stalwart of DC’s animated series set, canters pretty much by the numbers through the original plot, satisfying fans who will like to tick boxes but adding nothing in the way of directorial insight.

There are a few hints at sparky genius – at one point Batman is pictured on a rooftop where a neon sign indicates ‘Gotham Storage’, the neon having failed on two letters to leave us with ‘Gothams Rage’ [sic] – but alas such moments of inspiration are few and far between.

Warner’s decision to stick with the style of the animated series, which was great back in the 1990s (newsflash: we’ve moved on, guys, and want something better in a feature-length...) feels like a cynical ploy to plunder fanbase-dollars rather than make a meaningful contribution to the Batman animated canon. As I write, it has already grossed $4.3m at the box office, for its budget of $3.5m, so someone’s happy.

There were reports that the crew had admitted it was going to be “challenging” to replicate Bolland’s style, but instead of finding a creative solution, they ducked the headache and instead chose DC artist Kevin Nowlan, who designed various of the villains for the animated series, to art-direct. It’s not all bad, but the numerous attempts to replicate some of Bolland’s more chilling frames – the dead, staring face of the carnival owner sat atop his pink elephant; the newly-converted Joker maniacally laughing as he realises what he has become; The Joker’s eyes twinkling out of the darkness above his absurd Hawaiian shirt – simply serve to point up the qualitative gulf between the original artwork and this sausage-machine studio animation.

The Joker, having a bad day...
Even Mark Hamill’s Joker – a role he performed pretty well in the animated series – feels ordinary. If ever he was going to descend into cackling lunacy, this was the time, yet here it feels more like everyone’s favourite sociopath is just having a bad day.

Ultimately, the team seems to have been straitjacketed by Moore’s script and Bolland’s art, electing to stick slavishly to one while compromising fatally on the other.

The 2008 anime-does-Batman direct-to-DVD release ‘Gotham Knight’ demonstrated how the well-worn hero could come alive in the hands of filmmakers who were, frankly, hungrier to create art, rather than churn the franchise. In contrast, ‘The Killing Joke’ feels like a throwback: at best, workmanlike; at worst, lazy.

The addition of a plastic collectable Joker figure and reduction to the pre-order price is perhaps a tacit acknowledgement by Warner’s marketing department that this Blu-ray is (whisper it) a waste of money. Save your cash, and catch this one on Amazon Prime down the track.

BATMAN : THE KILLING JOKE is available now on  BLU-RAY,  DVD and DIGITAL from WARNER BROS in both the US and UK