Batman the Killing Joke Animated Movie Review
I’ve made my thoughts on the Killing Joke known already, at great length in fact, but with this new animated movie there’s some new things to talk about. It’s another Bruce Timm project, something he’s apparently been trying to make for at least 10 years now, with Brian Azzarello writing and Sam Liu directing. The movie had a 30 minute Batgirl sequence at the beginning before the Killing Joke starts, because the comic was too short to make into a 70 minute movie. That sequence has become the centre of much attention as it includes Batgirl and Batman have rooftop sex, but that certainly not the end of rather questionable decisions made for this movie. The rest of the Batgirl additions aren’t particularly good, the Killing Joke parts are lacklustre at best, and all in all it’s a rather lame duck to the usually good quality of the DC Animated Movie scene. But much like the Killing Joke comic I can’t help but talk for far too long about how this movie fails and why this missed the mark so thoroughly.
The new Batgirl sequence is about her being a rookie partner to Batman as they try to track down a mob boss’ nephew who is trying to take over his uncle’s business. The nephew, named Paris Franz, becomes deeply infatuated and obsessed with Batgirl, to an insanely creepy degree. Batman being worried for Batgirl’s safety tries to push her off the case, and she doesn’t like that and pushes back, things get heated and they have sex on a rooftop, and both regret it. After the case is through Barbara quits being Batgirl because she’s become a distraction to Batman and she can’t handle looking into “the abyss” like Batman can. It really is just unconnected to the Killing Joke portion of the movie, there’s no real connecting point between the two. All it really does is make Barbara’s victimisation even more personal to Batman. She’s no longer just “daughter of Jim Gordon” and “former Batgirl” she’s now a romantic attachment to Batman. The Joker has now hurt and sexually assaulted Batman’s girlfriend, that’s the new context they’ve added for this movie. That’s possibly not the intent, but it’s what ended up happening regardless.
The intent seems to be “fixing the one problem with the comic” which in Bruce Timm’s mind was just that we didn’t see Barbara as Batgirl before she got shot. Not the fact that Barbara is used as a prop to hurt Batman rather than being treated like a character in her own right. There’s nothing added in here that changes the core problem of how horribly Barbara was handled in the story. No added section at the beginning nor a mid-credits scene of Barbara as Oracle changes this.
The big talking point is the sex scene between Barbara and Batman, a scene solely there because they wanted to double down on the controversial parts of the Killing Joke. To quote the writer, “The thing about [the comic] is that it’s controversial, so we added more controversy,” which sounds like a fairly stupid idea to me. They realised people had problems with the story, and so they decided to make more problems rather than try to properly fix the other ones. The scene itself is some pretty cliché stuff, an argument turns into punches being thrown, which turns into heated passions and then sex. It’s a rather embarrassing scene that turns into unintentional hilarity when the camera pulls away from Barbara stripping to this:
Watching, grinning, and salivating over the two having sex below. An apt visual for what they want the audience to feel, or what the creators feel about this scene.
What makes this sex scene even more damning is that Batwoman was not allowed to even kiss an adult woman in the last Batman animated movie, Bad Blood, but here we can see Batman having sex with a much younger woman. It’s the terrible double standard that two gay people even kissing, and nothing other than that, is seen as more provocative and risqué than two straight people having sex. To top off the gay representation Barbara gets a sassy gay BFF that she gets to talk about boys with in this movie. He can’t just be a gay man, he has to be sassy, where every line is spoken in that stereotypical effeminate inflection like the character stepped out of a bad 90s sitcom. Barbara also can’t have a female friend to talk to in addition to her gay friend, that’d mean having a third female character in this movie, and that’s clearly too many. The number of prostitutes in this movie outweighs the amount of female characters, though given the rooftop sex scene that’s not terribly surprising.
The sex scene isn’t even the worst part of the Batgirl sequence, it’s just the most clearly identifiable part to point at for how bad the sequence is, but the entire thing is really terrible. Let’s start with the simplest things, it makes Barbara into a terrible superhero. It just shows her as a rookie who needs to get rescued three times by Batman, she’s screwing up, and shown in a negative light. At the end she has to heroically save Batman, which only happens because he was distracted by her and thinking about their romantic engagement. That’s not there to show her as a hero but as a liability to Batman. She quits being Batgirl because she’s now a distraction to him, and also that she can’t handle that “edge” that Batman has. In the comics she quits being Batgirl because she’s moving on with her life, the story where she quits has nothing to do with Batman, doesn’t feature him at all, and is entirely about her as a character. If they wanted to showcase Batgirl then maybe they could’ve done that without Batman, and also not making her a terrible hero.
There was also something odd I noticed about the entire sequence, it seems the creators decided to make everything about her gender. It’s probably not intentional because I doubt they were thinking about gender implications when making any part of this movie. But it’s something I noticed because it just kept happening and it just adds to the badness of this sequence. She can’t just be fighting a mob boss, it has to be one that’s “in love” with her. One whose ever word about her is how “hot” she is, or them dancing instead of fighting, or blowing her a kiss the very first time he sees her (before kicking her off a truck), or sending her “presents,” or having sex with prostitutes while one of them wears a Batgirl mask. Then there’s Barbara defining her crimefighitng partnership with Batman as if they’re dating, but qualifies it all with some ‘we’re totally not dating’ talk. They’re not actually dating, she just talks about him only in dating terms. It’s not a one off thing, that’s the only way she talks about their partnership. Her gay friend is only there so they can talk about her partnership with Batman, that’s his one function. Then Batman has to tell Batgirl that the villain is “objectifying” her, not even just saying ‘obsessed with her’ but “objectifying.” Then there’s how people talk about Batgirl, here a small sample, “Batgirl’s hot” “The Bat and his bitch” “must be that time of the month.” Yes the movie really did make a period joke about the one female character being angry, because when they hit the bottom of the barrel their only thought was ‘how can we dig ourselves deeper.’
In the end of this sequence she quits being Batgirl because Batman can’t protect the city and have someone out there was he cares about. She can’t just quit because of his stupid “you haven’t been to the edge” speech, it has to be because he’s attracted to her and that makes her a distraction to him. And that is not shown as a problem he created, it’s all Barbara’s fault. He doesn’t have to learn to not get distracted by his feelings, it can’t be his fault this happened, he can’t quit because it makes him a liability as a crimefighter. We won’t actually see this story being done to Batman, or even Robin. When Batman fights Catwoman he doesn’t get told to stay off the case because ‘she’s objectifying him.’ Robin doesn’t talk about Batman like they’re dating. When Batman argues with Robin it doesn’t end in rooftop sex. It all feels very forced and contrived when it happens to Batgirl because these things are only being applied to her since she’s a woman.
The age gap is obviously a big part of why the Bruce/Babs relationship is a bit skeevy. He is old enough to be her father, and while her age isn’t brought up Barbara still seems pretty young. The movie might start with Barbara saying she’s been working with Batman for 3 years, but for the rest of the movie the story treats her like a rookie. If they took out the 3 years line you certainly wouldn’t be able to guess it’s been that long. Even so the film dutifully reminds us that Barbara was “just a kid” when the Joker first appeared, with her saying Jim Gordon’s description of his “white face and green hair […] scared the hell out of [her].” So it sounds like she was pretty young when the Joker first showed up, which was a few years into Batman’s career. So he’s got to be about twice her age, and this Batman design shows it with the wrinkles around the mouth, he certainly doesn’t look like a young Batman. Even Bruce Timm describes her as one of Batman’s kids, “Maybe never having had any kids of his own, he doesn’t realize that if you tell a kid to not do something, they’re going to want to do it even more.” Even just calling her a “kid” compared to him, in both age and position of authority, suggests an inappropriate relationship here. Barbara having a crush on him is one thing, we’ve seen that before, and that’s just like having a crush on your teacher. It’s fine so long as it stays a crush and doesn’t develop into anything else. Like having sex on a rooftop while a creepy gargoyle watches.
It’s not that surprising this has happened, after all the Hollywood movies have been normalising this for years. There’s this constant trend of having older male actors with young 20-something love interests. It doesn’t take a lot of googling to find all the charts and graphs showing actors ages next to their far younger love interests. It seems no one wants to show 50 year old men having relationships with 50 year old women, because that’d require casting a woman over 30 and Hollywood really doesn’t like doing that. So the more this happens the more it gets normalised, and so we get the people making movies like this one not seeing a problem with Batman sleeping with a woman young enough to be his daughter. I have asked both the director and writer of this movie what ages Batgirl and Batman are here, hoping they’d be a little closer in age than I suspected, but so far I haven’t gotten one response back. Though I guess it’s particularly due to no one thinking about what ages they are, because that seems par for the course for this film.
There has been some defence of the rooftop sex scene online. The common hand-wave I’ve seen from fans is that because Barbara and Bruce had a relationship in the DCAU cartoons then this is okay too. It seems like a bit of odd reasoning, as I’ve not really seen fans say anything like “the relationship was good in the DCAU so therefore this is fine too” just the mere fact that it happened elsewhere excuses its shoddy inclusion here. Let’s be clear here, by “DCAU” we are pretty much solely talking about the Batman Beyond cartoon, which is set 50 years in the future, and not any of the 7 other DCAU cartoons. In the show it is revealed that Barbara and Bruce had a relationship at one time and it was just as skeevy then as it is now. The difference being is that we don’t see them in a relationship, we just see them as old people well after the relationship happened. So it’s all past tense and so it’s not as off putting, though it still made sure that there was no woman in Bruce’s life that he hadn’t slept with. So once it was there it wasn’t getting unwritten, and for some reason it wasn’t just quietly forgotten about like the stupid idea it is.
It showed up in the Mystery of the Batwoman animated movie, though as a bit of comedy with Barbara flirting with Bruce on the phone and nothing beyond that. It’s just a really awkward scene, and even though their relationship is hinted at the movie adds an extra layer of oddness given that Bruce has a romantic subplot with someone else. So he’s either cheating on Barbara or they’re not actually in a relationship. That’s the extent of the DCAU Bruce/Babs ship, not actually seen on screen and we don’t get any rooftop sex scenes. So not exactly comparable with this movie. There was also a non-canon Batman Beyond comic in 2014 that went for maximum drama and stupidity. In that comic Barbara got pregnant with Bruce’s child while she was dating Dick Grayson (who was going to propose to her), she has a miscarriage and the entire thing is the reason why Dick fell out with Bruce. All in all this Barbara/Bruce relationship seems to exist just for cheap drama and a rather skeevy undercurrent that no one working on these things seems to get. It happening elsewhere doesn’t excuse the age gap or the fact that the rooftop sex scene is dumb no matter what. It’s just something that serves no purpose and certainly won’t be done with any of the Robins.
This entire thing brings to mind another animated DC movie, Under the Red Hood. Which tells the story of Jason Todd, the second Robin, who was beaten with a crowbar to an inch of his life by the Joker and then blown up. He then comes back to life and years later he plans to get revenge on Joker and Batman for what happened. Interspersed with that are several flashbacks to Jason’s life as Robin. For this movie we did not need half an hour of Jason as Robin, showing off how terrible he is at being Robin, and having it be entirely disconnected to the main plot. We did not get Jason being sexually assaulted by the Joker, in fact Jason retains his agency in the beating scene as he’s not only seen verbally fighting back against the Joker but also trying to escape the bomb too. We also did not need to reaffirm Batman and Jason’s connection by having them sleep together, there’s no sex scene at all, and not even a romance of any sort between the two. We do see some strife between the two in the flashback, with Batman being angry at a decision Jason makes, but in that movie Batman clearly explains what is wrong and Jason calms down and admits he made a mistake. Jason is never made into a prop just to make Batman to feel sad. Jason is his own fleshed out character and the story revolves around him.
The Killing Joke is not Barbara’s story, that’s one of it’s problems, she’s just a prop in it. So no matter how many unconnected sequences they put in before the real movie starts, it’s still won’t make it her story. This Batgirl sequence doesn’t fix anything, all it does is make it more glaringly obvious how much of a disposable prop Barbara is in the Killing Joke. If they wanted to fix the Killing Joke then they should’ve rewritten the entire thing, if they wanted to adapt it straight then they shouldn’t have added an entire front section of the movie that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It’s incredibly disjointed, makes no sense for story and character purposes, and it accomplishes nothing. They should’ve just done this as two short movies. A 40 minute Killing Joke one and a 30 minute Oracle story, preferably one that takes a lot of notes from Oracle Year One. That story has Barbara confronting Batman about his actions in the Killing Joke, she gets to deal with her trauma, and it shows her regaining her agency that the Killing Joke stripped her of. It’s not a perfect solution to the Killing Joke’s problems, but it’s a damn sight better than what they did. Having an Oracle story throws Barbara fans a bone, makes the Killing Joke part feel like it has actual consequences, actually uses the one and only good thing to come out of the Killing Joke, and it means the movie doesn’t end on a teaser for a movie that’ll never happen. Though given the mess this film turned out to be I get the feeling these same creators would likely ruin an Oracle story too.
As for the Killing Joke itself, well it was lacking. It felt like a bad photocopy of the comic. Sure you could get same basic story from it, but all the style and beauty was washed out. A perfect example was the flashback sequences, instead of the marvellous monochrome art that has splashes of beautiful reds on specific objects in every scene, we just got rather dull and pedestrian washed out colouring. There was nothing special that made them stand out, I wouldn’t be surprised if some people who had never read the comic get confused over some of the flashback transitions. There’s just very little to distinguish them, art and colour-wise, from the rest of the movie. When the mobsters first show off the red hood it just looks rather dull, instead of the comic that really showcased the red colouring against the black-and-white backdrop.
The flashbacks are really lacking the style of the comic. Hell there aren’t even any flashback transitions, at least not like the ones from the comic. Where there would be a link between the present day image and then the flashback one. The only one they really tried to do was the picture of “The Fat Lady” transitioning into the pregnant wife in the flashback. Other than that there was no attempt to bother doing these transitions, and these aren’t even hard to do. Here’s a sampling of them:
It’s all just simple basic mirroring of the flashback imagery with the present day imagery. Even if they didn’t use the exact same imagery they could still use that technique. I don’t see why it wasn’t done. Other than basic laziness and any lack of ambition or passion for this project.
Part of my dislike for the movie is that I just don’t really care for the comic in the first place, so maybe if you like the comic you’ll like what this animated movie has to offer. But it all just feels very lifeless to me. I found Brian Bolland’s artwork to be the big stand-out of the comic, his recoloured version is phenomenally beautiful. The detail is marvellous, there’s a lot going on in every panel and sometimes even the background characters get their own personality and story. Just look at the bar scenes from the flashbacks, the patrons there feel like real people because Bolland adds in little character actions while the main story progresses in the foreground. So they never feel like static characters or just a cardboard cut out backdrop. The movie doesn’t try to emulate any of Bolland’s artistry from the comic. Now I’m not talking about artstyle here, I’m talking about the flashbacks being drained of their beauty so they now just looks like any other flashback you’d see on TV. I’m talking about the bar scene that is practically empty compared to it teaming with life in the comic, and all the patrons at the bar are sitting quietly, lifelessly, and it really isn’t as interesting to watch as Bolland’s static images in the comic. The script is there, but it seems like no one was really trying to make Bolland’s comic come to life. It looks just enough like the comic to appease the fans, but no one went the extra mile to try and do anything to make the animation stand-out.
On the positive side Mark Hamill is the real MVP of this movie, he’s on top form as the Joker and you can really tell this was a dream job for him. He’s just fantastic, he even gets to do a musical number. There’s only really one bad point I can think of, and that’s his reading of the joke at the end. He just seems to rush through it like they told him he only had five seconds to record it. It’s hard to tell if this is some kind of subtle call back to him being a bad stand up comedian in the flashbacks, or it could just be another failing of this production. When everything else is bad it’s hard to tell if they did something intentionally bad.
There was one scene that I actually liked, at the end when Joker and Batman are finally face to face, that scene just worked for me. The music comes in and starts to slowly build up. Mark Hamill starts to really let Joker’s mask slip more and more as he’s beating up Batman. Then Batman hits him full force with the fact that he’s failed, he didn’t mange to break Gordon, he’s still sane, and maybe it wasn’t one bad day that made the Joker crack, maybe he was just always that way. The music now going full blast as Batman throws the Joker out the window, builds even more as the Joker pulls out a gun, fires, and the music just stops as the joke flag comes out of the barrel. And the Joker just sits there, curses, and tells Batman to get the beating over with an put him back in Arkham, resigned to his fate. Then Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill just have this great down to earth conversation, Hamill really letting Joker’s mask slip entirely now. We can hear the person behind the madness and the loonacy, and it’s not about humanising the Joker or anything like that. We just hear someone who knows he’s beaten and just wants to get it over with.
Sadly that bit is a little ruined by the aforementioned bad joke telling. Then after that it ruins the ending of the comic. It just lacks any of the style of the comic and just pans down to the rain hitting a puddle. A moment of thematic imagery so simple that is completely surprising how much they failed to pull it off. Instead of the first image and last image of this movie being a shot of a puddle in the rain, the movie opts to open without any of that. The Batgirl sequence doesn’t have anything like that, and the Killing Joke part tries to do it but fails at mirroring it properly. Instead they decided to open the Killing Joke segment with an original scene not from the comic, of Batman investigating one of Joker’s crime scenes. It doesn’t particularly serve any real point, has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, and isn’t even the impetus for Batman going to visit Joker in Arkham Asylum. It is just a scene to pad out the movie. They could’ve just shown Batman driving to Arkham, and if they really wanted to add something extra to it they could’ve shown quick flashbacks to previous Batman encounters with the Joker. Just to show he’s thinking back on their history and lead in to him trying to talk to the Joker about their inevitable future, where one of them will kill the other. But no, we get a pointless scene of gruesome Joker murder victims.
There are some other added scenes, seemingly to pad out the run time because they don’t really need to be in there. There’s some extra bits of the Joker psychologically torturing Jim Gordon, and it’s only really there to explain why Gordon tells Batman bring him in “by the book.” As if that needed any explanation. The other more prominent one is Batman asking some prostitutes where the Joker is, and they say that he always comes to them “for a roll” right after escaping. Except he didn’t do that this time, and one suggested it was because he “found another girl.” That bit of dialogue implies that the other girl he found was Barbara Gordon, and that he raped her in addition to taking pictures of her naked. She was the only other girl we see him go to, it’s pretty much a straight line between those two events. Though that wasn’t the intention of the scene, Bruce Timm said as much and even said he would’ve taken it out if he thought of it that way. But he didn’t, he said he found the line to be entirely innocuous when he read it. If that wasn’t the intention of it then what was, because if there was no intention meant behind it why was it there in the first place? We find out the Joker sleeps with sex workers, what does that add to the story? Nothing. Just nothing. These are added scenes that don’t really fit or gel well because they’re just shoved into a story that didn’t need them in the first place. So there’s no pay-off to them, they don’t matter, and aren’t mentioned again. Just like the Batgirl sequence at the beginning.
Speaking of Barbara, the scene where she gets shot is just incredibly badly handled. It’s got added slow motion effects to try and make the shooting more dramatic, but it just ends up making it look dumb. Instead of a quick shot that leaves the audiences stunned, it takes it’s time to show you the Joker and the gun, and even the Joker pressing the gun into Barbara’s stomach. So it looks like the expert crimefighter just stands still while the Joker takes his time shooting her. The slow-mo isn’t particularly apparent until after he pulls the trigger. In any other story that would be ample enough time to knock the gun away or dodge it. Hell in the Under the Red Hood movie we get a slow-mo gun shot at the end which Batman manages to dodge with ease, and he wasn’t even facing towards the gun to see it being fired. They could’ve at least staged the scene to make it look like Barbara didn’t stand a chance, that there was nothing she could’ve done.
There was also something else I noticed, one that’s in the comic but I never picked up on before. In the hospital when the doctor’s talking about Barbara’s condition, and that she’ll never be able to walk again, Barbara’s not awake for that. We don’t see her get told that information and her reaction to it. We get Batman being told this, and his reaction to it, but not the person who it’s happened to. It’s just another thing reinforcing that Barbara is just a prop in this story, something that’s only there to hurt the men in her life. Her entire role in this story is to be Batman’s lover and get brutalised so Batman can feel bad about it. She has no agency in this story, she’s just a prop for the male characters to feel sad over. No Oracle mid-credit scene can change that. The Oracle scene is even worse because there is not going to be a follow-up movie, she won’t get her own story in her own movie. It’s just a cutesy easter egg for the creators to try and mitigate the damage that has been done to the character in this movie. At least in the comics there was a follow-up by people who actually gave a damn about the character, Kim Yale and John Ostrander. Oracle won’t show up in any future animated movies, and even if she did those movies won’t be in continuity to this one, making that easter egg entirely pointless. Hell it has even worse implications given the Batgirl sequence was about showing how horrible a superhero she was, it implies that being sexually assaulted and put in a wheelchair made her a better hero. Now she doesn’t need to quit and can work with Batman again, she’s no longer a distraction to him, somehow. All she needed to do was “look into the abyss,” get brutalised, and she could become a hero again. It’s like the creators job was to make the Killing Joke even worse.
Much like how in the 90s whenever bad writers tried to make a “strong female character” by having their backstory be about how they were raped, and/or brutalised, so it made them “stronger” and “tougher.” At the San Diego Comic Con panel whenever they talked about Barbara there was lots of unironic usages of “strong female character.” Only seeming to define her as that, not realising how much that term has become a parody of itself over time. It’s not a definition of a well written female character, but a very narrow 1-dimensional cliché. It means trying too hard to make female characters into ‘action girls’ rather than making them into well rounded fleshed out characters.
Unsurprisingly this is written by Brian Azzarello, the writer who decided Wonder Woman needed a daddy figure so he made Zeus her literal father, and then made the peace loving Amazons into rapists and baby killers. The fact that he has managed to make the Killing Joke worse shouldn’t be shocking at all, which begs the question of why he was hired to write this movie in the first place. But given Bruce Timm’s ignorance over all of the movie’s problems it’s no wonder they didn’t bother to hire a better writer. Timm seems to have wanted to make this movie for over 10 years now, you would think he’d bring his A game to this and try to make it something special. Instead it’s a phoned in production, where no one could be bothered to think through any implications they were making here.
Bruce Timm has been put on this pedestal of DC animation, he is thought of as a genius who can do no wrong. When he stopped working on these animated movies fans were outraged and some even blamed the “downward turn in quality” of the movies on Timm’s departure (despite the fact that the movies they claim as the start of that turn were being made well before he left). So now he’s back and made the worst DC animated movie so far, something so tone deaf and lifeless it makes you wonder if Timm was ever that great or if he just surrounded himself with more talented people. Alan Burnett came in and sorted out all of the weak story flaws of Batman The Animated Series, Dwayne McDuffie came along and fixed the Justice League cartoon, Glen Murakami on Batman Beyond, etc. There’s probably a lot more people who worked on these celebrated Bruce Timm shows that rarely get the credit for making sure they don’t turn out like this Killing Joke farce. So maybe we should stop crediting Bruce Timm solely for these DC shows, this also applies to Paul Dini.
If you want to watch a Bruce Timm movie about the Joker and staring Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy, then watch Mask of the Phantasm and Batman Beyond Return of the Joker. Movies made 15-20 years ago that have better writing, acting, directing, animation, with more engaging plots and characters than this movie.