Monday, July 25, 2016

Batman: The Killing Joke - Review

BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE has to be the very worst DC Comics animated feature to be produced by the comics giant and Warner Bros. That's really saying something when you have to remember that someone in the animation offices thought SUPERMAN/BATMAN: PUBLIC ENEMIES would be a good idea. Given a mighty opportunity to be seen on the big screen for a limited engagement through Fathom Events before its eventual home video release, it presents itself to be a flat, archaic retelling of the seminal yet still controversial Alan Moore story coupled with a new, ugly original opening half that was seemingly stripped from the fan fiction of a perverted mind. When the Joker declares "I didn't expect this to be boring" at one point, I was nodding in agreement. Seeing this in a theater filled with gullible fanboys might seem to juice up my ire and distaste for it but with a clear critical mind, anyone can see that this is an ungodly mess.

As stated, before you can get to the main attraction of the feature, you unexpectedly have to watch acclaimed comic book writer Brian Azzarello bequeath a shockingly gross section where nearly every misstep in screenwriting 101 is presented within the ink and paint. Batgirl (Tara Strong), a.k.a. Barbara Gordon, starts off with overbearing narration that of course does not pop back up in the latter half of the picture, nor does it ultimately make sense from a story standpoint because she is later placed on the sidelines while the men do all of the dirty work. Enjoyed that bit of sexism? Well, get used to it because this piece of the plot is purely toxic in its deeming attitudes towards women. Batgirl fails in apprehending a narcissistic gangster literally named "Paris France" and wants to chase after him. Bossy Batman (Kevin Conroy) says no and further goes on to say that she literally is not an equal to him. Not only is Batgirl angered by the strict rules of the caped asshole but she strangely also has intense sexual feelings for her way too old, fatherly guardian of the night. She obviously needs to confide and receive relationship advice instead of, you know, battling bad guys so she spends several scenes at her workplace and chatting with her gay best friend. I'm not kidding, this is all really happening in a superhero movie in 2016 and even after that great SNL skit of what a Black Widow solo pic would really be. I was waiting for some microwave popcorn and red wine to appear at any moment. Anyway, all of this trouble comes to a head when the two partners-in-crime-fighting have a repugnant, pointless, quasi-incestuous sex scene on a rooftop, with their cowls off. There you have it folks, a moment far, far worst than the "Hallelujah" porno scene in WATCHMEN. This forever-to-be-infamous lovemaking is immediately followed up with Batgirl going crazy as she's given the cold shoulder by Bruce and told to continue to sit out because she's "off the case!"

Though Tara Strong tries to give it her all to the classic heroine, just as she did during the later Batman animated seasons, and try to flesh her out into a real being, she can't overcome the vulgar work done to Batgirl here by Azzarello, director Sam Liu, and whoever else had a hand with the film. The makers might try to say that her bitter rivalry with Paris France is supposed to mirror Batman's relationship with the Clown Prince but they don't really explore it beyond Batman going on about "entering into the abyss" and being overcome by the horrors of what men do. Instead, they would rather bask in Paris' misogynistic cracks at Barbara and his clear obsession to pretty much rape her. The animators get in on this action as well, as there is a frivolous moment when Barbara goes for a run and the camera takes a second to get a good shot of her buttocks and breasts. You have to sit there and take in all of this tripe and betrayal of the Batgirl character, right before the film finally takes the inevitable turn to "The Killing Joke" storyline and her unfortunate meeting with The Joker.

For those not in the know with famous comic book tales, "The Killing Joke" has The Joker committing his ultimate evil plan: taking Barbara Gordon out of the picture, driving her father Commissioner Gordon to insanity, and seeking to cause Batman to kill him in order for Bats to break his code. It's a story tapped with the vast history of The Joker and his battles with Batman. It's also filled with ambiguous flashbacks to the creation of The Clown Prince and ends with one of the coldest codas put to paper which still is open to debate today. I have some minor issues with it but as it truly stands, it is a magnificent work of art. This famous story, however, is nearly marred by the unworthy makers, who besmirch nearly every major moment or act too faithful to a fault with the classic tale. The Joker himself doesn't not appear until halfway in the movie, never alluded to or mentioned at all before, so you need to come in with the knowledge of the character before watching this. Even though most of us already do know about him thanks to American pop culture and the legacy of past Jokers in movies, as a filmmaker, you still need to make sure that your viewer knows how evil The Joker can be and why Batman is always close to murdering him. Take BATMAN: UNDER THE RED HOOD for example, which literally starts with The Joker killing Robin and showcases the quandary of arresting or killing criminals to a far greater effect. A simple montage of The Joker's evil exploits right before Bats enters that fateful crime scene could have easily solve this structural problem.

Even if you forgive this issue, you still have to listen to Alan Moore's words coming from all of the characters' mouths. What works on the page, and helped along by Brian Bolland's amazing artwork, sadly doesn't really work on the screen, as every less-than-stellar animated scene becomes too wordy and overbearing with philosophy. On its own, the dialogue here could fine to the ear but you just sat through a badly written section that doesn't even try to match up with the grimness and dark wordplay of Moore. The pieces that really suffer the most, both in dialogue and animation, are the famed "flashbacks". They all retain the old 1940's look to them, colored in a grayish brown instead of black and white, which clash heavily with the far more modern setting this is all taking place in. Worse, everything is played absolutely straight, sapping all of the mystery of whether or not this is true to believe. Mark Hamill does his best to bring some ambivalence and he really does nail some key lines but he can't make every long paragraph about reality or the human psyche work. Despite all of this disappointment, the real kicker to this middling adaptation isn't the bland take on the ending or the "duh, of course she becomes Oracle!" mid-stinger tacked on but the unnecessary musical number that appears out of nowhere during the biggest genuinely disturbing moment of the entire story.

I could continue on about how this whole thing falls apart fundamentally since Batman does kill some people but I think you can get the gist. If this was just "The Killing Joke" story with some padding to make it feature length, I would still have my points of contention but would be fine with overall. Instead, I had to bare witness to the "fireworks factory" dilemma and horrible treatment of Batgirl. I really hated this picture, more so that BATMAN V. SUPERMAN. Zach Snyder may have expectedly flunked out with it but at least he was able to make a few bits of dark entertainment with Batman, let alone have a competent heroine. At least I can fall back on BATMAN: YEAR ONE or THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS to see well made animated adaptations.


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