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Batman: The Killing Joke

Warner Bros. // R // August 2, 2016 // Region 0
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted August 10, 2016 | E-mail the Author

Released in March 1988, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's Batman: The Killing Joke is typically considered one of the character's most impressive outings, along with the likes of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (1986, with Lynn Varley) and Year One (1987, with David Mazzucchelli). The extremely insulated Killing Joke, more an outright horror tale than action or adventure, pits Batman against his green-haired nemesis: after The Joker's cowardly, brutal attack against police commissioner James Gordon and his daughter Barbara (AKA Batgirl), the latter is left paralyzed while the commissioner is kidnapped and humiliated for The Joker's amusement. As with the very best Batman stories, The Killing Joke explores the duality of Batman and his psychotic arch rival, comparing and contrasting both sides of the same coin with effective results. It's tough to stomach but easy to respect, obviously influencing the likes of Tim Burton (who cites it as a personal favorite) and Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight.

Warner Bros.' previous Batman animated adaptations have been a little hit-or-miss, but the best of the bunch (the two-part Dark Knight Returns and Under the Red Hood) are outstanding and well-rounded films; even the slightly less successful Year One is an interesting effort. So when The Killing Joke was rumored as early as 2011, fans had every right to be excited, especially since Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill (who voiced Batman and The Joker in the fantastic 1992 animated series) would finally reprise their roles behind the microphone. What could go wrong?

A lot, as it turns out. Written by Brian Azzarello (since, as with past adaptations of his work, the notoriously grumpy Alan Moore refused any involvement), The Killing Joke is a tone-deaf attempt to modernize, balance, and smooth over the rough edges of a controversial work. The sleek and insular 64-page original tale has ballooned to a 77-minute film, thanks to an entirely unwelcome 31-minute focus on Barbara Gordon that prefaces the title story. Watch as she effortlessly takes down thugs as Batgirl, works at the library with a token gay friend, and pines over her secret crush on Batman...all while being stalked by the creepy Paris Franz (Maury Sterling), nephew of a mob boss. Don't get me wrong: the original Killing Joke's portrayal of Barbara is little more than a woman in the fridge...but shoehorning in a bunch of (almost) equally insulting drama certainly didn't solve the "problem". As a result, the core story's focus and flow are completely thrown off, which also manages to take all the wind out of its black comic ending and get the last word in with a short epilogue hinting about Barbara's second life as The Oracle.

Disclaimer: I'm speaking as a long-time fan of Moore and Bolland's book, having originally purchased the first printing decades ago, as well as the more recent Deluxe Edition hardcover with its less psychedelic color scheme (a visual change that this adaptation also seems to favor, not surprisingly). But to be honest, the impressive illustrations of Brian Bolland were always the real draw for yours truly; they suit the story's tone perfectly, so any stylistic change in the animated process was bound to be a step downward. Here, the simple line work and lack of detail render The Killing Joke more than a little flat and lifeless at times, and any perceived strengths owe more to Bolland's strong compositions and expressive, realistic renderings than anything else. The point is: if you haven't read the original book in years (or decades, or ever), the visual disappointments may not register as strongly.

Either way, The Killing Joke's biggest deal-breaker is its well-meaning but completely ineffective attempt to change the original story's focus. The 35 minutes or so of new material---roughly half the film's running time, to put things into perspective---only works against everything else, especially since all the new characters basically disappear once Batman takes that fateful trek into Arkham and discovers that his greatest enemy is once again roaming the streets. And as for the highly anticipated return of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill? Their performances are hardly seamless but at least hit some of the right notes (Hamill, who seems much more comfortable delivering his lines, is probably the highlight), which gives The Killing Joke at least part of a good reason for existing.

It's a shame, too...because on other fronts, The Killing Joke feels somewhat committed to preserving the original story. Large portions of dialogue and layout are either carbon copies or close cousins of Moore and Bolland's work, while little of great importance is removed (an establishing scene at The Joker's amusement park is excised, as well as the third-act repetition of Batman's "Hello, I came to talk" speech, but that's about it). The flashbacks are all present and accounted for, and the story's most graphic elements are left intact---aside from a brief bit of Jim Gordon nudity, because America---thanks to this film's R rating. So what we have left is about 40 minutes of decent material and 35 minutes of relative nonsense that sticks out like a sore thumb. Bottom line: The Killing Joke feels exactly like a film written by committee and seasoned with a little extra controversy, hoping to please a broader demographic but probably alienating both sides. I'll stick with the book next time, and so should you.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio (which may or may not be opened up from its limited theatrical run), this 1080p transfer of The Killing Joke looks very good with mild reservations. First, the positive: the stylized color palette holds up nicely and pops without bleeding; additionally, image detail is crisp and black levels (though a little diffused by design) are fairly consistent. This adaptation is on par with most of Warner Bros.' direct-to-video animated fare, and most scenes easily surpass their 480p counterparts in a direct comparison. Yet a number of small digital issues creep in on occasion, from sporadic amounts of noise to minor aliasing and banding issues. These aren't distracting problems at all, let alone deal-breakers, but The Killing Joke doesn't quite reach perfection from start to finish...even if these small defects are (a) source material issues, or (b) all but expected for the format.

DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p resolution.

In most regards, however, Warner's robust DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is ever-so-slightly more consistent. The Killing Joke contains a good balance of action mixed in with the drama, so the regular use of surround channels, directional effects and LFE helps to carry weight. Gunfire and fistfights have plenty of punch, music cues sound full and rich, and dialogue is uniformly crisp and easy to understand. I'd have appreciated even more punch on several occasions, but what's here does the job well and fans should appreciate the effort. Spanish, French, and German Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs are included, as well as English (SDH), Spanish, French, German, and Japanese subtitles.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

The interface is presented in Warner's typical no-frills style, with a static background and well-organized menus. This two-disc release (one Blu-ray, one DVD) is housed in a multi-hubbed eco case with an Ultraviolet Digital Copy redemption sheet and an embossed slipcover. The Blu-Ray appears to be unlocked for region-free playback.

Bonus Features

Not much here of interest, aside from two mid-length Featurettes: "Madness Set to Music" (12 minutes) offers an overview of the excellent original score by Kristopher Carter, Michael McCuistion, Lolita Ritmanis, while "The Many Sides of the Joker" (18 minutes) offers praise for the original book and its impact, as well as the character's history. There's some light but worthwhile info here, as well as a few valuable insights from members of the creative team and industry professionals. The new material is barely mentioned in passing, which is kind of funny.

Otherwise, there's just a bunch of filler here: a half-dozen or so Sneak Peeks and Trailers for various DC properties (including the two-part Dark Knight Returns, which is almost four years old already), plus one episode apiece from Batman: The Animated Series ("Christmas with the Joker") and The New Batman Adventures ("Old Wounds") sourced from old broadcast and DVD material that should've been remastered for Blu-ray years ago.

Final Thoughts

Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke is a top-tier Batman book that's amassed quite a reputation during the last 28 years; any adaptation probably wouldn't have measured up, but this one falls way short. The brief and efficient original story has been saddled with more than 30 minutes of filler, attempting to give more face time to its primary victim but doing so in a way that completely undercuts most of its tension, flow, and focus. Its visuals and voice work (even from the returning Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill) aren't exactly up to par either, leaving a handful of key scenes flat. Overall, the word is "disappointing"...and even more so, given the highs achieved by The Dark Knight Returns and, to a lesser extent, Year One. Warner Bros.' combo pack serves up a fine enough A/V presentation, though the bonus features leave a bit to be desired. Given the film's lackluster appeal and low replay value, it's worth a weekend spin at the very most. Rent It (or just buy the book if you haven't already).

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.
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