(WARNING: story and narrative twists discussed in close detail)
Alan Moore's The Killing Joke is generally considered the classic Joker comic book, Sam Liu's animated adaptation generally considered a desecration of the same; the truth as ever (or at least as I see it) lies somewhere in between.
Liu and producer Bruce Timm (who also did Batman the Animated Series) knew they were dealing with controversial material when they took up Moore's book. Moore had previously retooled DC's Swamp Thing into a 'plant elemental;' for a special issue on Batman's archnemesis, the writer reconceived the character as an eloquent philosopher with a fondness for elaborately punny metaphors and a taste for the sadistically perverse.
Liu and Timm have decided not just to embrace controversy but add to it: the first thirty or so minutes is devoted to Barbara's own story (partly I'm guessing to correct for her brief appearance in the comic, partly to compensate for what happens to her during her brief appearance in the comic). The addition feels odd--large-scale car chases, elaborate gunfights with automatic weapons and an RPG assault, all in the movie's first thirty minutes; when villain and hero confront each other later on they exchange old-fashioned punches, swing wooden beams down hard on cranium, at one point pull out a large-caliber revolver. It's like one part of the movie has a foot in the real world, the other in a standard-issue Fast & Furious action flick.
It's not just the weaponry: dialogue is barely functional during the earlier part, suddenly takes a quantum leap in eloquence and vocabulary level in the latter. And the plot begins meandering and loose, suddenly tautens and rushes headlong into a dramatic resolution.
Does it work? Not a good fit but doesn't feel like the dealbreaker most critics say it is. Where folks see a Barbara Gordon who is 'incompetent' and 'jilted' I see is a spirited strong-willed young woman who occasionally make mistakes, who isn't shy to take what she wants, and who having realized what's happening to her is strong enough to drop everything and walk away. Putting aside the issues of plot, armament, and language, the prologue does a fair job of fleshing her out, which is what the filmmakers intended.
No my problem with what happens to Barbara has to do with The Killing Joke itself. I admit to thinking Moore's story an admirable attempt to give one of the more memorable monsters in the Batman canon a credible origin, and still think the same. Admit to thinking if one wanted to suggest some of the terror The Joker can inspire same time one wanted to drive an ordinary man crazy the writer couldn't have thought up a more convincing ploy. The question then would be: should he have done it, and in such an explicit manner?
I don't know. Strong moment I'll admit, and hugely influential--people remember it better than any other in the book, and two comic-book writers (Kim Yale and Joe Ostrander) felt unhappy enough with Barbara's fate to want to recast her as a disabled superhero (you see a suggestion of that in a scene inserted after the movie's end credits). The moment works in the context of the book; that said it's what's nowadays called a Women in Refrigerators situation--women killed tortured mutilated or otherwise sacrificed to further develop a man's motivations or character. Moore's known to be rough on his creations, men and women alike; could he have done better?
Not sure. On one hand Gail Simone (who created the website) has a point--women have often been used thusly, as plot function; on the other an outright ban on the device might cripple storytelling in the medium (in any medium, actually). I figure a middle approach might help: not an outright ban, but a call to writers to work a little harder at finding alternatives.
Moore has expressed regret for writing that scene, has felt that comics in general are too grim and psychotic, has regretted contributing to that grimness. His remarks against DC are suspect (he's had a longstanding feud with the company) but otherwise he has a point--dark realism was a worthwhile goal back when comics were all wholesome and kid-friendly, but when everything nowadays is so darkly realistic to the point of stunting imagination then maybe it's time to go in another direction. Doesn't help that Batman is such an iconic figure--as Moore declares in his interview the character is too 'simplistic'--not I'm guessing in the sense that his history is simplistic (he's got at least fifty years' worth) as he's so well known with so many established details there's little one can do with the character that hasn't already been done, or has been considered objectionable.
To Moore's further credit he's since walked back his work's intensity with more youth-friendly if equally sophisticated fare (Tom Strong, Top 10)).
(Incidentally no one has commented on Moore's portrayal of carny folk--the way they seem to mindlessly obey The Joker, and are if anything given an even more active role here, even engaging The Batman in close combat. Are they active collaborators, mindless thugs, or misled victims? We never find out, and no one seems to want to find out).
Meantime we have this powerful if troubling text, accompanied--my biggest problem actually--by so-so animation. When Timm and co-producer Alan Burnett did the series in the early 90s they had hit upon an elegantly abstracted art deco design, with noirish animation and lighting suited to work in such a design (or rather they developed an abstracted design suited to the small budget and low frame rate of TV animation).
Artist Brian Bolland's work in The Killing Joke however is a whole different creature, is all about not abstraction but realism, with insanely precise lines indicating weather motion texture emotion. You miss that level of detail in this movie; more you miss the sense of a grimly realist world where grim realistic violence can exist (I'll admit to a disconnect when listening to Mark Hamill's voice quote Alan Moore's Joker dialogue in a Warner-animated face).
Some passages do work--the flashbacks to The Joker's past life (my favorite part in the comic as well), some of the match cuts, the final confrontation; some changes are actually improvements (Barbara speaking desperately while wearing a neck brace, The Joker in a bar, talking to police officers offstage). Kevin Conroy (as Batman) and Mark Hamill (as The Joker) go a long way to contributing; Sam Liu's hobbled direction does its best--is usually at its best when realizing these simple scenes with simply realized animation. Not a great work, not a particularly well-executed adaptation, but it has its moments.
First published in Businessworld 8.12.16