Batman: The Killing Joke is typically regarded as one of the best comic book stories ever written. On the surface, it's a great Batman story that fans old and new can both enjoy equally, but when you really start to dig into it, The Killing Joke reveals itself as one of the most layered stories in the medium.
It's about Batman and the Joker, it's about doing what's right versus getting things done, it's about having one really bad day - basically, The Killing Joke is everything a Batman fan could possibly want from a comic book.
Speaking of comic books, The Killing Joke is intrinsically tied to its medium: this is a story that's designed to be read panel by panel, with a very specific format and flow. Alan Moore clearly wrote the story with the page itself in mind, and it's one of the reasons why the original book is still so effective today - but what happens when something that's so clearly designed for pen and paper suddenly jumps onto the screen?
On paper, DC's R-Rated adaptation of The Killing Joke sounded like a dream come true, especially with stars like Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy reprising their iconic roles - but a lot of what made the story so engaging nearly three decades ago has been lost in the transition between the page and the screen.
The animated version of The Killing Joke is essentially split into two parts: an opening act and the main attraction. Remember, the original story was only a few dozen pages long - there'd be no way for DC to fill up a 75-minute movie without a few additions.
Sadly, this new opening act feels almost entirely removed from the core story. It's easy to see what DC added in: Barbara Gordon was really just a victim in the original story, and the film's opening act fleshes her out as an actual character. At times, it can feel like DC is doing everything it can to avoid any further controversy, and there are a few questionable creative choices throughout - but, for the most part, the opening act almost feels like a long-lost episode of the '90s animated series (and that's a good thing).
The main problem with the first act is that, once the story begins in full, much of it is thrown out the window. Viewers learn about and grow to care about Barbara, only for the movie to ditch her halfway through - there's a lot of buildup with zero payoff. Not only that, but the original story focused largely on the relationship between Batman and the Joker: while the story between Bruce and Barbara isn't terrible, it ultimately distracts from what The Killing Joke is supposed to be about.
Things do improve once The Killing Joke begins in earnest, but it's far from flawless. Purists will be happy to know that the original script has been adapted nearly word for word: the attention to detail is almost absurd, and only a few select scenes were trimmed down for the film. As is to be expected, there is more action throughout the movie, though these additions are typically for the best.
What holds the story back more than anything is the pacing. The film's main story only lasts for about 45 minutes, and yet it somehow manages to gloss over major story beats and feel like it's dragging on at the same time.
For instance, in the comic, it's clear that Jim Gordon is being tortured for some amount of time. While it's never specified exactly how long the Joker has him for, the comic clearly shows that time is passing. The film, on the other hand, feels like it's trying to rush through Jim's suffering - it's a pivotal moment in the story, but it's never given enough time to really make an impact.
On the other hand, some moments are given too much time - the Joker's origins, while important to the story, are too slow and dialogue-heavy to work in the film. These scenes worked in the comic because readers could go through the story at their own pace, but by adapting the story almost verbatim, DC has significantly slowed the tempo of these scenes (and the overall story) to a crawl. In the end, The Killing Joke feels very uneven - some moments go by in the blink of an eye, while others are almost long enough to put viewers to sleep.
That's not to say that the movie doesn't work, it's just that watching The Killing Joke is a very different experience than reading it. Longtime fans will likely run out of steam by the time the credits roll, but those who are seeing the story for the first time will probably enjoy it. It's more slow-paced than some may expect, but it's far from the worst that DC's animation team has ever produced.
The film's presentation is more successful as a whole - though, like the rest of the film, it has its fair share of inconsistencies.
Right off the bat, it almost looks as if the two halves of the movie were handled by separate production teams. The opening act looks a lot like the '90s animated series: the bold lines and subdued colors look fantastic, even if there are a few distracting animation hiccups here and there. It's solid, if nothing special - like many of DC's other animated features, it looks better than a TV show and worse than a feature film.
The main portion of the story isn't nearly as successful. There are a few iconic shots that have been recreated with an almost obsessive attention to detail, and they look fantastic - but the rest of the film isn't nearly as strong. Brian Bolland's intensely detailed style just doesn't translate well to animation, and much of the movie comes off looking cheap. The Joker is a prominent weak spot, with janky animation and inconsistent proportions. Considering that he's one of the main characters, it's a serious recurring issue.
At the very least, Mark Hamill's performance does a lot to make up for the animation's shortcomings. In fact, save for a few specific lines, the voice cast is fantastic overall. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill have been voicing these characters for years, and it shines through on a regular basis. If anything, The Killing Joke is a showcase of just how talented these actors are, but to be perfectly honest, that's still not enough to save the film as a whole.
Is The Killing Joke a terrible movie? No ... but that doesn't mean it's a good one, either.
The additions to the story, specifically the first act, are likely to infuriate longtime fans - on the other hand, new viewers will find the disconnect between the two stories to be jarring and distracting. It's not that the film's opening moments are all that bad, but they don't fit in with the rest of the movie, either.
As for The Killing Joke itself, it's flawed, but it's also clear that the DC animation team tried. The performances are great, the animation can be fantastic and the script is almost a one-for-one recreation of the original, but the animation can look amateurish and the pacing flip-flops between rushed and sluggish. It's a noble effort, especially when compared to some of the studio's other adaptations, but it's far from the best DC animated movie available.
At the end of the day, The Killing Joke is a great example of why some stories shouldn't be adapted into other mediums. The original story was written and drawn with comic book pages and panels in mind, and it simply doesn't make the transition to animation well. There are some highlights, and curious fans should definitely take a look - but in all honesty, there's no way the animated version could ever live up to the original.