“Smells like piss. Can’t tell if it’s human or rat, but it’s definitely piss.”
–The Joker, The Killing Joke
Batman: The Killing Joke is a masterpiece.
That’s the spoiler-free review anyway. If you have not seen the animated film yet, it is out today on iTunes and Blue Ray. I was fortunate to see it the night before with my good friend and resident Pokemon expert, Pixie Phoenix.
SPOILER ALERT!! I WILL TALK ABOUT THE ENDING!!
If you have not seen or read the comic, I highly suggest you do one or the other since those who find themselves better experts on the subject say that the film deviated very, very little from the actual comic plot, the half hour “preamble” about Barabara notwithstanding. This is going to be a long post, so TL;DR: I will address a key argument against The Killing Joke in this review. I’ll talk about my love of the Joker. I’ll talk about the parallels I’ve made between The Killing Joke and other aspects of the Batman lore that have drawn on that comic when it seemed bringing this comic to life was a dark nightmare that no one ever thought we’d get to see in motion (least of all Mark Hamill!). I’ll give a review of the film in general, and close.
I agree with Tor.com writer Emily Asher-Perrin when she says there was no way to make this film without offense. It was either derail the plot and risk upsetting the die-hards, or stick completely to the plot and risk upsetting the slew of critics just waiting to pounce on this work, and pounce they did–and with good, ample reason. I think I spent quite a bit of time enraptured in the snare writers and producers set for long-time fans: “give them what they want in almost the way they want it with the people they want most and we can cover up the shoddy characterization, misogyny, and bad transitions.” When I describe the film as a “masterpiece”, I am almost strictly talking about Hamill and Conroy’s acting, the music, and the dialogue. Most other aspects of the film don’t mesh, and they do not correct the graphic novel plot to be inclusive of Barbara without objectifying her. I focused on the Joker. A lot of people are focusing on Barbara. The line has been drawn, and apparently, I have chosen my side. I just want to be very clear that I do not condone or agree with Barbara’s treatment in either the film or the comic. That was something that the writers could have easily corrected with just a hint of female involvement in writing, production, or any aspect of the character. I’m not sure why Tara Strong went along with the character. I’m not sure why any of the explanations offered by the writers and producers are half-assed and shifty at best. I can only offer what I walked away with. I leave the scathing review of The Killing Joke that I wanted to include but couldn’t bring myself to write in the hands of people far more qualified to write it here.
Batman: The Animated Series And Why I Love The Joker
You would not know it by looking at me–and I mean this as sarcastically as humanly possible–but I have a thing for the Joker. Always have, always will. I suppose you might say *cue the montage* that it all started with my childhood…
Most afternoons we had to make choices about which cartoons we watched. I say “we” because I shared this afternoon burden with a twin sister. Batman: The Animated Series ran congruously with Superman: The Animated Series. If Superman came on, we watched something else. If Batman came on, we watched Batman. These were some of the most pleasant afternoons of my life. The Batman was my childhood companion rivaled only by Indiana Jones. Batman villains were my bread and butter. My friends up and down the block proclaimed profusely that I either A) could not love the Batman because I was a girl and therefore did not understand or B) did not love the Batman as much as they did because I didn’t have any action figures, and my parents would not buy them because I was a girl. That assumption was not true. My parents did not buy me Batman figures because we were flat broke and I had priorities. I never asked for Batman figures. I did not need Batman figures. I thought that if anyone understood the Batman, it was me, and I kept it to myself–and considering how much crap I got about being a girl and liking Batman, that’s not altogether surprising.
Second only to my love for the Batman was my love for the Joker, a love that was something childish and not childish (if you take my meaning). I knew from my earliest days that the Batman and the Joker were always going to oppose each other. I knew that like the Yin and Yang you could not have Batman without the Joker. Of course, as a child, I could not tell you why I loved the Joker. I just did. It made sense for that to be true, and I never questioned it.
As an adult, I can tell you now that the Joker represents the lawlessness I am looking for in a heavily-structured life. He is the chaos machine I want to be. He is the pain, the rage, the part of me that walked up the abyss and fell in. He is the part of me that was desperate to give into the madness and spiral out of control. He is the part of me that laughs at the enormous joke that is humanity. Like HPL, he knows–perhaps through better experience–that humanity’s role in the universe represents only a passing moment in time, and that everything we care about is meaningless, and our attempts to attach meaning to any one thing or person is laughable. The Joker makes the case for giving up and letting life and meaninglessness wash over you. The Batman is the example of why you should never allow that.
This is not Barbara’s Story
Feminist author and Twitter enthusiast, Cat Valente, is highly respected in literature, though she does have her detractors among the Sick Puppies and Gamergate movements. I myself hold her work in very high regard, and I consider her to be one of the foremost women writers of our time. However, Ms. Valente and I usually part ways at Batman. She shares many of her contemporaries’ opinion that Batman is a “militarized extension of the elite.” Whether or not this is true is not up for debate today. She and I got into it on Twitter about her views on The Killing Joke. Her primary argument to me (and it was not a conversation she relished) was that “[The Killing Joke] is everyone’s story but Barbara’s.”
I don’t disagree. At the end of the comic of The Killing Joke, Barbara’s story is unresolved. Her paralysis, rape, and degradation had no meaning outside of the Joker using it to try to break her father, Jim Gordon. Women of the Batman universe have little use except to move plot. Batman stays single. The Joker likes hookers and animatronics. Poison Ivy, Catwoman, and Harley Quinn are all sex symbols, and Harley’s treatment at the hands of Bob Kane’s successors was no more empowering and no less degrading than her original incarnations. Her Suicide Squad incarnation is downright infuriating. The Birds of Prey are little more than eye-candy. Batgirl (Barbara) was a bright, shining light in the sausage fest that is the Batman universe, and in The Killing Joke, Alan Moore snuffed her light out. I do not like her treatment. I think the story of Batman, in general, could benefit from strong female characters. That’s why I like Oracle.
Fans of the comics, televisions shows, film spin-offs, and the games will remember that Barbara rekindled her work with the Batman as Oracle, the wheel-chair bound computer wiz using the cameras her father placed around Gotham to give the Batman a bird’s eye view of the city. This was how she was portrayed in the film. She transcended what was done to her in The Killing Joke, but the comic did not seem to portray this. The film made only a passing attempt to resolve her story. Still, even with the transcendence, Oracle was a compromise. Yes, they had a strong female character, yes they degraded her, but, “Hey look at that! She rose above the pain and horror! She’s strong!”
That might have made sense if she had been a strong character to begin with. In the film, The Killing Joke, Barbara is a plaything for the sociopathic, often-indulged third nephew of a mob boss, Paris Francesco. Despite warnings from the Batman, Barbara walks into the sociopath’s trap. She could not resist the flattery he offered her–something she was not getting from her partner. The relationship she had with Batman was meaningless, and she was willing to let it be meaningless if it meant she could stay by his side. She lacked everything that made the Batman strong, and he was only too quick to point that out to her. In the end, she gave it up, settling for a normal life as a college student, the daughter of Commissioner Gordon, and nothing more. People say Barbara was the catalyst for the plot of The Killing Joke, but even that is giving her too much. The Joker’s breaking point was the catalyst of The Killing Joke, not Barbara’s. The Batman left her to languish in a hospital bed while he sought the enemy, but not for her vengeance. In the end, that did not matter. What mattered was the Batman needed to reconcile with the Joker, to help him, to know him, so that they would not have to kill each other. He was as interested in helping Barbara as he was in being with her. Even Jim’s unwillingness to break, paralleled with his daughter’s and Batman’s, does little to soften the downright unkind manner with which this character is treated.
No, this is not Barabara’s story. You have to realize that. If it makes the film unenjoyable, then so be it. It is something that I have to reconcile myself to. I have to deal with that cognitive dissonance on my own, as each of us must. The important thing to take away from The Killing Joke is that while it may not be Barbara’s story, we now have the ability to recognize this and say, “this is not fair; this is wrong,” where before we just accepted it. The fact that The Killing Joke is not Barbara’s story is not something we have to languish over. The fact that Harley Quinn is now a sexual, as well as emotional and physical, punching bag for the Joker is nothing new and we do not have to languish over it. If we are smart, we’ll look at these two examples of what’s wrong with Batman and try, again and again, to make sure we stop making those mistakes. Know it, recognize it, remember it, and when we move on, correct it, then I’ll be happy.
Borrowing from The Killing Joke
The Killing Joke always seemed so unattainable. Its grit and brutality meant it might never hold a place in the film franchises making up the Batman lore. Only recently have we come to see true grit, mindless rampage, and brutal terrorism on a numbing scale in the last three Batman films, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises. The Dark Knight is the film that borrows most heavily from The Killing Joke.
Up until The Killing Joke, the origin of the Joker is fuzzy at best. There are several origin points that are all possible, but The Killing Joke is the first attempt to nail down the Joker’s past. The Joker told the Batman in The Killing Joke, “I remember it differently every time…if I’m going to have a test, then I prefer it to be multiple choice.”
I took this to mean that the Joker’s memories of his past are purely based on a subjective reasoning. Each time he remembers what drove him past the breaking point, he remembers it differently. To illustrate the fact that his world–however it happened–was turned upside down, he recreates the kitchen he shared with his wife in the carnival, only all of the fixtures and furniture hang upside down from the ceiling. It represents the jumble of memories, and the fact that no matter how he looks at it, the outcome was the same. It did not matter how it happened or whose fault it was. None of it mattered in the end, a testament to his outlook on life and sanity.
This scene made me think immediately about The Dark Knight. In several places–as you die-hards will know–the Joker asks his victims, “Do you want to know how I got these scars?” It’s one of my favorite aspects of the franchise because it always hit on the fact that there are so many different origin stories of the Joker, and that any or all of them might be true.
However, looking back on the Joker’s statement, Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker with many stories is a throw back to The Killing Joke instead of the other origins. Some die-hards may already have drawn this conclusion. Heath Ledger’s Joker tells every story of his breaking point differently, doing the same thing to his victims that he does to himself. He recreates himself every time he crafts his origins, and he does it specifically for each victim, to impress upon them the gravity of their situation, to humanize himself, to say “I was just like you once, but then I broke, and so will you.”
Other aspects of The Killing Joke in The Dark Knight is the Joker’s treatment of Harvey Dent. Instead of raping and paralyzing Rachel, the Joker breaks Dent by killing Rachel. The physical disfigurement was icing on the cake, but the objective is the same: life is meaningless, justice is meaningless; the Joker did everything he did, “to prove a point,” that “the only way to live is without rules.” Though the method was different, the motivation between the two films was the same. The ending, in which Batman points out to the Joker, “You are alone,” is a stark contrast to the end of The Killing Joke‘s “You don’t have to be alone.” I love both, but I think I love The Killing Joke‘s ending more.
Mask of the Phantasm touches a bit of The Killing Joke‘s darkness, though here we have a much different origin for the Joker, one of many. The Joker must protect himself from the daughter of an enemy from his past. Though it is still very much set in the style and character of The Animated Series, there is a low-lying brutality to the Joker’s character.
Up until that point, I had never seen the Joker actually physically assault someone, or express sexual interest in anyone–not even Harley Quinn–on television or in the movies. The other aspect that borrows from The Killing Joke is the World of Tomorrow, the amusement park in which the Joker sets up his shop in Mask of the Phantasm. In The Killing Joke, the Joker sets up in an amusement park or carnival, where he intends to drive Gordon mad. In many ways, Mask of the Phantasm may have been considered a compromise between lovers of The Animated Series and The Killing Joke.
The Killing Joke is a masterpiece.
I keep trying to explain that The Killing Joke was my childhood and yet not. The story is nowhere near what I would have been exposed to as a child. The “dark Joker” that the Internet is raving about was not the same Joker. Mark Hamill highlighted the many ways in which the Joker changed for him in a short interview before the film began. He mentioned that his role as the Joker progressed into something different with each franchise.
The Joker in the Animated Series was not the same Joker as The Mask of the Phantasm even though it was the same universe. I’ll never forget the Joker smacking Adrien Beaumont, masked as the Phantasm, with a giant salami–perhaps the best phallic symbol of all time–and pinching the ass of an animatronic wife in the House of Tomorrow. That Joker was not the same as the abusive, vitriolic, sick Joker of the Arkham games. The one that had only ever threatened Harley Quinn died under the brutality of this Joker, wasted and even more unpredictable in ways we had only ever imagined. The Joker of the Arkham games was only a taste of the darkness the Joker became in The Killing Joke.
All the same voice, always the same actor, always the same character throughout, yet somehow different every time. Mark Hamill’s voice as the Joker defined what an entire generation believes the Joker to sound like. Many believe Jack Nicholson to be the penultimate Joker. For myself, and many of my age group, if Mark Hamill was the best Joker, then Heath Ledger was the last Joker. There is an entire market devoted to The Suicide Squad, but Jared Leto is not my Joker. The Suicide Squad is not my Batman. Unlike Batman vs. Superman, where at least the introduction to the Justice League saves the film, The Suicide Squad has no place in my lore.
Mark Hamill will always and forever be my first, my best Joker. It was not the PR nightmare Mark Hamill envisioned, “Luke Skywalker cannot be the Joker!” It was the next step. Mark Hamill will always be known as the man who gave us all some of the best parts of our culture. Kevin Conroy was amazing, as always, and in my mind, he was and always will be the Batman. His character changed with the Arkham games too, but Batman is always fundamentally the same. His principles never change, even if his voice does, and that is what I have always loved about Batman.
It was very important to me when I heard that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill would reprise their roles in the Arkham games. As a longtime fan of the show, and a connoisseur of all things that spun off of it (The Mask of the Phantasm) the games were part of the Batman lore cycle that I accepted (and still accept) and were, therefore, necessary to my existence. They reunited my childhood hero and villain duo in an adult object that I could enjoy and no adult males masquerading as social justice warriors could ruin for me. It was equally important for me, and pivotal to my interest in seeing it, that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill take their places once again in front of the microphone to give voice to the Batman and the Joker, alongside character voices of Ray Wise as Commissioner Jim Gordon and Tara Strong as Barbara Gordon. Wise and Strong have long histories in animation voice acting in the DC universe.
The music was key to this film. Soundtrack adds to tension and creates atmosphere. There was a beautiful documentary on the music of The Killing Joke at the end of the theater showing I saw. I loved to hear how much thought was put into the musical number the Joker performs in the fun house while he parades Jim Gordon up and down pictures of his daughter naked and laying in a pool of blood, her legs laying in directions they shouldn’t be, degraded and defiled, Gordon screaming the whole way through. Mister J sings and dances a Broadway show tune, upbeat tempo and major notes like something out of Cole Porter with lyrics about going bat-shit crazy to escape reality. The composers, animators, and actors wanted to show that the Joker perverts everything. He takes a fun filled place like an old carnival and turns it into a house of horrors.
He takes a show tune and twists it around to make something lively and animated into something slovenly and brutal. He uses a haunted house to haunt a naked and shaking father and lawman. Everything that is joy in life he turns into hate. Everything that’s beautiful, he defiles. The music in the haunted house is key to the character, and gives life to the musical number in the comic that was not there before. According to composers, they used some aspects of the episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold, “The Music Meister” as a reference, drawing on more lore to supplement their repertoire.
The Killing Joke was an exploration of the depravity of human nature. The Killing Joke was the illustration of how “one bad day” can make or break a person, and it is up to that person to decide if we will be broken or remain whole. In trying to break Barbara, the Joker made Oracle. In trying to break Gordon, the Joker only reminded Gordon of why he does everything “by the book”. Gordon wanted to show the Joker “that our way works” even after what the Joker did to his daughter; in trying to show Batman the error of his ways, to teach him to join the Joker in his madness, the Joker proved that he only saw in Batman everything that he was not. It took the Joker to show Batman that he did not have to hate the Joker, that he could stand by his rules and never bring the Joker to his death; it took the Batman to show the Joker that there had always been another way, if only he had been strong enough to see it. He saw it then, staring at the Batman’s outstretched hand, the hand of friendship in spite of everything the Joker had ever done to him. He saw it too late, but in that moment the Joker was finally strong enough to see it. In that strength, he admitted his weakness, and then embraced that weakness. The Joker and the Batman stand as equals in the rain, sharing a laugh at a Joke. The Batman laughs with his enemy, reminding us all that the Batman and the Joker are two sides of the same coin. The man who laughs last is perhaps more revealing than the man who laughs first.
Though lacking in strong female characters, The Killing Joke is a cultural milestone, a reminder that we are not always ready for the art that has been created for us. Though Alan Moore and Brian Bolland gave us The Killing Joke in 1988, it took 28 years to get it to the screen. It needed time to ripen, time to fester and brood, and it need an audience mature enough to accept it and read all of Moore’s and Bolland’s genius into it. Everything is well-planned, down to the pile of baby heads upon which the Joker’s throne sits, perhaps representing the baby that died with his wife, all the babies he would never have, and all the babies no one would ever have if he had his way. The Joker is everything about human nature that we hate, and yet there he is, lurking deep down inside each one of us. Each of us must eventually step up to the edge of that abyss, and not all of us can bring ourselves to fall in; not all of us will go down and rise like the Batman did. I have a sign up over my desk at home that says, “Always be yourself, unless you can be Batman, then you should always be Batman.” I try to take that to heart because when I walk up to the abyss and look down, I remember that a weak man once did the same thing, and he drowned in it. I try to be Batman. I try to be strong. I try to forgive. That is the beauty of The Killing Joke. It is a story of brutal hatred, self-hatred, and forgiveness, even if the one that needed to forgive himself the most can no longer do it.
Download or buy The Killing Joke. In terms of true art and genius, you will not be disappointed. Those looking for some sort of Barbara reclamation are going to be sad. Know it, recognize it, remember it, and when we move on, correct it. That is all we can do.