Was the Killing Joke That Bad?
May 23, 2017
NC: Hello, I'm the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don't have to. A while ago, I did an editorial on the death of the Joker, in which I referenced the comic book classic...
(Cut to a poster for said comic book classic...)
NC (vo): ..."The Killing Joke". This, not surprisingly, got people talking about...
(Cut to footage of the cartoon version of the story)
NC (vo): ...the animated adaptation released on DVD and even on the big screen for one night. There was a lot of hype around this. People have wanted to see this for years; Mark Hamill said he wouldn't play the Joker again unless it was in The Killing Joke, which naturally lead to his return; it looked like the comic; it had an R rating; all the pieces seemed to fit into place.
(Cut to a shot of the io9 website, featuring an article about how bad The Killing Joke is)
NC (vo): But then, following a disastrous preview, people suddenly turned.
(A clip of Batman and Batgirl making out with each other, with Batgirl undressing herself)
NC (vo): A scene of Batman and Batgirl doing each other started circulating...
(Cut to a shot of the Rotten Tomatoes site, where it is shown that only 47% of people liked it)
NC (vo): ...reviews were turning out very rotten...
(More footage is shown)
NC (vo): ...and what was originally the most anticipated animated DC release ever became the most dreaded.
NC: Thus, when it was released, almost inevitably, people hated it.
NC (vo): What happened? Who thought these were good choices? Where's the cinematic portrayal of the timeless classic we all know and love?
NC: While I, too, was pretty surprised at how bad some of the choices were, as the smoke clears, I do have to ask... Is it as bad as everybody says it is?
NC (vo): Now, some of you might be wondering, how the hell can I even ask that? Well, let me start off by saying, like many of you, I hated the first third. A pointless story involving Batgirl was thrown in that literally didn't connect to any of the rest of The Killing Joke, outside of the fact that Batman and Batgirl were in it. And I mean, "in it". The reasoning for this was not only did the film need to be longer for a theatrical release...adapting the original comic would probably run about 46 minutes...but Batgirl in The Killing Joke comic gained controversy from leaning too much on the "woman in the fridge" trope, where a female character is killed or maimed just as a plot device.
NC: I guess that was done a lot at the time, but... I don't know, I think a lot of...
(Bruce Wayne from Batman Begins is shown kneeling over Thomas and Martha Wayne's bodies, Uncle Ben is shown dying from the Sam Raimi Spider-Man film, and Matt Murdock is shown holding his dead father on a comic book cover)
NC (vo): ...comic book characters would be grateful to have that treatment nowadays. Hell, even a few Robins I bet wish for that outcome. I can see where people are coming from, though, and the idea of giving Batgirl more to do didn't seem like a bad one. Especially seeing how she did little in the original and making her role bigger would make her fall all the more tragic.
NC: Ironically, though, in trying to make her stronger, they actually made her weaker.
NC (vo): By Bat-bonking in what many consider an uncle-niece relationship, obsessing over that bonk by talking to her gay best friend...yeah, we're doing that thing...and, like I mentioned, having no connection to The Killing Joke whatsoever. Even the dialogue seems jarringly different when the word-for-word text begins in the Killing Joke portion. Just compare them.
Batman: (in the Killing Joke part, thinking) I need to know that I've made a genuine attempt to talk things over, to try and avert the inevitable.
Batgirl: (in the prologue, to her phone) It was just sex, for God's sake. It doesn't have to mean anything. It's not like we have to care. I don't care.
Joker: (in the Killing Joke part, to Gordon) Somewhere dark and cold, filled with the damp, ambiguous shapes of things you'd rather forget.
Paris Franz: (in the prologue, to Batgirl) Must be that time of the month.
Batman: (in the Killing Joke part, to the Joker) I don't know what it was that bent your life out of shape, but maybe, I've been there, too.
Reese: (in the prologue) And they say the gay scene is complicated. (scoffs) Whaaaat?
NC: What, two different people wrote these parts?! They blend so seamlessly together!
NC (vo): To its credit, the first third is animated well, paced well, and acted well, but for many people, there was no overcoming this distracting mess that left a bad taste in everyone's mouth through the rest of the actual Killing Joke portion.
NC: That's a shame, because when it actually gets to the Killing Joke part, it isn't that bad. It's actually...incredibly faithful.
(The comic books panels are compared to scenes from the animated movie)
NC (vo): It's crazy how much they tried to get down the exact look and feel of the comic. It's about as close an adaptation you can get to a panel-by-panel interpretation.
NC: In an online world that hates variations from the original source material, The Killing Joke, when it gets started, actually strays very little.
NC (vo): Like the first third, the acting, animation, and pacing all seem on track. Except this time, it actually has good writing to back it up. It's incredible to hear Mark Hamill do his Joker voice to this unbelievable dialogue. It's so cool to see Kevin Conroy's Batman talk about what could be the beginning of the end.
NC: I can't help but wonder, if the first third of this movie never happened, would it have gotten all the hate that it got?
NC (vo): After all, people still like Return of the Jedi despite the Ewoks and a lot of repeats. People still went nuts for The Avengers despite the first third being pretty slow. And with Batgirl's story having nothing to do with the Killing Joke portion, it's really not that hard to block it from your mind. Again, even the dialogue shows there's pretty much no connection in this world.
NC: I did an editorial about...
NC (vo): ...whether or not the ending can ruin an otherwise good film, and, like many things, it depends on the eye of the beholder. And for many people, the sins of the first third are so bad they can't be removed from the final product. Whenever they think of the animated Killing Joke, they'll always connect this first part.
NC: But let's just try it. Let's pretend the first third of this movie never happened, and The Killing Joke started when the Killing Joke starts, and it's only 45 minutes. How would it rate?
NC (vo): Would it be seen as the masterpiece we were all hoping it to be? Well, if we want to be honest, there would still be a few problems.
NC: Ironically, its biggest strength, portraying the comic line by line, is also kind of its biggest weakness.
NC (vo): Everything from the angles to the dialogue seemed copied from the original perfectly.
NC: But there is one problem with that sentence: the word "copied".
NC (vo): If you read the comic, there's almost no point in seeing The Killing Joke. It adds very little in terms of a new layout or designs.
(The comparison between the Sin City graphic novel and the Sin City film is shown)
NC (vo): At least with something like Sin City, which was also faithful almost panel to panel, they had a third dimension, which meant some things had to be different no matter what, and we could see the live-action interpretation, which seems to create a different realm of reality.
(The comparison between The Killing Joke comic and The Killing Joke film is followed)
NC (vo): But because both of these are drawn, and, to be fair, isn't a ton of movement because they want to replicate the original panels, there seems to be a touch less life in the animated movie than in the comic. Strangely enough, because comics are still pictures, you fill in the blanks about what kind of movement is taking place. It's similar to how your mind fills in what a character looks like in a book just through the descriptions.
(The iconic image of the Joker going insane is shown)
NC (vo): In the comic, this image leaps off the page because it's indicating the movement through the insanity of the lettering, the layout of the pose, and the crispness of the still image. Your imagination fills in the rest of the motion.
(The animated version of that same panel is then shown)
NC (vo): In the movie, It's taken a little too literally. So, rather than seeing an incredible moment leap off the screen, we're seeing an image from a comic book moved around a little bit. It looks just like it, but nothing much is really being added to it. The amount of detail you can do in a still image but not in animation should have been reversed with the amount of detail you can do in animation and not in a still image. And funny enough, if the same amount of attention went in to applying the movement of the first third into the story of The Killing Joke, this could have been amazing! Imagine the movement of the truck scene done with this (The image of Joker going insane is shown again) reveal of the Joker.
NC: There's other missing details, too, that would have helped make this more of a spectacle.
NC (vo): Joker sees an image of a fat lady at a carnival and thinks back to his pregnant wife. In the comic, it just cuts to a flashback, but in a movie, you can maybe show the picture transforming into his wife, or maybe the picture even comes to life starting the flashback, blending realities for him. The Joker says he remembers his past differently every time, almost like it's multiple choice, so why not have him hold his drink up and through the reflection we see his old self at a bar talking to the gangsters? That wasn't in the comic, but it would have helped give the film more of its own identity rather than just using the comic as storyboards.
NC: It's kind of like when Mel Brooks did the Broadway version of The Producers and the Broadway version of Young Frankenstein.
(The poster to the movie The Producers is shown, before showing a picture from the Young Frankenstein Broadway play)
NC (vo): The Producers was based on the original story, but there were enough changes made to it, making it enough of its own thing. Young Frankenstein was all the same, just with songs put in, thus, it didn't do as well. Being your own interpretation, even if it's already based on something else, is very important.
NC: But there are one or two more differences, though.
NC (vo): Like, there's a song sequence when the Joker is torturing Commissioner Gordon. Now, that's not in the original, but, let's be honest: if the Joker could put one in, he would. It's really not a bad idea, especially, again, in giving the film a little bit more of a unique energy.
NC: But it seems a little toned down.
NC (vo): If the Joker's gonna do a song and dance number, it's gonna be an amazing song and dance number! Joker: The Musical, think about that! It would be mind-blowingly insane! But this is just him and his carnies walking back and forth, and not much else.
NC: Again, if more time went into developing this, instead of....
Reese: And they say the gay scene is complicated. (scoffs) Whaaaat?
NC: ...that... this could have really stood out!
NC (vo): In fact, the pacing could have been amazing, too. Even though it's totally decent and passable, imagine if even more time was given to the Joker realizing his family was gone. Imagine if, instead of a few seconds, a few minutes were dedicated to him going nuts and realizing what he's become. If several minutes were added to each scene, either in dialogue or visual storytelling, this could have been phenomenal. With a comic you have to keep things short and tight because you only have so many pages you can print and so many word bubbles you can fill. And truth be told, Killing Joke was probably pushing both of those already.
NC: But in a film that's already short on time, fill it up!
NC (vo): Maybe Batgirl could have been helping Batman find the Joker before she gets shot. Maybe the Joker could return to his empty home after he's transformed. Maybe he can tear it apart, or set it on fire, or laugh, I don't know.
NC: Maybe everybody could visually take in what's being lost as opposed to just talking about it.
(The final panel of the comic is shown)
NC (vo): Even the final scene, which people in the comic are still up in the air about whether or not Batman is placing his hands on the Joker's chest laughing or strangling him to death.
NC: Granted, it'd be very tough to keep that open to interpretation in a movie, but it could be done.
(The animated movie version of the last panel is followed)
NC (vo): Have the Joker's laugh spring louder when Batman puts his arms on him, and have the Joker sway (A brief transition to the comic panel) back and forth in a motion where it can either be him laughing or being strangled. It's tricky, but it could work. So much of this could have been downright brilliant.
NC: But for all the talk of me saying how much better it could be, here's the thing. The Killing Joke did technically give us exactly what it promised.
NC (vo): It gave us the Killing Joke. Even the first third is described as a prologue. A separate story to get you ready for when The Killing Joke actually starts.
NC: It just sucked at it.
NC (vo): However, when The Killing Joke started, it did everything in its power to give us the Killing Joke. This worked both for and against it. It does look like the comic, it does follow it as closely as possible, and it does try to add one or two new elements. Like I said, audiences can get very fickle when anything is changed from the original source material.
NC: And while the critiques I gave earlier definitely bother me, can we really be that angry at The Killing Joke for giving us the Killing Joke?
(A screenshot of Harry Potter and Ron Weasley in their first year in Hogwarts is shown)
NC (vo): It's like if before Harry Potter, there was a prologue on Ron Weasley's backstory that was written horribly. Yeah, that would be weird and suck, but...
(A poster of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is shown)
NC (vo): ...Harry Potter fans would still get an obsessively fateful version of Harry Potter. Would that prologue be enough to throw the whole thing off, or would they still be satisfied?
NC: Personally, I think when the Killing Joke part starts, it's...okay.
NC (vo): It definitely raises the question of what adaptations should leave in, take out, or add. But you can't argue that the film isn't giving exactly what it advertised: the Killing Joke with an extra prologue attached. I know a lot of hard work goes into making any of these movies, and even though the mistakes of the prologue are pretty painful, it doesn't necessarily mean it should erase what many would consider on its own an adequate representation.
NC: Amazing? No, but not awful, either.
NC (vo): Had the prologue not been there, the reaction most likely would have ranged from good to okay, and not gotten nearly the backlash that it got. But many can't separate the prologue, and I guess that's kind of understandable, too. It is part of The Killing Joke. They could have cut it out, but they left it in. You can't help what you like or dislike. It just leaves whatever impression it leaves on you. But for fans that wanted to see The Killing Joke on the big screen, maybe, like the comic, it's an interpretation you possibly may want to think about one more time.
NC: I'm the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don't have to.
(He gets up and leaves. The credits roll)