A couple weeks ago DC and Warner Brothers announced the latest in a long line of fairly good animated film projects would be an adaptation of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. Since then actor Mark Hamill has voiced a lot of interest in the part of the Joker. Hamill played the Joker in the insanely popular Batman animated series from the ‘90s as well as its subsequent Justice League, Batman Beyond, and Mask of the Phantasm follow-ups. He was also the voice of the character for the monster hit video game series Batman Arkham, which enjoyed a very successful 4th installment earlier this summer with Arkham Knight. Now DC/WB have officially cast Hamill in the part, most likely in direct response to the net fan response Hamill’s comments garnered over coupled with how similar his work in Arkham Knight is to a lot of aspects of The Killing Joke. The thing is a lot of people don’t see this as a positive, coming down hard on the decision though their issue seems more to be with the very fact that DC is making a Killing Joke movie at all.
For the most part I get why people are upset over DC making a Killing Joke film from a strictly cursory level. DC has had a spectacular run of bad media production in the last 4 years between stuff like Green Lantern, Man of Steel, Injustice, that failed Wonder Woman pilot, the first season and a half of Arrow, Arkham Origins, and even Dark Knight Rises was far bellow their previous standards. The thing is none of that has really impacted their ability to do solid animated work aside from maybe Beware the Batman. We’ve seen amazing gems like Batman Brave and the Bold, the CGI Green Lantern show, Young Justice, Teen Titans Go, and the amazing collection of DC Nation shorts in the last few years. On the features side their stuff hasn’t been as mind blowingly good as the Bruce Timm era but it’s been solid and enjoyable. Speaking of the Brucce Timm run of DC animation, that era already shows how well DC animation can adapt the work of Alan Moore as some of the best Justice League episodes of that era (Twilight of the Gods and For the Man Who Has Everything) came from Moore’s work. So there’s a really solid precedent for DC animation turning in an amazing adaptation of Killing Joke especially with the talented Mark Hamill on the handle for the Joker. I think what people object to when they hear The Killing Joke adaptation is what The Killing Joke has come to stand for.
When The Killing Joke came out it was rightfully hailed as a bold and innovative new direction for the medium. The dark nature of the storytelling at hand was coupled with interesting depth and real quality to say nothing of a fair degree of tact in handling some of the story’s more controversial aspects. Since then however the geek landscape has thoroughly shifted, especially in regards to the Joker. Over the past couple years the Joker has slowly morphed into a character more defined by abject human ugliness than pretty much anything else. This tract kind of started with Heath Ledger’s Joker but really it was in the cards for the character well before that. Since then however we’ve had things like Brian Azzarello’s Joker graphic novel, the faceless Joker from Death of the Family, and now the Jared Leto version of the character who seems to draw central character definition from being a child murderer. This even slipped into the earlier days of Grant Morrison’s Batman run during the ‘Clown at Midnight’ special and Batman: RIP. It seems wherever you turn now a days the Joker is defined as the most hideous human imaginable. So the question becomes, does that invalidate the artistic value of The Killing Joke?
This question has actually been on my mind for a while now, as a similar issue looms large over a lot of other classic Joker stories. Great installments like Mad Love, Death in the Family, and Return of the Joker all bring with them a niggling specter of uncomfortableness. Elements like the Joker’s final moments in Return of the Joker or the death of Jason Todd in Death in the Family suddenly loose their immediate impact as shocking acts of violence; they’re still off-putting only now it’s because of what they represent. I’m left wondering if these scenes were ever truly affective and I just missed their emptiness before or if they remain powerful scenes that have become tainted by everything done in the name of emulating them without the same level of meaning. The worst of these instances however, is The Killing Joke as it’s probably the most grossly and disturbingly violent and unnerving.
What’s more Killing Joke is just a very different kind of comic than these contemporaries. Death in the Family for all its uniqueness and violence is also full of late ‘70s weirdness like Lady Shiva popping up or Joker becoming Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations. The story deflates its own violence in a way that neatly sidesteps any kind of fetishism or fixation. Mad Love is more of a Harley Quinn story but it also keeps itself thoroughly grounded in unambiguous tragedy about the Joker’s relationship to this character. There, the awfulness of his actions is more about their extreme damage on just one person’s life and identity. Return of the Joker is actually a very cogent indictment of the more ultra-violent and sadistic iteration of the Joker. The climax of the film perfectly highlights the Joker’s character as a tasteless and unfunny hack while the textual progression of the film has the Joker die as a result of his more extreme actions. That point right there is what leads me back to The Killing Joke and how its ambiguity has left it in something of a twilight zone artistically now.
What The Killing Joke falls on, in the end, is that its ultimate defense against tastelessness, its meaning and subtext, fall flat. What The Killing Joke is about on a deeper level has always been the clash of ideals between Batman and the Joker, that’s why the Joker’s “origin” in The Killing Joke is framed as a sort of inverse of Batman. They’re both men whose lives collapsed under the weight of a horrible experience, Batman representing the ability to turn tragedy into passion and motivation while the Joker is the flipside, turning tragedy into an excuse to inflict pain upon others. Ultimately the comic frames Batman as the victor of this conflict, he and his viewpoint rise above the Joker’s claim by the end of the story. However, there’s also a secondary meaning to the story that’s woven more into the visuals of the plot and the continuity importance of The Killing Joke.
The major contribution The Killing Joke made to Batman canon was that Barbara Gordon became paralyzed from the waist down. The comic forms a sharp, dividing line between the Batman mythos that was and what it will be going forward. This is visualized perfectly in the comic’s best single page, with the perfect symbolism of Batman throwing down the Joker card in front of a picture of his previous, silver age Bat-family. The secondary meaning of The Killing Joke is about how the Joker changes Batman’s universe or, more specifically, how he brings it down to his level. That’s why the ending to The Killing Joke is so ambiguous despite Batman’s seeming ideological victory, because even though the Joker didn’t break him or Commissioner Gordon he still won, he still brought them down to his level of violence and mayhem. The Killing Joke is the ultimate statement of the Joker ending any lingering aspects of Batman’s less horrific past and ends up, whether intentionally or not, framing violence, abuse, and pain as a form of “adulthood” for the characters and their universe.
That’s why The Killing Joke feels so off-putting as a thing to be excited about or praise after the very dark turns Batman’s taken in modern media. Even despite the tact that goes into so much of the story’s violence or the more commendable meaning about clashing ideology we can’t get around the more detrimental and implicit themes of the story about meaningless, abusive violence as a path to adulthood. That niggling feeling of discomfort in praising The Killing Joke is there because we know, deep down, that praising the comic, saying its story should be emulated and is groundbreaking and innovative; that’s us saying the Joker was right, and I don’t think we like how that feels.