It’s been a funny old year for DC Studios. But then in a sense, it was always going to be. The studio was finally going head to head with their arch-rivals over at Marvel after years of mapping out their answer to the MCU, and having repeatedly avoided any direct summer-blockbuster confrontation.
The selection of ‘Suicide Squad’ as a follow-up to ‘BvS’ raised some eyebrows, and then the critical reaction to Zack Snyder’s creative vision of the DCCU itself caused a whole shitstorm of controversy. Love it, or loathe it, there’s no denying that BvS has proven one of the most controversial releases of the year (A Batman that kills?), and it was hard to envisage anything else coming along that could prove so divisive. And then ‘The Killing Joke’ made landfall.
The reason for the ill-feeling around the movie can be traced back to the source material. The original novel was attacked as being misogynistic, and sitting uncomfortably within the overall Batman canon. It was always going to be a risk trying to update it and bring it in line with a modern way of presenting it, and then the revelation that there would be a new Batgirl prologue sent observers into a frenzy of outrage and anger. In many corners of the media, the movie was going to be DOA whatever it contained. So what did we think of it?
Well, it’s all over the place, unfortunately. There are some real moments of brilliance and some truly emotional heft, but these are counterbalanced by real creative missteps. Firstly, it’s a joy to see Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reunited to play the two title characters. Yes, the recently revised DC animated canon is still far superior to anything Marvel have to offer, but I defy you not to watch this movie and find yourself harking back to the iconic brilliance of ‘Batman: The Animated Series’.
In truth, this is movie is very much the Mark Hamill show, as he gets a chance to finally ramp his career portrayal of The Joker up to ‘batshit crazy’. He delivers a series of blistering monologues and one-liners (just how many jokes about librarians can you cram into one scene?), and this is the film that the Batman’s arch nemesis finally deserves after decades of fanboy love for his opponent. The storyline covers in depth the accepted origin tale of The Joker, answering a lot of the questions that previous visits to Gotham had deliberately left unanswered. There’s no endgame here. No big heist or grand revenge scheme. The Joker truly is a mad as a shithouse rat, and in one of his most famous quotes is only ‘one bad day away’ from where everybody else is standing and watching.
The film can effectively be divided into three parts, starting with the newly conceived Batgirl prologue. This is the third that has received the most public criticism and hate, but that’s fairly unjustified. Yes, shock horror. The Batman has sex. This is nothing new, is it, really? The difference is that this time round we see it from the other person’s point of view. And guess what? The Batman’s kind of a dick to have a relationship with. All moody silences and condemning stares. The rest of this action plays out like any other DC adventure, and things are comfortably squared off on the half hour mark.
That sequence may as well have been a standalone movie, because it then segues rather uncomfortably into the original material, as Batman discovers that The Joker has escaped from Arkham for the umpteenth time. There’s then a big buildup to THAT famous scene, which is played out in all its gory and gruesome detail. Yes, you can argue it’s objectifying hatred against women, but it’s also an act that utterly defines both Batgirl and The Joker, and the film does it spine-shattering justice.
It’s the final third where the creaky overall framework of the project finally gives way. The Joker’s madcap scheme is predictably scuppered by the Dark Detective, leading to a dramatic showdown. The problem is, the film’s been a bit ‘Batman-Lite’ up until this point, and as the two leads finally go up against each other, the dialogue doesn’t quite seem to relate to the seismic events that are occurring onscreen. And it’s the uncomfortable fit of all three of these differing sequences forced together that makes the ending of the movie such a crushing disappointment. I won’t ruin it for you, but the closing scene will leave you stunned, angry, and scratching your head in utter bewilderment.
Overall, does it deserve the hate its receiving? Much like BvS, I’d urge you to clear your mind, take the effort to seek it out and make your own decisions. There will be things in there you like, as great pains have been taken to capture the magic of the original comics and animated episodes. But there are also aspects of it that will make you wish that maybe a slightly more conventional approach to the conversion from page to screen had been taken.