Batman: The Killing Joke is an animated adaptation of the famous Alan Moore graphic novel of the same name, which Lee has never read. Yes, he knows where this movie is and is not based on the comics; it doesn’t really bear mentioning in the review proper is all.
The trick to using a split narrative is to, on some level, be it through juxtaposition, comparison, metaphor, motifs, symbolism, theming or even through the sheer absence of all of the above, have each narrative inform or enrich each other narrative in some way. Batman: The Killing Joke presents us with two narratives, both generally inviting stories if taken separately but each hoping to apply the aforementioned principals to enrich the other, and if taken as a whole, The Killing Joke not only fails to enrich its own narratives with this storytelling device, but actively damages our interpretation of each half by the other’s inclusion.
The first story gives us an insight to Batgirl and Batman’s working relationship, and how a series of poor choices on both characters’ parts leads to Batgirl getting out of the vigilante business. The intention here seems to be an expansion on Batgirl’s role in the latter story, in which she barely features but has a pivotal part as a plot device with which to spur the drama between Batman and long-time arch-nemesis, Joker.
This exploration, at best, seems to only further explore Batman’s stake in the latter story’s action, and only further cement Batgirl’s role as a plot device, used to heighten the motivations of all the other players; a pretty harrowing and uncomfortable idea to parallel with a narrative in which a crime boss continually objectifies Batgirl and even Batman attempts to ‘protect’ her by patronising every move and decision she makes.
At worst, if we look at Batgirl’s arc, it can be inferred that the narrative intends to make a point out of Batgirl’s headstrong nature (or a counterpoint over her fragile emotionality, which is worse), as it turns out Batman was right to lecture her about the dangers of her profession, given the acts of the second story. Even if this wasn’t the intended message (we have to hope, right?), it only takes a few connected dots to read Batgirl as a lecture on women of action, and it’s pretty gruesome, socially-speaking. Add to that some sex-shaming and some flighty ‘does he love me, does he not’ decision making and we have some hardcore character assassination way before the Joker even shows up.
Besides the Batgirl angle, what else does this first story grant us as insight? Well, we get a little blatant foreshadowing of Batman’s actions in the second story, a little colouring on the state of Gotham and some fun crimefighting, but nothing that really adds anything in the way of story or narrative enrichment.
In our second story, the Joker escapes from Arkham Asylum and reigns havoc on Gotham and Batman, as per the usual. It’s pretty good stuff, with more meat and narrative twists, and plays for an interesting resolve of the Batman/Joker dynamic, as well as an interesting and surprisingly even-handed look at “madness”, that cartoonish warping of mental illness we know and love. It’s good drama, though one that relies heavily on your investment in characters already established and explained in previous material, never making any space or time for newcomers.
This segment has its own split story that informs its own narrative; a surprisingly dull look at the Joker’s supposed origins. It takes up quite a bit of time and never gives us any real insight on its own merits, but there is a payoff that does help enrich the statement of the piece as well as cement Joker as the wonderful experiment he is.
As for enriching the first segment, it doesn’t hold up well for Batman, whose arc reads something like an abusive husband working up enough bravado to go ape shit at the guy who looks at his wife funny. We are never given a reason to believe this guy is a good guy before questioning “is this guy a good guy?” And when Joker’s raison d’être is his juxtaposition to the moral high ground of Batman, and all we see of Batman before he’s even pushed is this guy who will overstep his bounds before asked, the whole point just kind of falls apart.
There are glimmers of greatness in here, certainly. The voicing is excellent, the animation serviceable, the latter story intriguing if a little ‘who cares?’ and if you have any interest in Batman it’s sure to be a little thrilling. The terrible execution, damaging first segment and borderline poisonous contempt for its own characters really makes this a hard sell for even well-informed fans, and an impossible sell for those not already on board.