By Jeremy Konrad from San Diego Comic-Con/
SPOILERS ABOUND. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Friday night saw the big premiere of the latest DC Animated feature based on the classic Batman story by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, The Killing Joke. Already earlier in the day, it was revealed that there was a pretty big (and controversial) change to the story, with Bruce and Barbara seemingly in some type of romantic relationship. Going in with an open mind with that knowledge, I was hoping that this would be a faithful, well done adaptation.
Well, I got my wish. Sort of. Because really this is a tale of two films. There is the well done, great attention to detail, well acted adaptation of The Killing Joke. But there is also a "prequel" of sorts that focuses on Batgirl that just feels out of place and wrong on so many levels that its inclusion is a huge detriment to the production.
Killing Joke first. I really enjoyed what they did here. Shot after shot is lifted right off the page, and seeing it come to life is a great joy. This is not an easy story to bring to the screen, and the existing material is treated with great respect. I wasn't sure going in what would be kept in and what would be removed, and I am happy to say it is minuscule at best. The added bits are not distracting at all, and work pretty well in the story. I particularly enjoyed how they handled the flashback scenes with the Joker and especially the ending, which is the part that worried me the most. It is so open to interpretation, and one of my personal favorite comic book endings of all-time, but it was spot on. Bruce Timm and Brian Azzarello nailed it, and I couldn't have asked for that scene to be any more perfect.
No, all of my issues are with the "prequel" to the film. It feels weird to say that, but that is quite literally what it is. It is a short story starring Barbara Gordon as she is newly Batgirl and learning from Bruce as they work together to take down the mob. Oh, did I say they work together? Because they really don't. Bruce just kinda yells at her a lot and Barbara loses control of her emotions and acts irrationally. The way she is presented here is not very good. When we are introduced to her at the beginning, things are ok. She and Batman are taking down some bad guys, and she makes a mistake and Bruce plays the grumpy Batman teacher role. Standard stuff. But Barbara spends the better part of the short whining at Bruce for taking her off the case for becoming too emotional and close to the problem, after mobster Paris France (yes that's his name) becomes infatuated with her. Women in this short are not given very fleshed out stories here; they are either hookers or Batgirl. They even give Babs a token gay friend to chat with at her job in the library. Why this character is there besides to give someone Babs can complain to we don't know, but it makes one squirm in their chair a bit.
Speaking of squirming: Barbara Gordon has sex with Bruce Wayne. On a rooftop. As they are fighting, she pins him to the ground and has a moment of shock spread across her face before kissing Bruce and straddling him, removing her cowl and top. Now, I knew about this scene going in, as it leaked earlier in the day, but presented the way they do, it is a complete failure. I guess, it is meant to be seen as a moment of weakness between two characters that have some latent sexual chemistry? But comes off so icky and unnecessary, especially in the following scenes, where Barbara is ignored by Bruce, or throws an overbearing man into a bush for yelling at his girlfriend, or pining for him while at the same time desperate to continue being Batgirl like he would have a real say in that decision. Way to take one of the most empowering females in comics and reduce her to nothing more than a jilted lover. The biggest reactions at the screening were during two scenes: one where Barbara calls Bruce and they get into a fight and he hangs up on her, and the other is at the end where she is finally saving Bruce and France says "It must be that time of the month". People were not cheering Babs finally getting the bad guy, they were cheering the man for sticking to that woman.
In the end, she quits being Batgirl, not because she is strong enough to walk away from the situation, but because it furthers Bruce's story, not hers.
It is a complete mess, and real disappointment that they choose to do this in this way. It made The Killing Joke part after just a little bit less sweet to experience. Luckily, that was enjoyable.
Let's talk about the voice acting, because as one would expect with this voice cast, it was outstanding. At this point, there is not much left to say about the way Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy embody the characters of Joker and Batman. At least for me, they are the definitive versions of these two immensely popular icons, and it would not feel right to have this movie without them there. Tara Strong is great as Babs. Even during the opening short, she provides her usual stellar work, so that when that fateful door is opened you feel truly terrible for her. Not to mention her father, voiced by a great Ray Wise, performing Gordon for the first time. You really do go on a journey into madness with him, and at the end where he is telling Bruce to bring him in "by the book", he brings the right amount of strength to the moment. Great, great stuff from everyone.
Animation wise, I know some people were worried about the look when the stills and trailer came out, but I am happy to report that aside from a couple car shots, the movie looks quite impressive. This story demands rough animation, it can't look too over-polished and it doesn't at all. It really works for the material.
Overall, it was a night filled with emotion. One of the greatest Batman, really comics in general, is now an animated film. And they at least got that part correct. Just fast forward through that opening bit.