This just isn’t Batman’s year. After the nihilistic disaster that was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, 2016 will also see the release of the R-rated Batman: The Killing Joke from Warner Bros. Animation. Initially, we were psyched about the news. But, well, things don’t look pretty anymore.
The animated feature, directed by Sam Liu, is adapting Alan Moore’s groundbreaking 1988 graphic novel of the same name in which the Joker tries to push the unflappable Jim Gordon into insanity — to prove to his nemesis, Batman, that anyone can become just like him. The book has been lauded for its psychological tension, stunning illustrations from Brian Bolland, and its peak representation of Batman’s all-time greatest enemy. While Alan Moore himself isn’t much of a fan, it hasn’t stopped the rest of the world from gushing over the work.
So, you might imagine an animated adaptation would attract massive levels of hype. And you’d be right, since that hype turned feverish when the film snagged the characters’ best actors to lend their voices; Kevin Conroy as Batman, Star Wars star Mark Hamill as the Joker, and animation veteran Tara Strong as Batgirl, who undergoes the most during The Killing Joke.
But what is up with the animation? It’s blocky, choppy, and the figures look so out of place in their dark and dirty environments. Contemporary animation has become so gorgeous and so stimulating that DC not tapping into available talent feels like a huge oversight. The trailer is not just visually displeasing; It’s completely antithetical to everything that originally worked in The Killing Joke. Despite being “dark”, Bolland implemented nearly the whole color spectrum in his illustrations, which really popped against the Joker’s twisted and poetic monologues about madness. The Killing Joke comic was an nightmarish kaleidoscope, but this trailer looks slapped together in some kind of free animation software that comes with a Dell.
In a featurette released online, the filmmakers explained that Bolland’s art would be impossible to translate into animation. I haven’t taken a single day of animation school and even I know what they mean — just look at Bolland’s work. It’s stunning and outstanding and it ripples with frenetic, violent energy.
But is what they’ve made in the final product actually the best way to go? What they attempted was a combination of the smoother, anime-inspired animation from modern productions like Young Justice and it appears they’ve combined it with the more textured-looking toons of yesteryear. And I’m just not sure if it works.
DC and Warner Bros. tend to outshine the competition in their animated features, but The Killing Joke looks like a radical departure from DC’s generally smooth style. “Smooth” is the last word anyone should associate to an Alan Moore work, but the movie’s animation is making The Killing Joke look cheap for a story of its caliber.
As visual rhetoric theorist Scott McCloud explained in Understanding Comics, characters like The Joker should be depicted with as much textured detail as possible, in order to instruct a viewer’s subconscious to consider him a threat, or at the very least, “other”. The Joker, as he appeared in the original Killing Joke comic, had laugh lines and bloodshot eyes. This Joker, from the animated film, looks as simplistically drawn as the characters we’re supposed to identify with: Batman and Batgirl.
In fact, The Killing Joke almost resembles Princess, a 2006 Dutch animated film that was made on a super low-budget. Princess is pretty good — its rage is palpable but it’s too indulgent in violence and bit backwards on its depiction of human sexuality. But it is no doubt dark, and its themes about rage, loss of innocence, and abandoning faith benefitted from its “bad” animation. The Killing Joke is a dark story as well, but Moore and Bolland were playing an entirely different ballgame when making The Killing Joke.
This isn’t to denounce The Killing Joke prematurely. But it’s been a difficult year (it’s only April!) for the DC superheroes and fans, so any new Batman movie will come under unfair scrutiny. Coupled with the intimidating legacy of Moore’s novel and fans’ growing lack of confidence in how DC handles its adaptations, and The Killing Joke is facing a storm of hostile audience expectations. And that’s a bummer, because Sam Liu is a veteran DC director who knows these characters better than anyone.