Batman: The Killing Joke is now on Netflix. The 2016 animated feature adapts Alan Moore's famous and influential comic, and its arrival on the streaming service has sparked a great deal of new discussion about its infamously ambiguous ending. In the process, Batman fans may have solved one of the Dark Knight's biggest mysteries of all time.
Spoilers ahead for Batman: The Killing Joke.
Batman: The Killing Joke is one of the darkest Batman stories ever told, delving into the relationship between the Joker and the Dark Knight. The comic begins with a pre-accident Joker — a regular engineer who quits his job to become a comedian, only to wind up in the chemical waste that transforms him into the Joker.
In the present day, Joker terrorizes Barbara Gordon and Commissioner Gordon in a bid to prove that anyone in a bad enough situation can be driven to madness. The animated film follows this premise, with a couple of notable changes that include Batman convincing Barbara to retire as Batgirl and the pair having sex (which was heavily criticized following the film's release).
Ultimately, Batman refuses to believe he's anything like his nemesis, but the story ends with the Joker telling Batman a joke about two asylum inmates attempting to escape. When Joker reveals the punchline, the Dark Knight chuckles before he grabs the villain in a fit of laughter.
Here's the joke, which can be read as a metaphor for the relationship between Batman and Joker:
"See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum... and one night, one night they decide they don't like living in an asylum any more. They decide they're going to escape! So, like, they get up onto the roof and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moonlight... stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend daren't make the leap. Y'see... y'see, he's afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea... He says 'Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I'll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!' B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says... he says 'What do you think I am? Crazy? You'd turn it off when I was half way across!'"
In the end, the animated film sticks to the source material, with the final shot being just as ambiguous as in the comics. Did Batman kill the Joker? Thanks to Netflix, fans have returned to analyzing that final shot, and Reddit user uhhmisterdavis suggests The Killing Joke’s title is a direct reference to the story's conclusion. Earlier in the story, the Joker tells a joke to someone else, causing them to die of uncontrollable laughter — perhaps the same can be said of the ending.
So did Batman die of laughter? Did he kill the Joker after being driven to madness?
The ending marks the first time throughout the film (and the comic) that Batman actually shows any emotion. This theory also notes that The Killing Joke is narrated by Barbara Gordon instead of Batman or the Joker, which lends some credence to the possibility that Batman isn't around to narrate his own story because he's either dead or in jail.
It’s possible that the Joker pushed the Dark Knight past the point of no return and his reaction to the joke indicates that he’s finally cracked under all the stress and pressure. After all, the Joker spends most of the comic trying to convince Batman that they are one and the same. If the Crown Prince of Crime can become a mass murderer despite his previously normal life, then it stands to reason that the vigilante can also be pushed to kill.
This theory has long been debated by creators as well as fans. Comic book legend Grant Morrison believes that Batman did kill the Joker, while Richard Starkings, who lettered The Killing Joke, is under the impression that Batman was simply leaning on the Joker in the comic's final panel.
To be honest, the comic really makes it look like Batman is choking the Joker while laughing maniacally. The movie is a bit more ambiguous, but as the camera pans away and credits roll we do hear a quiet snap that could be the Joker's neck shattering between Bruce Wayne's hands. We may never know the answer (Alan Moore has gone so far as to disavow the comic entirely), but thanks to Netflix and Reddit, fans maybe a little closer to getting closure on this classic Batman mystery that not even the world's greatest detective could solve.
Batman: The Killing Joke is currently streaming on Netflix.