In Batman: The Killing Joke, the Abyss Gazes Back

CAUTION: This review contains major spoilers for Batman: The Killing Joke

The traditional superhero story is a simple one. The bad guy threatens to do some bit of evil; the good guy comes in to stop it, and the day is saved. Lather, rinse, repeat. The costumes change, and so do the capers, but for a while, that was the dependable, well-worn blueprint for the battles between capes and criminals.

And then, somewhere along the line, that started to change. Writers like Alan Moore began to deconstruct those old stories. They started to look at the ways that these battles might not be so weightless, how those heroes and villains might still leave their marks on one another. These artists examined how the good guys could not fight evil day after day, week after week, year after year, and yet come out of those battles unsullied, unblemished, and unscathed.

Batman, after all, fights monsters. How long can you run headlong into battle with monsters before you start to become more monstrous yourself? It’s not every comic book adaptation that drops references to Nietzsche, even when it’s one of his most famous quotes, but it’s appropriate for Batman: The Killing Joke, an animated film adaptation of the Alan Moore classic. Because more than The Joker, more than Batman, more than Jim or Barbara Gordon, it’s a story about what happens to those who fight monsters. It’s a story about the abyss.

“If you gaze long into the abyss,” Nietzsche cautions in Beyond Good and Evil, “the abyss gazes back into you.” In The Killing Joke, Joker is the personification of that idea. Separate and apart from the sinister trickster persona the character often assumes, the film and its source material tell the story of a regular man who gazed at that abyss, who suffered personal loss, who saw how the things a person cherishes most can be taken away from them, and was consumed by it.

In flashbacks, we meet a version of The Joker who seems to have little sinister about him.  He’s a failed stand-up comedian, a soon-to-be father struggling to support his family, and in sum, a plain, even meek individual. This young nothing is a man with a dream, one he is woefully inept at achieving, and in the shards of his failures, he suffers unfathomable misfortune, horrors that change him from the mild-mannered nebbish who trips over his own cape, into the clown prince of crime, a murderous psychopath driven mad by a universe that would allow this sort of thing to happen.

 

The story was originally conceived as a biography of Lyle Lovett, and they repurposed what they could.

 

It’s hard to call an individual who maims, kills, and tortures those in his crosshairs sympathetic, but The Killing Joke aims to make The Joker, at a minimum, more comprehensible. It posits that there is a type of evil, a path of no return, that exists beyond any one person who may fall headlong into it. It’s an evil which is infectious, and Batman, Batgirl, and Commissioner Gordon each have to struggle to avoid giving into its temptations so as not to become like the monsters they fight.

To that end, the starkest, and most controversial element of the adaptation is how it breaks away from the source material to make Barbara Gordon a subject, not merely an object, in that same fight and in the larger story the adaptation is telling. Whatever the original graphic novel’s virtues, it renders Batgirl mainly a prop, a tool used by The Joker to make his point and little more. In the animated adaptation, by contrast, Barbara has her own struggle, her own story, and her own glimpse of the abyss.

Written as something of a prologue, the opening portion of Batman: The Killing Joke tells the story of Batgirl encountering a young mob boss, Paris Franz, who develops a psychosexual fixation on her. Batman cautions her against trying to collar him, whether it be by playing his sadistic game or attempting to cut to the quick of it. When she challenges Batman on this, when she demands to know why she’s being excluded from this case after having proven herself several times over, Bruce name-checks the abyss. He talks about the idea of going past the point of no return, about losing hope, crossing a line, and not being able to come back that.

The ill-fated romantic elements between the two of them are familiar to anyone who’s seen the superb television show Batman Beyond. But the subtext to their conflict goes beyond a simple romance. That series, which features much of the same creative team behind Batman: The Killing Joke, is set in a future Gotham where Bruce Wayne has retired and Barbara Gordon has followed in her father’s footsteps to become police commissioner. In that future, there is a great deal of enmity between Bruce and Barbara.

 

"I don't know how you got this number, but I'm perfectly satisfied with my current long distance service."

 

Barbara holds a grudge against her former mentor and paramour, not because she was jilted, but rather because she was embraced. She resents Bruce for bringing so many people into that struggle, young men and women unprepared for what fighting monsters could do to them. She disdains Batman for the consequences of his recklessness, for not caring enough to consider what might happen to the people he took under his wing, that he brought close to him, the Jason Todds and Tim Drakes and yes, Barbara Gordons of the world, when they followed him into those battles.

The version of Batman we see in The Killing Joke is one trying to prevent that future from coming to pass. The optics of a burly man placing limitations on a young woman who cares for him are less than ideal, to say the least, but the concept at the core of these scenes, that Bruce sees a repugnant wretch like Franz as the kind of evil that brings someone to the edge of the abyss, that could change a person in ways that he himself has had to struggle with, is a worthy one. The opening part of the film is about Barbara confronting that possibility through Franz much the same way that Batman later confronts it through The Joker, and it gives her story a thematic tie to the broader ideas of The Killing Joke that have influenced comics for decades.

Bruce’s admonitions, naturally, do not dissuade Batgirl. When Batman tries to go it alone, he’s underprepared and injured in a surprise attack by Franz, and she must come to his rescue. When Barbara is face-to-face with her attacker, she begins beating him to a bloody pulp. Her fists rain down as the abhorrent words out of Franz’s mouth are reduced to gurgles and eventually silence.

For a moment, it looks as though Barbara will cross that line, that faced with such a worthless villain, a personification of the kind of evil that has no place in this world, she will violate the code against killing that Batman imposes upon himself to keep him from going too far into that grisly maw. Instead, she relents. She stops. And eventually, she retires, not for love, not for Bruce, but for herself. Because living that life means having to face that sort of evil until you risk becoming it.

 

Or at least spending way too much time practicing the many ways to kick someone in the face.

 

It’s then that Batman: The Killing Joke dives into the heart of its source material and tells the tale of a Joker hellbent on proving that very point. Mark Hamill, reprising a role he’s perfected, gives a virtuoso performance as the twisted harlequin. Hamill captures the subdued, ineffectual, and pitiable qualities of the down-on-his-luck stand-up comedian who would later become Batman’s greatest villain, but he also masters the resulting nihilistic madman who’s concocted a scheme so twisted and so theatrical, it could only come from The Joker.

Joker aims to show that the world is one step, one bad day from that abyss, and to that end, he engineers a demonstration. He shoots, paralyzes, and violates Barbara, an event made more tragic by the fact that she had given up the life in order to avoid having to confront this sort of evil. He kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and brings him to an abandoned amusement park that The Joker has turned into a frightening hellscape. And with these actions, Joker hopes to prove two hypotheses that he believes explain not only the world, but his own acknowledged insanity.

The first is that even a man like Commissioner Gordon, deemed by the deranged bozo to be both the ordinary man and a person supposedly brimming with moral principle, would become as unhinged as The Joker if he had been put through the same trials. The Clown Prince of Crime tortures his captive, putting him through a lurid phantasmagoria where has to witness photos of the person he loves most in the world having been harmed and violated in the most repulsive terms. The Joker encourages Jim Gordon to just let go, to give in to the response that he himself found so rewarding, so necessary, after the loss of his wife and unborn child — pure madness.

 

57 Channels and Nothin' on.

 

The second point The Joker hopes to prove is that he and Batman are not so different, that they are, to borrow from another of The Dark Knight’s rogues, two sides of the same coin. Joker correctly deduces that Batman too had “one bad day,” that Bruce’s psychosis manifested differently, but that he too had a personal trauma that led him to dress up in a garish costume and prowl the night. Their methods are different, but their first causes are very much the same.

The Joker aims to extract his pound of flesh from a world that took his reason away from him, to break the paragons of so-called virtue in it and bring them low as he is and was. He does all this as a means to cope with that original trauma. Batman never gave into pure madness, but he too tries to cope with his loss in an arguably unhealthy way. He takes in orphans and runaways and brings them into the fray with people like The Joker, whether that’s good or right, because he too remembers being made an orphan and wishing he could fight monsters. Their reactions were different, but The Joker wants to show that they are, at most, different shades of the same crazy.

But the maniacal jester fails on both counts. Jim Gordon, having been through the psychotic array of tortures Joker prepared for him, is shaken but unmoved by this ordeal. He, like his daughter, does not give into the desire to deliver retribution to someone who sorely deserves it. He tells Batman go after The Joker, but to do it by the book, because he needs to be shown that their way works, that there’s a line between people like him and people like them, and even these nightmares brought to life are not enough to make them violate their principles.

Batman, for his part, rejects the Joker’s nihilism as well. The Joker practically invites Batman to kill him, to become him, to let go of his principles and do the sort of thing that The Joker himself would have no compunction about doing. He tempts his rival, prodding him with what The Joker did to Jim, to Barbara, and asking why Batman still holds onto those ideals. When it can all be taken away from you, when finding meaning in this universe, when finding anything of value in this life, is a joke, why isn’t Batman laughing?

 

After all, he's known for being such a jocular guy!

 

And still, on the cusp of the abyss for which Joker has rolled out the red carpet, Batman forebears. Even after the horrors a monster like Joker has inflicted, after the fear, the seeming inevitability that this endless dance the two of them have been doing for so long will lend with one of them killing the other, the caped crusader offers his hand to his foe. He offers to help rehabilitate The Joker, telling him that Gordon withstood all this punishment but did not waver, and suggests that maybe, just maybe, The Joker himself could still find a way back out of the wilderness. The seeds of the man who would become this abomination were laced at the edges of that meek comedian. Maybe it’s not the world; maybe it’s just him, but maybe it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Even with the unmitigated horror of this night of torment, Batman still tries to love his enemy; Commissioner Gordon still believes in going by the book, and in the epilogue, Barbara still tries to help keep those monsters at bay as she becomes Oracle, having been emboldened, rather than broken, by these events. In the wake of so much pain offered and inflicted, The Joker loses. Franz loses. The abyss loses.

That loss is all The Joker can handle. He rejects Batman’s offer, and instead opts to tell him a joke. It’s a story about two men, equally crazy, who quibble with one another over the different degrees of their lunacy, over a rejected offer for help that comes in the midst of neither man realizing the depths of their shared insanity. And for once, Batman laughs. He laughs loud and he laughs hard. The Batman we’ve come to know keeps a disciplined divide between himself and the rogues gallery packed with funhouse mirror versions of the various shards of his psyche. He, like Commissioner Gordon and Barbara, chooses his better angels over his expertly-stoked worst impulses

But The Joker is right. The Batman we know comes from the same place he did, even if he took a different path. And even if Batman can avoid the abyss’s gaze while he walks along its edge, when he fights those monsters night after night, the insanity, the tragedy, the horror, and the absurdity of it all still begin to seep through. In the face of that, how can you do anything but laugh?

Odds and Ends

- You win some, you lose some. I don’t know that anyone really needed to see Barbara taking her shirt off, or that the camera needed to follow the male gaze when she was jogging. On the other hand, I did appreciate the discretion the film showed in the scenes where Joker shows the pictures he’s taken of Barbara to Commissioner Gordon. I was frankly expecting something much worse, but the film showed discretion and did well to amplify the horror through what was implied rather than shown.

- The screening I attended featured a mini-documentary about the film’s score and musical accompaniment, and each was worth spotlighting. The sparse, suspenseful string arrangements added a sense of foreboding and scope to the story that made the creeping horror of the tale more visceral and emotional.

- It was also preceded by another mini-documentary on Mark Hamill’s career and his history with and approach to The Joker. It was nice, if brief, and I’d recommend that anyone who enjoyed it listen to Kevin Smith’s interview with Hamill for a more fulsome and deeply interesting look at Hamill’s life and work.

- While Hamill gave an expectedly incredible performance in the Joker story he’d been angling to do for years, a great deal of credit goes to Tara Strong for adding layers to her performance as Barbara Gordon, which conveyed the complexity behind the character’s impulses and emotions.

- By contrast, Kevin Conroy is the Batman in my eyes, but he was a little more one-note than usual in his portrayal of The Dark Knight here. I would have liked to have seen(or rather, heard) a greater variety of notes to his performance.

- Similarly, Hamill is nigh-unimpeachable as The Joker, and he gives the performance of a lifetime here. Still, when proto-Joker hears the news of his wife’s death, his reaction is oddly muted, and it takes away from the heart of the story.

- The trailer for the film had me a bit worried about the animation and visual design of this film. But other than a bit of the herky-jerky anime-influenced movements here and there, the film did a nice job of blending the traditional DCAU style with Killing Joke illustrator Brian Bolland’s aesthetic. What’s more, it also matched the fluid animation of Bruce Timm’s prior Bat-related efforts with strikingly detailed settings like the Gotham cityscape or the fairgrounds, which captured both the grimy and garish perfectly and helped to establish the atmosphere of the film.

- For more on the themes explored in The Killing Joke film, I recommend Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker and lots of other great books at your local library!


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