Batman: The Killing Joke is an incredibly renowned comic, yet DC’s 2016 film adaptation is widely hated. Here’s why we think it fails the source material.
Should every story be adapted into a film? At first glance, it’s an interesting question. There seems to be this sense of elitism that general audiences have developed when it comes to any other medium like they need to become a feature-length film for them to actually be worth anything. Look at video games, for example, an entire industry that can’t seem to shake the desire to just become interactive films, holding on to the hope that they can one day be adapted into the “better artform”.
Throughout the 21st century, we’ve seen DC adapt almost every notable comic they can get their hands on, turning any storyline that has even the slightest bit of street cred into a feature-length, animated film that typically goes straight to VOD. It makes sense then that they would eventually get around to Batman: The Killing Joke, one of the most famous comics out there, but the question I want to answer today is, well, should they have?
SOME CONTEXT ON BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE
Written by Alan Moore, one of the most renowned comic book writers, Batman: The Killing Joke is one of the most influential stories in the Dark Knight’s repertoire. Originally released in 1988, it tells the story of how the Joker came to be, framing his origin as a twisted parallel to Batman’s own. Almost everything about this comic thematically is based around a single phrase – “one bad day”. That’s all it takes for a man to go insane, Joker frequently argues throughout the story. It was just one bad day that caused the clown prince of crime to go from a failing comedian to a maniacal mastermind, and that’s also all it took for the titular caped crusader to go from a loved, innocent young boy to a costumed vigilante in desperate need of some therapy sessions.
It’s a hypothesis that the Joker tries desperately to prove correct, kidnapping the perfectly sane Commissioner Gordon and putting him through the wringer, tormenting and torturing him, trying to force that “one bad day”. Perhaps he’s trying to prove that anyone can be the Joker and that it’s the world that created this twisted persona, or perhaps he just wants to let out his anger towards himself, towards that one day, in the most sadistic way he can imagine – by forcing someone to live through it. But, at the end of it all, Gordon walks out perfectly fine, his mind still in one piece, his sanity still intact. Why? Is it because the Joker didn’t try hard enough? Was the day not bad enough? Or, if you look at what Alan Moore said after the comic’s release, perhaps it’s because Batman and the Joker are “not like any human beings that have ever lived”. Maybe that’s why their relationship is so special.
WHAT THE BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE FILM ADAPTATION DOES WRONG
If we just take a quick glance back at the two previous paragraphs I wrote, what names do you see? Sure, there’s a brief mention of Commissioner Gordon, but for the most part, the characters that The Killing Joke revolves around are Batman and the Joker. So, if the creators of the 2016 film adaptation could be so kind, I would love them to explain to me why exactly it takes over 30 minutes for the Joker to make any kind of appearance in a film based on a comic dedicated to him. You simply cannot explore the themes of the story in any kind of meaningful way without having the Joker involved, so it’s obviously a ridiculous idea to just not include him at all for the film’s entire first act.
Instead, they decide to dedicate the first act to Barbara Gordon, otherwise known as Batgirl. Now, if there’s one aspect of The Killing Joke that often receives criticism, it’s the handling of Barbara, who serves as nothing more than a prop for the Joker to play with in his attempt to craft Gordon’s worst possible day. So it’s definitely a noble idea to try and give Barbara more to do in this story, but the way they go about it is just so misguided. Rather than actually having it feed into the Joker-Batman relationship that is the main subject of the film, or even use it to show how much she means to her father, they instead tell an almost entirely standalone story about her retirement from the role of Batgirl.
Again, it’s not the idea that stinks, but rather it’s the execution. Batgirl spends the entire 30-minute prologue being objectified, being told she’s being objectified, and then, in the film’s most infamous scene, making love with her boss. It’s a frankly incredibly uncomfortable scene that does nothing to develop either Barbara or Batman’s characters, and of course, adds nothing to the overall story. Perhaps you could make the argument that it’s a reflection on how Batman’s one bad day has influenced his mind and thus led to him making these questionable decisions, but then you’re faced with the same problem of Barbara being used as nothing more than a prop, in this case in an even worse sense, as she’s being used as nothing more than a sexual object for the story’s male stars.
COULD THE BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE FILM HAVE WORKED?
So, I think it’s fair for us to say that the Batgirl-centric prologue just doesn’t work in this adaptation of the classic story. Why did they include it, then? Why alter a story so well-renowned and so iconic to that extent? Well, that brings us back to the central point of this article, that perhaps The Killing Joke never should have graced the medium of film. At the end of the day, this isn’t some massive, multi-issue story arc or even a limited series, this is just a single, one-shot graphic novel; my physical copy of it covers only a mere 46 pages. How exactly, then, do you expect this story to work as a feature-length film? Even with an original, 30-minute prologue slapped onto it, the 2016 adaptation only manages to reach a runtime of 76 minutes, and even that winds up feeling like a meandering, sluggish version of one of the leanest, tightest stories out there.
Perhaps the answer is actually quite simple, and as a society, we should just realise that maybe not every story needs to be turned into a feature film. I remember feeling similarly earlier this year about The Boogeyman (2023), an adaptation of a Stephen King short story that struggled to fill its runtime because, obviously, a 12-page narrative might not give you too much in terms of ideas for a feature-length film. Maybe The Killing Joke could work as an episode of a larger television show, or as a standalone short film, but the 2016 beast that shares its name should serve as a warning to studio executives everywhere that maybe some rocks should be left unturned, and maybe not every comic desperately needs to be turned into a film.
Batman: The Killing Joke is now available to watch on digital and on demand.