Blu-ray Review: Batman: The Killing Joke

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Batman: The Killing Joke is the latest in the long-running DC Universe Animated Original Movies series, now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. The film, a highly-anticipated adaptation of the 1988 Joker-based graphic novel of the same name, arrived as a two-night-only cinematic release via Fathom Events. The film raked in $3.8 million, a record for Fathom and a demonstration of the public's inexhaustible thirst for Batman-related product.

A heavy dose of controversy has made The Killing Joke one of the most talked-about entries in the DCU series. In order to stretch the original graphic novel into a feature-length film, screenwriter Brian Azzarello cooked up a half-hour opening act focused on Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl (voiced by Tara Strong), and villain Paris Franz (Maury Sterling). Some of the choices made by Azzerello have enraged hardcore fans, but there's a lot to like about this R-rated animated adventure. 
Batman the Killing Joke joker gun (380x214).jpg Let's start with the good: once the film gets to the Joker (voiced by longtime fan favorite Mark Hamill), it's a compelling and faithful adaption of the Alan Moore/Brian Bolland-penned source material. This origin tale (of sorts) for the Joker has proven to be one of the most influential Batman stories of all time. The 45 minutes or so that deal with Joker's past as a failed comedian and his subsequent descent into homicidal madness is arguably as good as anything in a DCU film thus far. Hamill is truly fearsome in his return to the second-most-celebrated role of his career. Kevin Conroy delivers solid voice work once again as Batman (we don't see him as Bruce Wayne in this film).

The R-rating is probably one of the softest ever assigned (I was just saying the same thing about the "Ultimate Edition" extended cut of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which is worth checking out by the way—even if you weren't wild about the theatrical edition). That said, this is a suitably disturbing, no-punches-pulled depiction of Joker's evil, both in terms of Barbara Gordon's fate and the torture of a stripped-naked Commissioner Gordon (voiced by Ray Wise). The rating seems to be largely based on thematic elements. 

Batman The Killing Joke joker (380x197).jpg So what of the Batgirl storyline that opens the film? Spoiler alert: in brief, the crux of the controversy centers on the overtly sexualized relationship between Barbara and Batman. She's depicted as smitten with Batman, as if she's working with him solely for the chance to win his affection. In the original graphic novel, Batgirl isn't really part of the story other than to serve as one of Joker's victims. Azzerello and company have expanded her role by adding the romantic angle and her involvement in the Paris Franz tangent.

Personally, although the brief sex scene certainly raised an eyebrow, I don't see the romantic entanglement being all that detrimental in the context of this particular story. The actual negative point here is that the opening act feels more like a standalone episode that doesn't blend with the Joker story all that well. But other than an awkward transition between the two segments, I found Batman: The Killing Joke to be an engrossing entertainment. 
Batman The Killing Joke BD (297x380).jpg A strong 1080p transfer and lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix make Warner's Blu-ray a winner. In terms of special features, there are a bunch of promotional pieces typical of DCU animated titles (including a peek at the upcoming Justice League Dark). There's also a pair of episode from the DC Vault (Batman: The Animated Series "Christmas with the Joker" and The New Batman Adventures "Old Wounds"). Specific to The Killing Joke, we get the featurettes "The Many Sides of the Joker" (18 minutes) and "Madness Set to Music" (12 minutes detailing the Joker's song-and-dance number).

The Batman: The Killing Joke Blu-ray package also includes a standard DVD and Digital HD download.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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