‘Batman: The Killing Joke’ on Netflix

While Warner Bros. builds it superhero universe on the big screen by reinventing the classic heroes, it’s also creating a parallel universe of animated movies that are, for the most part, faithful adaptations of some of the great storylines and graphic novels of the comic book line. Produced for home video, they’re low budget by theatrical standards, more like TV shows created for Cartoon Network than big screen movies, but they have developed a following among the fans.

Batman: The Killing Joke (2016) is based on the 1988 graphic novel written by comic book legend Alan Moore. The original became a legendary chapter in the “Batman” comic book storyline for its exploration of the complicated relationship between Batman and The Joker, for adding a human element to the origin story of the iconic supervillain, and for the extremes of the sadistic plot to break the spirit and the moral character of Commissioner Gordon, which involves the brutal abuse of his daughter Barbara (formerly Batgirl).

The story, and the imagery created by artist Brian Bolland, is faithfully brought to the screen in this animated original feature, and it features the voices of Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as The Joker, the actors who portrayed the characters in the famous 1990s animated TV series and are still considered the definitive performers of the animated incarnation of the characters. It is also the first R-rated feature in the DCU animated series.

The original graphic novel is a relatively short work with only minimal appearance by Barbara Gordon, so scriptwriter Brian Azzarello (a respected comic book artist in his own right) wrote a half-hour prologue that explored Batgirl’s retirement from crime fighting. Give the production high marks to the adaptation proper but the addition is problematic at best and misguided at best. While it helps reframe Barbara from a mere victim and plot device to a full-fledged character, it adds a sexual affair with Batman that has no corollary in the comic books and it diminishes her agency.

The rest of it, however, is likely the most faithful screen adaptation of the graphic novel you’ll ever see. It doesn’t have the glorious detail Bolland’s meticulous style but it offers a different kind of darkness to the legend of the Dark Knight and Conroy and Hamill embrace this dangerous twist on their animated legacy.

Needless to say, this one is not for kids.

DCU Animated Feature veteran Sam Liu directs, Tara Strong voices Barbara Gordon and Batgirl, and Ray Wise is the voice of Commissioner Gordon.

Rated R

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Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Fandango, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Batman: The Killing Joke [Blu-ray]
Batman: The Killing Joke (Deluxe Edition) [Blu-ray+DVD]
Batman: The Killing Joke [4K UHD+Blu-ray]
Batman: The Killing Joke [DVD]

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The Blu-ray features supplements not available on DVD: the featurettes “Many Shades of Joker: The Tale of The Killing Joke” and “Batman: The Killing Joke – Madness Set to Music” and one episode apiece of Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures featuring The Joker, a sneak preview of the next DCU original movie, plus bonus DVD and Ultraviolet Digital copies of the film.

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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