Whether or not Alan Moore’s `88 graphic novel is good or not has been hotly debated between Bat-philes for decades. What everyone does agree on is how iconic this particular story has become and it’s effect on DC’s canon. When Warner Brothers announced that both Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill were returning to their iconic characters fans rejoiced. This dynamic duo defined the Batman and Joker for more than one generation starting with Bruce Timm’s animated series in the 90s. With this archetypal cast and one of the best selling graphic novels of all time as source material, this should be a slam dunk, right?
The comic opens with a conversation between Batman and the Joker. Batman has a guilty premonition weighing on his mind, knowing that one day, the escalating battle between himself and Mr. J. will end with the death of one of them. In an effort to ease his own conscience, Batman visits Arkham Asylum in an attempt to talk it out first. Like all of their interactions, this meeting does not go as planned, and soon the Joker is executing one of his most sadistic plans to date. There are a number of fascinating concepts discussed in this story line. We see a possible version of the Joker’s orign and the one bad day that drove him to insanity. He’s hung on to this thought and schemes to inflict the same fate on another. This story features some of the clown prince’s darkest moments including the sexual assault of a woman with the explicit purpose of driving her father mad. Saturday morning cartoons, this is not.
Beyond the adult subject matter, one of the problems with adapting this graphic novel to a feature length film is just that, length. At a brisk 50 pages, a direct adaptation could only break an hour at best. To address this, Bruce Timm and company delighted fans by promising a prologue to the main story that would flesh out more of Barbara Gordon’s(Tara Strong) back story. Some may already be familiar with the now infamous SDCC panel that followed the film’s debut. A number of fans were appalled at how this additional backstory portrayed Batgirl, in effect minimalizing a strong female character into an obsessed bat-stalker. The good news is this new material isn’t as bad as the sensationalists would have you believe. The bad news is it does nothing but weaken the character, reducing her motivations for donning the cape to that of a simple school girl crush. It also redefines Batman’s role as a father figure into more of a selfish misogynist. (Not enough love from his mother, perhaps?)
When the film finally kicks into the main story, it hits the same lows and highs as the graphic novel. Segments of dialogue and the apparently ambiguous ending are brilliant, while others parts feel just a bit…off. Joker’s fixation on making someone snap as he did is fascinating. But using half-naked, angry, midgets as part of his plan to do so? That’s just crazy.
Much has also been made of the animated feature’s R-Rating. Which, as many predicted, is more of a marketing stunt than anything else. Yes, it is very adult material, and certainly not for young viewers. But R-rated? Besides a few animated head-shots, and a smattering of random blood, not much seems to crack the PG-13 barrier. The film also oddly censors itself, containing less nudity than the book itself. Making this particular story more palatable for general audiences is certainly understandable, but then why brag about the R-Rating?
If there is one shining star of this film, it’s Mark Hamill’s performance. Hamill has always been one of the best Jokers, but his return to this character, and delivery of the more sadistic lines, is enthralling. (Yes, he nails the Broadway musical number as well!) This sentiment is not lost on Warner Brothers. During the theatrical screening, there were not one, but two puff pieces regarding Hamill’s performance. The first, a short subject preceding the film is entirely fascinating. He discusses how he first became attached to the role and the anxiety that set in once he began voicing the notorious jester. A second short, following the animated feature claims it is focused on the film’s soundtrack, but instead quickly evolves into glorifying Hamill’s singing ability. This kind of misdirection would be annoying in most bonus features, but here it is welcomed. In fact, watching Hamill in the recording booth and his humanizing anxiety of taking on yet another major pop-cultural character is almost more entertaining than the feature itself.