Category: Animation

Batman: The Killing Joke

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“It doesn’t have to be good to be a classic.”

The Joker says this partway through the new animated adaptation of The Killing Joke. Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, which took the comic world by storm in 1988, has long been controversial for some of its more extreme character decisions. Not everyone agrees that the choices Moore made were wrong and, one way or another, pivotal moments have stuck in the canon almost thirty years later.

Regardless of your stance on The Killing Joke ’88, The Killing Joke 2016 makes it look like a masterpiece. From its insipid original material inserted to pad the running time and provide characterisation that does more harm than help, to its actual adaptation of the source material quite late in the piece, there is very little about The Killing Joke that works.

The first half of The Killing Joke deals with Batgirl chasing down Paris Franz, the presumptive heir to a prestigious Gotham crime family. Paris is a notorious womaniser (read: sexual harasser), and Batman doesn’t approve of Batgirl working the case. This is of course an excuse for Batgirl to work up a head of sexual frustration with Batman and to force her to have talk it through as Barbara Gordon with her gay librarian sidekick – which is approximately as good as it sounds.

The back end is the actual adaptation of The Killing Joke comic, with the Joker having escaped Arkham and buying an old amusement park for nefarious purposes involving Commissioner Gordon and, of course, Batman himself. Interspersed with the Joker’s plot are unreliable flashbacks to a failed comedian’s sepia toned life …

The Killing Joke ’88 was a 47 page comic, much more about shock than substance – some good lines thrown between Batman and Joker, and some great art, but a weak scheme from the laughing man and a fateful decision that DC has been dealing with the fallout from ever since. The efforts to make the animation longer – still short at 74 minutes – were wasted, as all of the new material is less than optimal.

Barbara Gordon is a pivotal part of The Killing Joke‘s story, but Barbara was never really a character in the original instance. Her utility as a plot device (and how she is used) is one of the biggest sticking points about the property, but Moore’s reliance on the audience’s in-built recognition of Barbara’s place in the Batman universe works better than what we get in the new and “improved” version.

What you’ve got to understand is that Barbara Gordon gets her own story in The Killing Joke 2016, and it’s one about how hung up she is on Batman, not even Bruce Wayne, because Bruce Wayne only gets a single scene in either version of The Killing Joke. Her duality equates to nights as Batgirl wanting to jump on Batman, and days in the library, complaining to her coworker about her complicated feelings for her “yoga instructor” (“and they say the gay scene is complicated”).

Batman is deliberately paternalistic towards Barbara, and if the script had stayed that way, if she had some sort of Electra complex going on that was being gruffly shot down, it might have flown. Instead, we’re supposed to read this as sexual tension. It is understandable that the Bat life might predispose you towards a more unconventional relationship than, say, your camp library aide, but later in the script – the parts drawn from the comic – Barbara mentions having been a child the first time Batman and the Joker clashed. It’s not creepy, but it rings alarm bells.

FullSizeRender-6The Batman of The Killing Joke is an emotionally frozen version of the character, and that is fine, but it also means that he should not take the direction that he does here. It’s one thing that Barbara is not solely to blame for the actions that she takes, but it’s quite another for her to have this reaction to them. To reduce what is supposed to be a complex and headstrong character – personality traits that are by design absent from The Killing Joke ’88 – to a woman who cares less about the crime she fights and more about her semi-requited feelings for a man who dresses up as a bat, is to do her a disservice greater than any perceived or real misdeed perpetrated by Moore in the first place.

What are we to take from Batgirl removing her costume while Batman stays fully clothed as we pan up to a gargoyle leering down at them? What can reasonably be made of a shot of Barbara jogging, close up on her butt and breasts – her legs and head carefully cropped from the frame so as to be unreadable? Fan service has been around for years, but in some properties it is far more obvious and obnoxious than others. You can’t invite us to be horrified by one form of Barbara’s exploitation while promoting your own unseen camera’s version of the same. It especially doesn’t work in the same title in which Batman gives a lecture about the evils of objectification. The Killing Joke 2016‘s two halves already have no cohesion, but to make each half internally inconsistent is several more layers too far. You can’t strengthen a character by weakening them, and you can’t show one thing and tell another unless you’re a comic book villain yourself. More than before, Barbara Gordon’s role in The Killing Joke 2016 is a tragic misfire.

Where the first and second parts of The Killing Joke clash in particular is the use of technology in the Paris storyline; Batgirl tracks Paris across the city through a series of obnoxious smartphone prompts, which is not in itself a problem, but it becomes one when it grinds against the completely un-updated adaptation of the comic. How can The Killing Joke be set in a modern day Gotham if the pseudo-recollections of the proto-Joker are still situated in a fifties-era tenement apartment and dive bar? Even if you reject the flashbacks out of hand as a concocted sob story that the Joker tells himself – and you probably should, as the whole point of him is that he’s a force of nature rather than a figure to be pinned down and analysed by way of an origin story, plus it’s near certifiable to think that the Joker came about specifically in that way  – their incongruously dated nature lend them no credibility whatsoever. To have director Sam Liu take that decision away from the audience is not just insulting, it’s counterproductive.

There is a lot wrong here, and much of it comes down to the use of the Joker. You can’t have a Joker story where the man himself shows up only halfway. Certainly you can get away with that if he’s a spectre looming over the story, or if there’s a build up to him. By having a completely unrelated storyline in order to beef up one character, very little credence is given to the real content of The Killing Joke. Easily the best thing that you can say about the entire project is that Mark Hamill is back as the Joker, and he easily outclasses everything that surrounds him. Good voice work canlift animation out of the doldrums – and The Killing Joke certainly looks like the doldrums –  and you can almost forgive The Killing Joke in the brief moments that Hamill gets to enliven proceedings. Ultimately, however, you can’t. The parade of grotesquerie that the Joker brings to the table makes The Killing Joke more unpleasant than when it was a by turns dull and unintentionally sexist frippery.

 

One thing that you can and should demand of a Batman property is that, at the very least, the art is good (don’t tell Frank Miller). For all of The Killing Joke ’88‘s flaws, it is hard to deny that Brian Bolland’s art and colour work (for the 2008 reissue) is exquisite. The aesthetic used for this animation doesn’t read as pale imitation or even shallow parody, but comes across as a lumpen mess. For all of the focus on making Barbara more of a character in her own story, there are frequent instances where shehas either a wonky eye or an almost featureless face. Her most important scene is rendered in a  distressingly cartoonish fashion, and its more horrific underpinnings – the ones that arouse the most complaints about the title – are rendered entirely more graphic under the circumstances. Panels are not frames, and a tableau does not translate so well to the screen, but there are definitely times when less is more. The Killing Joke 2016 doubles down on the horror that it has tried to downplay, made it more uncomfortable and unforgivable than it ever was before, and begs that we take it for the apology that it was intended to be.

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In taking Bolland’s striking black-and-white with carefully selected highlights away from the flashbacks and render them in sepia with no elements outstanding, you take the grotesquerie of a couple of panels at the fair and stretch them out forever, make them uglier, and set them to music, DC has committed something of a crime against one of their tent poles. The Killing Joke was written in a feverish rush in the first place, but Alan Moore was never so lazy as to depict Batman throwing a dwarf into a pit of spikes. That’s kind of what Batman does not do, and exactly why people had so many problems with Batman v Superman earlier this year. There are things you don’t do in a Batman story and murdering dwarves is one of them. There is not a Batman style guide at hand at the time of writing this piece, but it is a safe bet that it does not endorse Batman inflicted fatalities.

With none of Barbara Gordon’s positive characteristics on display and Batman and the Joker being either absent, watered down or uglied up for the duration, there’s nothing to recommend here. Animation, if it can’t surpass the comics from which it is drawn, should at least supplement them. Producer and Batman animation visionary Bruce Timm – under the influence of a sackful of cash from DC – had hoped to add flesh to something that has been notorious for the entirety of its lifetime. The Killing Joke adds pablum rather than substance and does not even brag Timm’s distinctive aesthetic into the bargain; hideous, pointless and offensive is a triple threat in entirely the wrong direction, and it’s hard to say who has erred the most in the production of The Killing Joke. Are we to blame Timm, Liu or screenwriter Brian Azzarello, who has had respected runs across several DC titles? It’s entirely possible that The Killing Joke was a terrible idea from inception to premiere, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who will take responsibility for the fact.

 

The Killing Joke ’88 is a heavily flawed work, but one that boasted excellent art and enduring influence for better and worse. 2016 takes what was viewed as exploitative in the original work and underlines it, runs it through an ugly filter and removes what little beauty, both artistically and thematically, it once had.

2016 is a more progressive place than 1988, and both what comics have to offer and what their readers demand have changed with the times. In taking what was already a throwback, throwing it further back, and pretending that it has somehow evolved, The Killing Joke is more offensive today than it ever was 28 years ago. If you were on the fence about The Killing Joke ’88 before, or if you thought that it was a travesty, don’t watch The Killing Joke 2016. Congratulations, DC: The Killing Joke ’88 is now a goddamn work of art.

Patlabor: The Motion Picture

 

It’s rare that I’ll rewatch a movie months after the effect, take its unpublished review, and almost completely scrap my thesis. Patlabor: The Motion Picture confounded my expectations when I watched it again after having rewatched the later, and alternate, TV series. It’s true that not everything strictly works about this project – some of the movie shorthand is too short – but one thing is clear: Headgear had almost complete understanding of their characters even before their most properly iconic incarnation.

Despite its 99 minute running time, this film is abrupt, but its animation and feel are superlative. If Oshii Mamoru had to cut his teeth somewhere, he couldn’t have picked a better project. I’m not convinced of the viability of this film as a standalone project, as it is best consumed within the context of tens of hours of other material but, rather like the OVA that preceded it, it’s definitely an excellent supplement.

Mobile Police Patlabor – the original series

The original Patlabor OVA raises an interesting prospect when it comes to recommendations: because I have no idea what’s presently showing on Japanese TV, what I present to you is a selection picked from my own collection amassed over the years. Given the metamorphosis of the industry, a lot of the stuff that I own is out of print, so even if I say it’s good it might be hard to find. Still, history is history, and my opinions are valid whenever they’re presented.

That said, can I recommend the original Patlabor when it works best when taken in the context of an entire canon: seven initial OVAs, three movies, a 47 episode TV series, a sixteen episode OVA follow up to that, and three weird paper craft specials?

Yeah, I can, I guess. The original Patlabor OVA series is a collection of experiments met with varying success, and it works best when taken in conjunction with everything that came after it. Had Patlabor ended with the initial six episodes, it is doubtful that it would have had any lasting impact beyond being a playground for Oshii Mamoru before Ghost in the Shell.

As it stands, 23 years after the event,  I’m kind of mystified by the success of Patlabor; but the industry was much different back then. This is a good supplement but not the best at standing by itself.

Slayers Next

 

It was interesting to watch Slayers Try so soon after Lost Universe, because they not only spring from the same source, they also tell significantly different versions of very similar stories. Slayers Try proves that you can achieve a lot more if you focus your storytelling and develop your characters sufficiently, although it does have the admitted benefit of two series’ worth of audience knowledge behind it.

Overman King Gainer

 

I need a King Gainer …

King! King! King Gainer!

Metal Overman King Gainer!

 

Overman King Gainer can be put on record as featuring one of my favourite OPs in the history of anime. Much of the cast, including designated “villains” and robots alike, go-go dance to the rocking tune. It pumped me up so much that most of the time I didn’t skip it. I would dance around the house singing the song even when I wasn’t watching. Thanks to the wonders of the multimedia review age, I can share that OP with you right now:

 


Unfortunately, you’d be harder pressed to find the series itself by legitimate means, as it has been out of print for the English world for a fair while now. Why you can pick up something not particularly exciting like Lost Universe thirteen years after its screening but not this 2002 piece is beyond me. The two of them bear comparison because they represent two different generations of anime: Lost Universe the awkward transition from cel work to digital animation with some clumsy CG, and Overman King Gainer the confident application of digital with smooth results.

 

Overman King Gainer also has the distinction of being a mostly good series, but it’s not without its faults. I think that I noticed the flaws so intently because I enjoyed the series so much. When that happens, any let down is magnified far more than disappointments in shows that weren’t particularly good to begin with.

Lost Universe

 

Lost Universe is the science fiction anime equivalent of Slayers, by substantially the same staff and set in a parallel universe, and it’s pleasant enough. Unfortunately, it fizzles into very little by the end. Given its relatively small cast, very few of the characters have clear motivations, and the ultimate threat isn’t really threatening enough. When it appears that the void of space is what’s at stake rather than visible land and people, it’s much harder to connect.

Godannar – Series One

In the seventies, robots were huge. In the intervening years, boobs have become bigger and bigger. It’s not as if Godannar is the first series to combine the seventies mecha aesthetic with the skimpy clothing and outsize proportions of the modern age, but it’s a particularly … exemplary … example of the form.

Godannar is a series that it’s very easy to be in two minds about, in that it combines something that I love (organisational intrigue and conspiracy) with something that I am suspicious of at best (endless objectification of teenaged girls who make bad decisions). It’s a strange series, and I hope it goes somewhere. Like Princess Tutu, it is two thirteen episode series disguised as a single 26 episode series.

El-Hazard: The Magnificent World

Time was, I used to live and breathe anime. I would get through at least 26 episodes a week. Sundays would be devoted to the fastidious practice of the art of sitting in a chair and reading subtitles. Then, around the time I turned 21, I lost the habit.

I was able to watch a fair bit in the intervening years, but never at the same volume or with the same passion. This time it was a good nine months between drinks, when I gave up on Boys Be…, having graduated with a degree in boredom and bad character design.

I return, baptised by fire! After a few episodes, it was like being back home and finding forgotten treasures in drawers long closed. I may never be manic again, but I taught myself the laws of the OVA form anew in watching El-Hazard: The Magnificent World. Like many OVAs of old, it wastes a lot of time before it decides to start kicking some serious arse − which, most assuredly, is what it does.

Cars 2: You Only Drive Twice

Cars is easily my least favourite Pixar film. Lassiter took his own dream and forced it on the children of the world. It was an intensely personal and heartfelt work, but it turned out that, when it comes to motors, Lassiter’s heart is incredibly dull.

Apparently kids still liked it because they like cars and you can buy your own Lightning McQueen, but a marketable movie does not necessarily equal a good movie, as we all learned from the compromises that George Lucas made in Return of the Jedi and has been making ever since.

Cars did very well: certainly well enough to spawn a sequel. The first trailer was just released, and …

… Well, what the hell is this? It’s You Only Live Twice with cars.

If Pixar wanted to make a spy movie, could they not have made a spy movie? The Incredibles expertly combined the not significantly different hallmarks of both superhero and spy genres, and it was good. You could easily make a sequel to The Incredibles if you wanted to make a spy movie without true dramatically damaging the integrity of the property.

Equally, though, I can say this: Cars has nowhere to go but up. A severe genre shakeup might do it some favours, and Michael Caine is generally a welcome addition to anything (for example, he was the only tolerable element of Goldmember), but the elevation of Mater to a major character is a cause for concern.

Cars 2 is lucky: I’m going to see it because I have to. You can’t not see a Pixar movie, and maybe this one will be good against all odds?

Regardless of everything else, Cars 2 is keeping Larry the Cable Guy in work and for that Pixar should be ashamed.

Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 is a great argument against objectivity in the cinema. How can we be objective, when everything that we take out of a movie is informed by who we are, and who we are is at least partially informed by what we see in the movies?

Toy Story 3 is an example to me of a perfect movie. It is not a perfect movie for everyone. I don’t care about everyone and what they think of this movie, I care what I think of it. Does that make me a bad critic, even as an amateur? No, that is how the system works. A movie like Toy Story 3 is one that can be received as a personal gift from Pixar to the viewer, as I did. To take it any other way, to view it as “just another movie”, that’s not my style at all.

Toy Story 3, to me, is love. It is the distillation of fifteen years of Pixar into a single wondrous movie. That is more than enough for me. If I didn’t view ratings for movies as arbitrary and silly, I would give it full marks. There is no definitive review, but Toy Story 3 is a marvel in my eyes.