The Killing Joke. It’s a book that even halfhearted comic book fans have heard of. This year, DC has made that story into an animated movie – with a few…controversial changes.
But first things first – Batman: The Killing Joke, since its publication in 1988, has been a tricky story for DC to handle. In the graphic novel, The Joker breaks out of Arkham and begins a systematic torture of Commissioner James Gordon with the intent to prove that even the most honorable and good people in the world can be pushed to the brink of madness. On the surface, it’s a great idea – and perfectly in line with who and what The Joker is. One of the Joker’s tactics is to go after Gordon’s daughter Barbara, a.k.a Batgirl. He shoots her through the spine, paralyzing her – ending her Batgirl activity – then strips her down and takes pictures of her to show her father.
The storyline has long been a feminist target. Its critics have (loudly) argued that the torture and maiming of Barbara not only objectifies her, but takes away her power in a way that you would never see happen to a male hero. There’s a debate to be had there. I’m not sure that would never happen to a male character, but it’s a valid opinion. What definitively did happen in that graphic novel was that Batgirl was used as a plot device. She had no role in the story other to provide motivation for Batman to fight The Joker. The story has been a lightning rod for years, and even writer Alan Moore has expressed his unhappiness with the story, saying he “never really liked it much as a work”.
Naturally, there was some trepidation when DC Entertainment announced that they were going to adapt The Killing Joke into an R-rated animated movie. But wait – DC Entertainment promised us that there would be additions to the story, aimed at making Batgirl a more central character to the story. DC Animation mogul and Killing Joke executive producer Bruce Timm even said:
“Even back when I first read it, I was very aware that Barbara was basically there just to be maimed and set Batman off on his quest to find the Joker and save Commissioner Gordon. So we thought, If we’re going to add a whole bunch of new story, let’s make it all about Barbara.”
Sounds great, right? Wrong.
In the movie, the first 30 minutes are an all new prologue with material created solely for the movie – before the final 45 minutes is the graphic novel we all know and love. In that 30 minutes, we are introduced to Barbara Gordon, librarian by day and Batgirl by night. Only in this iteration, she’s putting on the Bargirl suit to get the attention of Batman. This all culminates in a rooftop sex-scene between Batgirl and Batman that is just exploding with ick. After the rooftop jaunt, Batman spurns Batgirl (there is literally a scene where she’s waiting by the phone for him to call her ) then, the rest of The Killing Joke unfolds as it did in publication, with Barbara getting paralyzed and so forth.
Let’s count the ways that this was a complete clusterf*ck of a decision. First – it’s out of character. The relationship between Barbara Gordon and Bruce Wayne has always been a father/daughter one. One of the more interesting parts of her character is the father dichotomy: Jim Gordon is Barbara’s father, Batman is Batgirl’s father. To have them romantically involved after all the history is just kind of…gross, something noted Oracle writer Gail Simone agreed with on twitter. Plus, she’s the ex-girlfriend of Bruce’s adopted son, for God’s sake, which makes the rooftop tryst even more blech.
Second – and more damning – they took what they admitted was the problem with the original story – Barbara being used as a plot device for male characters – and doubled down. Hey, in addition to making her a plot device, let’s also make her a jilted lover. I mean, really, guys? You wanted to make the new material “all about Barbara”, and this is the best you could come up with? It was a terrible decision. The writers used the romantic angle to turn a character that has in the past thirty years become a strong multi-layered female character into nothing more than a woman scorned, just plain sucks. She’s better than that. It’s sloppy. The extra time not only doesn’t add anything to the Barbara Gordon character, it takes what was already bad and makes it worse.
At the Killing Joke panel this past week, things got dicey after the film was screened. When one fan said to writer Brian Azzarello, during the Q & A portion:
“You have talked about how you wanted to give Barbara more story … and yet the story you gave her ended up being about the men in her life. Why?”, Azzarello responded by saying “She controls the men in this story.” – the fan, who had already moved away from the microphone and was walking back to his seat, shouted “yeah, with sex!” Azzarello, ever the gracious host, said “Wanna say that again, pussy?” You stay classy, San Diego. Azzarello has since said he called the guy a pussy because he wouldn’t repeat what he said, but either way its a bullsh*t response from creator being questioned. Timm was more measured:
“There’s clearly an unstated attraction between the two of the characters from the very beginning and I think it’s there in the comics. If you go back and look at the Adam West show, it’s there in the Adam West show, it’s subtle, but to me it’s always been there.”
Personally, I don’t buy it, but that’s his opinion, and he’s entitled to it. That show was made in the 60s. Women have made some strides since then, bro. Maybe using that as your reference guide isn’t the best decision. But more importantly, it doesn’t really address the decision to double down on the problems with the original story by adding another female character trope.
I think DC Entertainment should never hade made this film. I get it, controversy sells – and this story has remained controversial for 30 years. Yes, it will probably make money, and yes, it is generating online interest (clearly since I’m writing this), and unfortunately its success will probably reinforce the barriers that female characters and writers have worked hard to overcome.
Just one guy’s opinion.