Batman: The Killing Joke: The dark, gritty batman story that we apparently never wanted.
That’s the best way to sum up my feelings after watching DC Animation’s latest entry into animated films. We had such high hopes for the film: it started with some of the best source material in the history of DC Comics. It even promised to flesh out Barbara Gordon’s, a.k.a Batgirl, storyline to make the film less misogynistic. Instead we are treated to a 30 minute prologue that reduces Batgirl from an independant, strong female character to a typical hollywood trope: the girl that pines for the a man, uses sex to get her way then loses control when he rejects her.
There is some hope, however: the added storyline is front loaded, meaning you can skip to the 28 minute mark and see a fairly accurate version of The Killing Joke, apart from a campy song by The Joker that is.
The Problem with Misogyny
Let’s be honest: the violence against Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke is misogynist. It simply is. Now you could say that The Joker could have shot Robin instead of Batgirl and the story would have progressed similarly. Except he couldn’t unless he learned who Robin was. In addition, his plan was to drive Jim Gordon insane: which necessitated doing something that would harm him psychologically. The best target is to attack his adoptive daughter: Barbara.
That in-and-of itself isn’t misogynistic. No, what’s misogynistic is the fact that The Joker proceeds to strip her naked (in the film it is implied that he rapes her) and take photographs to show to Jim Gordon. The overt sexual nature of the violence, which would almost certainly never have happened if The Joker’s victim had been a male, is what makes the violence misogynist. To add insult to injury, this violence is perpetrated against a character that is usually a strong character, making her helpless.
In fact, we have two instances of The Joker harming members of the Batman/Gordon family in similar manners without the sexual violence: When The Joker kills Jason Todd, the second Robin, he beats him nearly to death with a crowbar before having a bomb finish the job. In the end of the No Man’s Land storyline The Joker kills Jim Gordon’s wife Sarah Essen-Gordon rather unceremoniously by merely shooting her in the head. No stripping naked, no photos.
This is a problem that the producers saw and realized they needed to at least address, if not fix, in the animated film. They failed, miserably.
Adding Insult to Injury
The film takes Batgirl who, in the comics, has been a strong, skilled crime-fighter who is a little green but generally competent at her job, into an incompetent, emotional mess who is obsessed with the men in her life, be it her mentor (Batman) or a criminal who constantly sexualizes her.
While on patrol Batgirl fails to stop a fleeing criminal. He later forms an obsession with her, slinging lewd comments during combat scenes.
Batgirl spends her time being one step behind the criminal, while also pining about the “older yoga instructor” she has romantic feelings for to her friends.
During their second confrontation the criminal injects her with a drug that will knock her out; the implication here is obvious. Batgirl runs into a bank vault and hides until Batman can rescue her. He chides her for her carelessness, telling her that she isn’t taking things seriously enough and essentially saying “You’re off the case.”
Batgirl does not take this well. She attacks Batman, knocking him to the floor where they begin to kill, strip, and the camera pans upward.
Batgirl’s story isn’t about batgirl: rather, it’s about the men in Batgirl’s life.
After they sleep together Batman shuns Batgirl: he doesn’t call, doesn’t visit, doesn’t let her back on the case. Eventually she calls him: Batman is following a lead in the docks, but she is not invited. Batgirl’s fine with that, so long as they can talk later. After this Batman is caught in an explosion and Batgirl rushes in to save him. It was at this point that the film had a chance to redeem itself by having Batgirl prove herself and catch the criminal.
Instead she becomes an emotional wreck, and is driven close to the edge by beating the criminal senseless.
This was the point of the prologue, to let Barbara know what it’s like to be driven to the edge. It’s what happens to Jim Gordon later on. He passes the test. It’s what happens to Batman. He passes the test. When it happens to Barbara she fails: she loses control, and eventually decides that she can’t be Batgirl anymore.
After this the story generally follows the plot of the comic, with the exception of the aforementioned song.
Barbara Could have been a Hero – Instead she’s a Victim
For the rest of the film we see Jim Gordon taken to his breaking point, but not past it. When Batman rescues him he tells Batman to take the Joker in “By the Books. We have to show him that our way works.”
Barbara suffered an equal level of torment from The Joker. This could have been an opportunity for Barbara to show that she wasn’t broken. If you’re going to add to Alan Moore’s story, at least give Batgirl a scene where she talks Batman down and shows that she isn’t broken. Instead we see Batman visit Barbara in the hospital where she is hysterical, sobbing and scared of The Joker. She’s been broken. Her story is over.
The oddest part about the added story is that it bears no relation to The Killing Joke, save for a few references to being brought to the limit, which serves as a bit of foreshadowing with the subtlety of a sledge hammer.
In the end, Killing Joke’s last 45 minutes are very good. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill nail it out of the ballpark with this work. The final scene, where Joker and Batman end their confrontation while laughing at a joke, is brilliant, chilling, and a quintessential example of a Batman story.
So, if you’re going to see Batman: The Killing Joke, just do yourself a favor and skip past the first 28 minutes.