This post contains spoilers for Batman: The Killing Joke. Read at your own discretion.
On Monday evening Fathom Events hosted an early screening of animated comic hero film Batman: The Killing Joke, which released digitally worldwide on Tuesday, July 26th. Fathom reported that they booked 1,075 U.S. cinemas for this special event, making it their biggest screening event of all time. They’ve even expanded their initial one night viewing to include a second showing of the film on Tuesday evening. The film itself is the first animated adaptation of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s hit graphic novel The Killing Joke, a brutal DC Comics best seller which was published in 1988. The Killing Joke is an iconic graphic novel that features a chilling look into the mind of Batman’s most infamously psychotic villain, The Joker, as he tries to prove that “one bad day” is all that stands between the average mind and one as insane as his own. As far as DC comic books go, this is one of the most well-known stories as well as one that is oft met with varied opinions. Alan Moore himself even claims to regret having written it due to how violent and dark it is while many fans consider it to be a bit too much, agreeing with Moore that it is “too nasty” and “physically violent”. Others adore it for its look into a villain as evil as The Joker, considering it to be the best piece of work to feature the well-known villain.
The film, written by comics writer Brian Azzarello, has faced a lot of criticism in the days leading up to it’s theatrical release for reasons aside from its violent nature. Given that The Killing Joke is relatively short, the films creators decided to add some content in order to make the film longer and flesh the story out a bit more. Bruce Timm, the film’s executive producer, and Azzarello mentioned at the film’s Comic Con panel that they wanted this added content to be mostly centered around Batgirl, giving her more of a backstory as she is only briefly featured in the original graphic novel. In the comic she plays a small part and it is only to be shot by The Joker, then stripped naked and photographed. This scene leads to Barbara Gordon becoming paralyzed from the waist down and is a character defining moment as it causes her to hang up her cape and cowl as Batgirl and continue helping Gotham City as Oracle. While giving Batgirl more backstory in Batman: The Killing Joke seemed like a great idea, one that had potential to be fantastic, the execution of the idea was absolutely horrendous. In the first half of the film we see the character of Batgirl diminished as well as a scene in which she and Batman have sex, leading to a diminishing of his character. I felt the added content not only seemed to feature moments that were extremely out of character for both Batman and Batgirl but it also did no favors for Batgirl, basically turning her into a weak character for a handful of reasons. This alone has been a major point of contention for fans and it’s one that has been on my mind since I first learned of the issue over the weekend.
Allow me to explain my thoughts on this added Batgirl-centric content before moving on to my thoughts on the rest of the film as well as my opinion of the film as a whole. Firstly, I find the idea of Batman and Batgirl having sex to be abhorrent. This is not only out of character for the both of them, but generally wrong from moral standpoint in my opinion. In everything I have seen and read featuring both Batman and Batgirl, which is a fair amount, the two of them are shown to have a type of father/daughter relationship. Their relationship is typically based on general camaraderie, caring for one another and respect – none of these aspects being showcased as having romantic motivations*. Adding a sexual encounter between these two characters feels wrong to me given my interpretation of their relationship based on my experience with both characters in their respective comic book series’. This point in particular is a very personal one, and one that others may not share based on their interpretations of said relationship, but to me the idea of Batman and Batgirl having sex seems incestuous even though it literally isn’t, of course. It doesn’t help that while watching the film in the theater this scene was met with immature hooting from the crowd. Similarly a later scene in which Batman acts like the stereotypical detached male in such situations (a trope placed on male characters that I tend to despise) and literally hangs up on Batgirl when she calls him was met with more immature clapping as if his dick-like actions were commendable.
Secondly, I’d like to touch on how out of character this act is for the both of them. Comics stories and personal interpretations of their relationship aside, this whole portion of the movie is so badly written it feels like it was put together by an amateur fan fiction writer rather than a notable comic book writer. Outside of this film we know that Batman has a very strong sense of self-control and is even seen at times turning romantic interests such as Catwoman away in order to focus on the mission at hand. He tends to keep his relationships strictly professional, he also prefers to keep everyone at arms length due to his own inner emotional issues. While Bruce Wayne may be the billionaire playboy who flaunts around with multiple women on his arms, it’s simply a persona and Batman is typically shown to have little romantic interest in anyone, least of all when he is on a job. Batgirl is typically depicted as being very similar to Batman in this regard. Barbara Gordon doesn’t really even invest in romantic relationships and is typically depicted as being focused on her mission as Batgirl rather than on her sexual relationships.
That being said, the fact that within Batman: The Killing Joke we see a Batgirl who treats Batman like a boyfriend even before they become intimate, going as far as to refer to him as someone she is in a relationship with to a co-worker, feels very strange. Sex/romance aside, we are shown a Batgirl who has no real agency, one who acts like a child rather than a mature adult. My favorite aspects of Batgirl are that she is methodical, extremely intelligent, mature, physically capable and generally well aware of all situations she is in. In this movie we see the opposite of all that as she is careless, foolish and seemingly unprepared for the situations she strives to involve herself in. We are also shown a Batman who doesn’t even hesitate to embark on this sexual relationship with Batgirl as soon as she initiates it and then later seems to regret his actions, being cold, distant even blatantly disrespectful of Batgirl later on in order to avoid her. Batman is generally emotionless out in the field, but anyone who knows anything about Batman’s character knows that he may not always show it properly but he truly cares about his friends and colleagues, Batgirl included. I feel that seeing him act like such a cold-hard jerk to Batgirl after their sexual encounter really framed him as being a total ass, which I feel is a shame to his character. It all felt really odd in the worst way possible. I was left asking myself why anyone thought that writing these scenes in which these two hugely iconic characters act like a couple of terrible, angst-ridden teenagers in order to showcase some kind of sexual relationship between the two of them was even considered remotely acceptable.
Lastly, to get back to the bad writing, this whole section of the movie is completely irrelevant to the rest of the film. After the added section, when it gets to the portion of the movie that is straight from The Killing Joke graphic novel, everything plays out the same way it did in the source material. This means that we still only really see Barbara get shot, stripped and photographed by The Joker while the rest of the story centers on Batman and The Joker. There is no added content to this portion of the film to give this supposedly meaningful relationship between Batman and Batgirl any worth. It continues to play out like the sexual encounter never happened because it didn’t in The Killing Joke and apparently Azzarello even decided it didn’t matter at this point. The only instance in which we see more Barbara in this portion of the film than was in the comic is in a meaningless scene of her jogging in a park (which seems to focus a bit too much on her butt for no reason) and ends with her coming home to receive a phone call from her father, Commissioner Gordon, who tells her he will be missing their father/daughter night because Batman needs his help. We also see a short sequence in the middle of the credits that reveals Barbara taking on her role as Oracle. Neither scene has anything to do with the first half of the film. The rest of the film plays out how it did in the graphic novel and seemingly forgets anything that happened before it, rendering the sexual relationship and character-wrecking moments surrounding the event meaningless. To me, this is bad storytelling. Why add in this new content to the film under the auspices of expanding on Batgirl’s story and giving her more meaning only to muck that whole portion up in the first place then act like it never happened later on?
Overall, I feel like this section of the movie was not only one that could be completely removed from the rest of the film with no consequence, but it was also a section that, to me, took a piss on these two characters which I love. Seeing Batgirl as some weak character who pines after Batman and then quits being Batgirl because of this whole ordeal is hurtful. When I originally learned of this section of the film and read the details, I was angry and hurt that anyone thought this was the right thing to do. What made me more upset was seeing an excerpt from the SDCC panel in which Azzarello claimed Barbara is “stronger than the men in her life in this story” and that “she’s pining over the violence” rather than pining over Bruce, as one fan suggested. It’s like he honestly thinks this story is empowering for Batgirl, that it’s anything but a ridiculous addition that makes Batgirl appear weaker than ever.
To be clear, I don’t think women having sex is weak, or that romantic relationships make female characters weak. On the contrary I think that when sex/romance is done properly it can be super empowering to the female character involved. This has everything to do with how it was written and how it played out, and sadly the whole thing is typical considering this was written by a male who preferred to be stale and stereotypical with the whole thing rather than progressive and informed. While I don’t like the idea of Batman and Batgirl having sex at all, it wasn’t as if it was done in a way that strengthened their characters or had any real emotional impact. After watching the film it was clear that she had no agency here, no real strength, she’s just a pawn in Batman’s story which is one of the main criticisms of The Killing Joke from fans of Batgirl. They continued on that path of thought when it could have been so much more, it could have really done something positive and creative but it simply didn’t. Simon Abrams from Vanity Fair sums it up perfectly by stating:
Azzarello may be trying to give his version of Barbara more agency, but it doesn’t quite work given how many of her choices are reactions to Batman’s decisions. None of these decisions appear in Moore’s original comic, which suggests that Azzarello and executive producer Bruce Timm were uncomfortable having a major heroine like Barbara get tortured without at least giving her a little backstory first. So in this version of the story, Barbara realizes that she’s addicted to the thrill of fighting—and that scares her. Batman sees this in Barbara and tries to mansplain her own personality to her. He gives her orders, and she responds accordingly. The net gain of all that backstory is negligible.
This could have been an awesome opportunity to show audiences a bit more of Batgirl, to let people truly understand her as a character so that the scene in which she is shot has way more impact than it ever did in The Killing Joke. Personally, when I read The Killing Joke the scene with Barbara being shot had little real impact on me emotionally, which is problematic and indicative of the time in which the story was written. I really got emotionally attached to the story after reading Gail Simone’s Batgirl arc and seeing Batgirl’s side of things and how that event shaped her life. This added content to the film could have been a chance to give viewers the same feeling, to add some real depth to Batgirl. Instead she was treated like a silly girl who is pining over a guy and met with laughs and hooting from audiences rather than general fondness and respect.
Regardless of my learning about all of this Batgirl content before seeing Batman: The Killing Joke, I still wanted to watch it for myself and I’m glad that I did. The second half of the film came directly out of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke graphic novel and it was a great adaptation of the source material. Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy brought their talents to the table as The Joker and Batman, respectively, yet again and the animation as well as the soundtrack for the film were great. After leaving the theater and discussing the film as a whole with my husband we both came to the conclusion that if you were to simply skip past the added beginning portion of the film and go straight to the part that is from the graphic novel, the film would be much better. Because of this realization, my final opinion on the film very complicated. Can it really be considered a good film if only the second half is worth watching? Is it fair to say the whole film is bad based on the completely removable first half? I’m compelled to say that as a whole, Batman: The Killing Joke is a mediocre film. The portion that is directly adapted from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke graphic novel was really well done, in my opinion, and I enjoyed that section of the film. However I can’t give it very high honors as a whole considering how horrible the first half of the film is. It may be completely removable but that doesn’t erase its existence and given that it does indeed exist, I simply can’t claim that I enjoyed the film as a whole. I of course encourage all of you to watch it for yourself and form your own opinion, as I did, before giving in to the opinions of others (myself included). As for me, I’ll stick to the original graphic novel when it comes to discussing the story as I simply can’t come to terms with the entirety of the film.
*This does not include the Batman Beyond 2.0 story line as I have never personally read those comics.