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Batman: The Killing Joke fails to fix the comic's problems on screen

We break down the classic story's complicated past and present

Spoiler alert!

This recap is intended for folks who've already seen the movie, and will include a description of its events!

The latest Batman film, The Killing Joke, has been anticipated for a long time by some comic book fans, while dreaded by others. Controversy about its themes and influence has surrounded the 1988 graphic novel in recent years. Its adaptation, now available for purchase after a brief theatrical run, has likely pushed both sides of the debate further into their respective arguments. The movie doesn’t attempt to fix critics’ problems; instead, it may have produced more of them.

The Killing Joke is based on a classic Alan Moore story about "one bad day" for the Dark Knight and his arch-nemesis, The Joker. Some fans and writers have taken issue with its representation of Barbara Gordon, the original Batgirl and the daughter of Gotham Police Commissioner Jim Gordon. Barbara serves as little more than a plot device within The Killing Joke, some suggest; a once-beloved, retired character is brought back just to be quickly done away with.

But The Killing Joke’s cinematic adaptation gives Barbara expanded screen time — as well as a romantic infatuation with Batman, her mentor. That’s a big change from the original work, one that not everyone was happy with when the moment made the rounds after the film's San Diego Comic-Con premiere.

To understand the complexities that surround The Killing Joke as both cinematic and cultural text, I recruited two other members of Polygon to discuss the film and its source material with me, each one coming to it from a different perspective. Our social media manager, Ashley Oh, has played through all of the Batman: Arkham games, while our entertainment editor, Susana Polo, is a lifelong fan with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Batman. (I watched Batman: The Animated Series and other cartoons as a kid and am into the Christopher Nolan trilogy.)

Read on for our conversation.

The trouble with translating a controversial comic to the screen

Allegra: I watched The Killing Joke last night, and although I only just read the story it’s based on earlier this week, my reading experience heavily colored my interpretation of the film.

What I like about The Killing Joke as a graphic novel is how well it uses the medium in telling the story. The story is primarily about The Joker, the most iconic of Batman’s villains, as he plans to drive Batman and his friend Commissioner Gordon to the edge. Flashbacks to his tragic backstory as a failed comedian are contrasted with his horrific present-day absurdity, with each timeline defined by some excellent artwork by Brian Bolland. The Joker’s eyes pop out, his grin is frightening, and even on the static comic book page, his wiry frame and bold coloring highlight what a disturbed, dynamic character he is.

Killing joke

On an aesthetic level, I thought the film failed to capture the expressiveness of the comic’s style, to its detriment. Animation has more artistic tools than comics at its disposal, but the film looked like a longer episode of a not-particularly-impressive cartoon. For me, that made tTe Joker’s duality fall flat — which is a big problem, considering that is the story’s most compelling facet.

I’m curious as to your take, Ashley, as someone in a similar position: not a huge reader of the Bat-comics, but familiar with the original story. Did you take issue with the animation? What parts of The Killing Joke as a graphic novel did you see or not see replicated on screen?

Ashley: The style of animation didn’t offend me as much as it did other people. I thought it harkened back to some of the older animated shows, but I’m not sure if that was the intention. I do know that there’s the remastered coloring of The Killing Joke graphic novel and the original one, which has a starkly different feel. I was expecting something with a little more grit along those lines in the animated movie, but who knows if that was an artistic liberty or a matter of budget.

The same insidiously dark Joker whom I know from the Batman: Arkham games, and not Batman: The Animated Series (despite the same actor working on both franchises), is who I heard in The Killing JokeMark Hamill’s definitely evolved in his role as The Joker, especially after the games. And I think I wanted that to translate into not just the film’s animation style, but maybe even the coloring as well. Sure, he’s still funny, he’s off his rocker, but he inspires an underlying fear that you’re a hair trigger away from being violently bludgeoned to death.

In terms of parts that came across well on screen, I enjoyed the reflections of his past. It’s kind of hard to mess that up, and that dialogue with his wife offered these tiny crumbs of sympathy that I actually didn’t mind taking. I did, however, take issue with the attempt at laying down a foundation of sorts for Barbara in the beginning. Trying to get an audience to care about a character who’s used mostly as a plot device (in this installment) is difficult, and I understand that, but it seemed to me like it leaned hard on a cliched quick fix.

the killing joke Jimsmash on Blogspot

The original The Killing Joke (left) and the recolored version (right)

Susana, I’m curious about your thoughts on how Barbara was framed in this movie. In the graphic novel, there’s absolutely no indication that there’s anything sexual between her and Batman. Given that The Killing Joke had a two-day release window in theaters, and that perhaps a majority of the audience may already be die-hard fans familiar with the original version, why do you think they had to feature that?

"All I could think was, 'This is going to be a fucking disaster.'"

Susana: Honestly, I think it’s the thing about the adaptation that I dislike the most. Alan Moore is one of the greats of comics, but even he has spoken openly about how he doesn’t think the book is his best work and that he never intended it to be a part of the DC Universe’s ongoing canon. I mean, 20 years later he literally referred to his treatment of Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke as "shallow and ill-conceived."

The news that Warner Bros. Animation would be adapting The Killing Joke was greeted with trepidation from many of the comic book people I know. It’s a book that’s very much rooted in the comic book cultural context of its time, and — to put it mildly — it hasn’t aged well.

When The Killing Joke was published, the mainstream idea of Batman was still the 1960s Adam West and Burt Ward show, and superhero comics were pushing back hard against the mainstream impression of camp heroes created by comics’ own version of the Hays Code. Barbara Gordon as Batgirl was a character who’d been adapted into comics from that television show.

In 2006, Alan Moore told Wizard Magazine, "I asked DC if they had any problem with me crippling Barbara Gordon — who was Batgirl at the time — and if I remember, I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor on the project ... [He] said, 'Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.’" 1988’s Batgirl Special #1 had the character retire her cape and tights before The Killing Joke came out and further removed the character from the DC writers’ playing board by permanently injuring her.

In the three decades since The Killing Joke was published, there’s been an ongoing discussion in the comics community about the concept of "fridging" — a term coined by comics writer Gail Simone that comes from a plotline in another DC comic — for when a story injures, kills or sexually assaults a female character in order to motivate a male hero, thus reducing her character to a plot device. The Killing Joke, in which the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon in the spine, strips her naked, takes photos of her, and (depending on your interpretation) rapes her, is perhaps the most infamous use of that cliche that is still a clear and present part of DC comics canon.

killing joke

Since DC’s line-wide reboot in 2011, which made Barbara an able-bodied superhero again but kept the events of the Killing Joke canon, a lot of folks in the comics community have been asking why we’re so attached to this particular part of the book. The small part of the story devoted to The Joker’s attack on Barbara is the only part of The Killing Joke that stubbornly remains true in the DC Universe, while the plotline that forms the majority of the thematic heft of the book — Moore’s Joker origin story (the one that you felt was the more effective part of the movie, Ashley) — does not.

Barbara and Batman's romantic relationship boggles the mind

When the folks behind the adaptation announced that they’d be enlarging Barbara’s role for their movie, it was the least they could do if they were going to be bringing back such a controversial, criticized and dated story, in my opinion. But it boggles the mind that they thought the way to positively expand on the minimal role of a female character was to put her in a sexual relationship with the male hero — who, let’s be clear, is a decade older than her and in a position of power over her as her mentor and is the surrogate father of her close friend and on-again, off-again boyfriend, Dick Grayson, and is one of her father’s best friends — and then change nothing else about the story. The idea that they thought the best way to give Barbara a bigger role was to have her fuck Batman, thus turning the story of him hunting down The Joker to avenge a former sidekick and the daughter of his best friend into one about paying the Joker back for sexually violating a woman he’s sexually claimed ... but I digress.

I found out about this change through the comics-folk grapevine prior to the movie’s premiere, and all I could think was, "This is going to be a fucking disaster." This isn’t the first time a Bruce Timm-written story has paired Bruce and Barbara — it was also established to have happened in the DC Animated Universe, sometime between the "present-day" events of Batman: The Animated Series and the "future" timeline of Batman Beyond — and all of the die-hard fans of Beyond that I know (myself included) would really like to just forget that particular part of that particular episode ever happened.

So I guess what I’m trying to say, Ashley, is that I don’t know why they made the terrible decision to have her and Batman bang, except that maybe Bruce Timm ships it. What’s really fascinating to me is that I read The Killing Joke about 15 years ago, and have been hoovering up obscure comics history tidbits for even longer. I can’t imagine how The Killing Joke goes over in the year 2016 without any of that context.

The Killing Joke movie makes a big change, but not for the better

Allegra: I can’t, either, Susana — even though the "prequel" episode that opens the film is entirely original, it seems unfathomable to me that anyone would understand or appreciate it without having some familiarity with the history behind The Killing Joke and Barbara Gordon. But there are major issues with the presentation of this Batgirl-focused opening, even without the knowledge that leads us to believe it’s a canonical failure.

Batgirl’s short story is about the relationships between men and women. Throughout the half-hour episode, she’s chasing after a group of sexist men who make comments about her looks, flirt with her at every turn and, by the end, proclaim to love her.

Her response is to be flattered by the bad guys’ gross obsession. Batgirl is a young college student, so it makes sense that she has sex on the brain. But she’s also shown to be a capable fighter and an intelligent hacker. These are treated as asides, however, in favor of emphasizing her guy troubles. That’s disappointing, because Batgirl has clear potential to be a strong female hero, but the writers insist on sexualizing her as her best features become small details.

Batman is no "yoga teacher"

A lot of this is made explicit, too; everything is so ham-fisted, with Barbara complaining to her young male friend about a "yoga teacher" who won’t pay attention to her. We know exactly who she's talking about. But as our friend and Polygon opinion editor Ben Kuchera said to me when we discussed the film earlier, Batman is no "yoga teacher."

Reducing their relationship into a student-teacher infatuation isn’t unwarranted, even if it’s a little gross. But there’s nothing within the film that motivates it, because Batman remains as stoic as ever. Their interactions become heated due to Barbara’s emotional outbursts as her crush grows deeper. For the writers, this escalation for a young, attractive woman just naturally has to end with sex.

It all feels odd and is an unfortunate way to characterize someone who could, and should, be a fascinating young woman. What’s worse is that the foul taste of the opening threatens the narrative of The Killing Joke, which otherwise has little to do with Barbara and keeps her around only as a powerless victim for the story’s sake. What did you make of Barbara’s role in the main part of the movie, Ashley? Did the prequel affect how you felt about what came afterward?

killing joke

Ashley: The prequel set up a mild expectation that something like their hookup was going to happen. More than anything, it seemed like the writers wanted to hammer in the fact that she has something to prove. Even though the flattery she received from those guys was gross and insincere, it was still recognition. She reveled in it. And that’s something she wasn’t getting from Batman.

There’s hardly a scene where Barbara isn’t talking about men or questing after one, bad guy or not. It seemed like a false hope that we’d have a strong female hero who could pass the Bechdel test. In one fell swoop of a curt "later," Batman turns Batgirl into nothing but an anxious girl pining for his approval with a desperate phone call. The best part about that was probably the cacophony of incredulous groans and laughter in the theater when it happened.

Barbara’s decision to turn in her gear also seemed to be fueled by the introduction of that awkward situation — it would’ve been far more impactful had it just been about hesitation and fear toward the "abyss" that she and Batman spoke of earlier. In fact, I think that the prequel would’ve fit in with the film far better with this notion. We see that scene where Batgirl essentially loses control and nearly kills a guy in a blind rage. Instead, that anger gets translated into a sexual impulse with her mentor. Does the only female character in this movie really need to be put in that context?

I totally agree you with, Allegra, about how this changes the angle of The Killing Joke. It colors how Batman goes after The Joker in a way that felt less ... intimate than the graphic novel. Perhaps one of the most iconic lines in the book is, "I’ve been thinking lately. About you and me. About what’s going to happen to us, in the end. We’re going to kill each other, aren’t we?" That’s the crux right there.

The crux of The Killing Joke is watered down on-screen

And yet somehow it gets watered down here; the very notion of Barbara is spliced in there when Batman speaks to The Joker. Batman doesn’t need another reason to go after the Joker or to hate him more than he already does. So why add that in? The film wasn’t in theaters for more than a couple of days, and it’s not like they were aiming for a summer blockbuster to appeal to mass audiences with a little drama. I’m still baffled.

Susana: Everything about it is baffling, and I haven’t even seen the movie. Nor do I plan to — I’m just the resident comics expert for this post. And it’s my expert opinion that before we wrap up, we should talk a little bit about the movie’s final attempt to nod at the idea that Barbara Gordon might actually be a character and not just an angst switch for the men in her life: the end-credits sequence that teases her return as Oracle.

Outraged by the way that DC editorial and The Killing Joke could so cavalierly treat Barbara Gordon, comics editor and writer Kim Yale — along with her husband, writer John Ostrander — introduced a character called Oracle into Suicide Squad in 1989, a year after The Killing Joke came out. In 1990 they revealed that Oracle, a hacker anonymously offering to aid the government-sponsored group of supervillains, was Barbara Gordon. That same year, Oracle first appeared in a Batman comic as the Caped Crusader’s confidante and a powerful information resource. She appeared briefly once more, in 1993, before Yale and Ostrander finally got to write a six-issue origin story for her, Oracle: Year One, in 1996.

oracle year one

It took eight years, but the two managed to bring the character back from the editorial no-go zone, telling a story about Barbara Gordon overcoming depression and physical trauma to reapply her experience with technology, her photographic memory and her genius intellect in a way that was invaluable and irreplaceable to her allies. In the same year, writer Chuck Dixon proved that Barbara Gordon could still be a compelling lead character by putting her in charge of the Birds of Prey, her own all-female undercover ops team, in a comic that has run almost continuously in various forms and re-numberings for 20 years. By the end of the ’00s, Oracle didn’t just have Gotham’s vigilantes coming to her for help, but the Justice League itself. She was one of the only prominent disabled superheroes in the entirety of American comics.

Barbara’s transformation into the character of Oracle is brought up frequently as evidence in support of The Killing Joke remaining canon. And it’s technically true that if The Killing Joke hadn’t been written, she probably wouldn’t ever have transitioned from an active role as Batgirl to the more passive but more powerful role of the DC Universe’s most reliable information broker, hacker and tactical leader.

It took years to find Barbara Gordon a new place in the universe

But it took eight years to find Barbara Gordon — at the time the only female character in the Bat-family — a new place in the DC Universe. And it is unequivocally true that the hard work it took to get there wasn’t done because of The Killing Joke, but rather in spite of it. There wouldn’t even be another Batgirl in DC comics canon until 1999.

And, of course, in 2011, DC’s New 52 reboot erased (or, at best, from very recent developments, severely minimized) Oracle from the canon. In mandating that Barbara be Batgirl again, the company removed the character’s ability to fully represent disability, but also, paradoxically, kept Barbara’s assault in The Killing Joke. All the lemonade that later comic writers had made out of Killing Joke lemons for more than 20 years was erased.

Ironically, it sounds like the Killing Joke movie did the opposite — it took some lemons, and just added more, bigger lemons. No wonder it’s leaving a sour taste in so many mouths.

Allegra: I think that’s exactly right, Susana — the film doesn’t seek to correct any of the problems critics had with The Killing Joke. Instead, it just adds to them. An interview on Vulture with the creative team suggests that the writers lacked of awareness of how people read between the lines with the comic book, and so it makes sense that there’s no attempt at course correction here.

That’s disappointing as someone who appreciates what Bruce Timm did for the Batman universe with The Animated Series and has a lot of respect for his work in animation. But more than that, it’s disappointing as someone who consumes culture in 2016, and does so with the hope that creators consider all of the implications and effects of their content before sending it out to a mass audience.

I like The Killing Joke as a story and a piece of art. I did not really like The Killing Joke as a film. I’m not so beholden to the work for that to be a major disappointment for me, and I know that many Batman fans weren’t disappointed with it at all. I just see it as a missed opportunity — both in giving Batgirl her due diligence, as well as translating a beautiful graphic novel to the big screen, where it could have been so expressive and grand and spectacular. Instead, it feels like ... a direct-to-DVD release. Which, like, there are worse things. But there are better things, too.

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