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So I Saw the Killing Joke…

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Despite the Killing Joke’s place in the history of fridging women in superhero comics, I still have a great fondness for the Alan Moore/Brian Bolland story (in fact, I’ve often thought that the story could have been done without fridging Barbara Gordon at all) and so when I heard that it was going to be turned into an animated movie with Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Bruce Timm, I was thrilled and I got myself a ticket. (I even accidentally showed up a week early because I forgot which Monday the screening was…)

And then came rumors about the adaptation, and then came SDCC. I felt genuinely torn about whether to go ahead – if it was as bad as it sounded, I didn’t want to support the film; on the other hand, I hadn’t seen the film and wanted to be able to judge from primary evidence. Plus, I’d already bought the ticket and a bunch of my friends were going, so I waffled my way into going.

So is it as bad as people at SDCC thought? In some ways no, and in some ways it’s worse.

WARNING: Spoilers in full for the Killing Joke, which involves violence against women.

The Prologue:

So first let’s talk about the not-as-bad. Some of the reviews and first impressions that have come out suggest that “we meet Barbara Gordon as a young librarian who has started donning the Batgirl costume in order to attract the attention of Batman.” While everyone’s experience of a film is subjective, I think this reading is based on a mis-reading of one particular line.

There’s a scene in the Prologue where Batgirl is arguing with Batman over being taken off a case and she yells at him that she “got into this because of you.” (By the way, all of these quotes from the film should be taken as paraphrase from memory because I didn’t have the opportunity to take notes and there’s no script available) The context of her line is that Batman’s just told her that he doesn’t trust her because costumed crime-fighting is just a game for her, whereas Batgirl is pointing out that she became Batgirl because she was inspired by Batman and he’s been acting as her mentor. The two of them don’t have a sexual relationship at this point nor is Batgirl actively trying to start one, so I find this reading strange, because it pushes the (arguably rather sexist) narrative that Batgirl is some sort of crazed groupie.

What might have led people to that conclusion is that after this line, Batgirl and Batman have sex. Now, I don’t necessarily have a problem with this in the abstract. While some might feel that “Batman has had a primarily parental relationship with Barbara, which makes this scene problematic for many fans on its most basic level,” I don’t agree. Having watched a lot of the Adam West show where Batgirl was substantially older than Robin and Batman would go into these rhapsodies about the perfume of this mystery woman, the idea isn’t without precedent.

However, the handling of this plotline is horrible, in ways that do minor damage to Barbara’s character, but arguably way more damage to Batman’s character. It’s bad enough that there is this framing of Barbara being hot for her yoga teacher, although her line that she has “a man in her life” is as much to try to fend off her camp gay coworker who might as well have stepped out of Patton Oswalt’s sketch on the “Gay Best Friend” as it is a statement of her interest. But what’s much worse is that the act itself is a horrible cliche slap-slap-kiss moment, where Batgirl is fighting Batman on a roof because she’s hit her limit with Batman’s bullshit, judo-flips him into the ground, and then pins him, and then they fuck. While a gargoyle watches.

(Poor guys can’t even close their eyes…)

In the sold-out screening I was in, this was a moment where the entire audience erupted in groans and laughter, because it was such a cheesy scene and didn’t fit Barbara Gordon’s character at all. The rooftops location, the fight-fight-kiss dynamic, the costumes – this is a Catwoman scene and it’s a played-out Catwoman scene at that.

Is what follows accurately described as her “using sex and then pining for Bruce,” as Jeremy Konrad said in that now-infamous Comic-Con panel? No. In fact, it’s kind of the reverse (and this is why I said the Prologue does more damage to Batman than Batgirl). Batgirl handles the event like an adult, telling Batman that “it’s just sex, it doesn’t have to be a thing,” rather than trying to manipulate him in any way. It’s Batman who acts like an immature asshole, refusing to work with her or take her calls, and generally acting like a remote, emotionally-stunted jackass.

All of which reinforces the basic problem with Batman in the Prologue: he’s a giant control freak who literally tells Batgirl that she has to do everything he says, who orders her “off the case” like some grizzled police captain in an 80s buddy-cop film, and who tells Batgirl he doesn’t trust her because she hasn’t stared into “the abyss… where all hope dies,” (which is a really hoary 90′s grimdark anti-hero trope, lands with a thud in the moment, and arguably contradicts the thematic thrust of Moore’s story), and who literally mansplains objectification to Batgirl. (Yes, at some level he’s explaining it for the audience, but it’s still fucked up that it’s him doing it rather than Barbara, who as a grown woman knows far better than he what being objectified by a man is like.)

Needless to say, this doesn’t fit the Batman of the Killing Joke, who’s in an unusually introspective, empathetic, and contemplative mood – meeting with Joker in Arkham Asylum because he’s worried he’s going to end up killing him, rushing to comfort Jim Gordon, offering to rehabilitate the Joker. More on this when we get to that part of the movie. So there’s a really weird disconnection between the two halves of the movie, as we’re really getting two Batman, one written by Brian Azzarello and Bruce Timm and one written by Alan Moore, and the two don’t feel like they’re the same person.

Speaking of Azzarello and Timm, we have to talk about the source of the conflict between Batgirl and Batman, the main bad guy of the Prologue. He’s a brand-new villain named Perry Franz (mon dieu), a would-be high-tech crime-boss who becomes obsessed with Batgirl (to the point of hiring a sex worker to wear a Batgirl mask while they have sex) when she foils an armored-truck robbery. This guy is clearly meant to be a parallel to the Joker – he’s got the whole Xanatos Gambit thing going, he plays this cat-and-mouse game where he’s leaving messages for Batgirl with the cops and taunts her over the phone, and so on. Batman argues that Batgirl is letting Perry get to her and she’s underestimating him, and she rightfully takes this as Batman thinking she’s not up to the task.

However, Perry is just not that impressive, ultimately nothing more than the shallow “punk” Batgirl pegs him as when they first meet. In addition to the thing with the sex worker and the messages, his go-to move when they first fight is to roofie her (it’s not just a knockout gas, he talks about having “fun” with her after she passes out, although thankfully Batgirl manages to save herself). When you get right down to it, he’s a date rapist whose master crime come down to a failed bank robbery and stealing his uncle’s online banking password.

Now, I disagree with those who’ve argued that, in the film, “the damnable part is that Batman is proven right” about Barbara not being ready. In the final clash, Batman is the one who underestimates Perry, who hits the Batmobile with a couple RPGs, wounding him and forcing him into a desperate struggle to survive against machine-gun wielding thugs. Batgirl is the one who saves him with a motorcycle-and-steverdore’s hook combo, and she’s the one who takes down Perry. This is probably where Azzarello and Timm were coming from with the “she’s a strong character” argument.

But where they fall short is the follow-through. Even though Batgirl saves Batman, we don’t get a scene where he thanks her or admits that he was wrong and learned a lesson – the “strong female character” stuff that Azzarello and Timm argued they were doing isn’t incorporated into the text. Instead, Batgirl beats the living shit out of Perry because “you ruined everything” – and this, rather than the scene where she has sex with Batman on the roof is where she sounds like a crazied groupie – and this is her moment of staring into the abyss. Because she loses her temper and administers a beating far less egregious than many that Batman has handed out (which I think is what Timm was gesturing to with his comment about “pining over the violence”) because of this penny-ante and flimsy one-shot villain, she decides to hang up the cowl and stop being Batgirl. (Which again, kind of works against the Killing Joke’s story..)

It’s far too inconsequential and disconnected from any core elements of Barbara’s character – her family or friends, her motives for fighting crime, a more established villain with a stronger personal connection – to carry the weight of what should be a momentous decision. And that, rather than the fact that she has sex with Batman, is what weakens Batgirl as a character.

The Killing Joke:

What makes all of these creative choices so strange is that it’s not like the controversy over the Killing Joke was news to anyone involved. Everyone on the creative team knew very well that the problem with the Killing Joke is the Joker shooting and paralyzing Barbara Gordon in order to motivate Jim Gordon and Batman. It’s a classic case of fridging, and the gendered nature of the event is further emphasized by the Joker taking nude photos of Barbara to use in his haunted house ride.

No matter whether you think that Barbara becoming Oracle was an important moment for the representation of the disabled or whether you prefer the New 52 or Batgirl of Burnside as a reclamation of the character, the moment is still ugly, feeding into the worst aspects of 90s comics, and is ultimately unnecessary. There’s quite a few ways to make the story work without that scene, and it oddly contradicts the moment at the end of the comic where the Joker turns the joke-flag gun on Batman.

So you think they would have approached the adaptation with that in mind. Instead, as I’ve already suggested, the two halves clash. Given that in the comics, Barbara’s paralyzing was the moment where she had to stop being Batgirl and become Oracle instead, the Prologue has her retired when she’s attacked. Likewise, given that Batman’s had a much closer relationship with her than he did at this point in the comic, the fact that they decided to do the comic essentially page-for-page makes Batman’s very limited interactions with Barbara and muted emotional response both to the physical damage done to her and the Joker’s sexualization of the attack read like a non-response to what should be a huge deal. Moreover, it conflicts with Batman’s major arc in the story – his attempt to reach out to the Joker, even in the end, makes him seem completely uncaring about his former lover.

And of course, there’s the moment itself, which you’d think the creators of the film would treat with heightened sensitivity. Instead, the moment is intensified (in what is otherwise a very faithful adaptation of the comic) in two ways: first, the “shot” is held on what is the second-to-last panel on the right, with the Joker slowly moving his hand down Barbara’s chest and then the “camera” showing us Barbara’s opened shirt and bra. Second, later on when Batman is canvassing the city for the Joker, there’s an elaboration of a single panel where Batman’s interviewing a group of sex workers where we learn that the first thing that the Joker does when he gets out is to make use of their services, but this time he hasn’t and maybe he’s found a new girl. Now, you can argue that the Joker hasn’t come by because he’s busy with his quasi-suicidal mission to break Gordon and Batman, but the text leaves itself open to the interpretation that Joker did something more than just photograph Barbara.

As I’ve said above, the above page is my least favorite part of the comic, and even the people who don’t have a problem with that section will generally agree that the heart of the comic is in the hypothetical backstory for the Joker, his argument to Jim Gordon that madness is the only rational response to an irrational and random universe, his attempt to prove that any ordinary person is capable of turning into the Joker as a result of “one bad day,” Jim Gordon’s defiant hold on his sanity and his belief in the capacity of human beings to create meaning through institutions like the law, and Batman’s attempt to reach out to the Joker. So how does the film handle that?

The answer is that it does only an okay job, there’s a few moments where it becomes something special (I especially love this shot of the Joker watching the carnival lights come on, because it has some energy that’s often missing), but nothing near good enough to make up for everything it gets wrong that we’ve already talked about. Kevin Conroy is fine, Mark Hamill puts in a great vocal performance, but the art and direction fall short of what Moore and Bolland and John Higgins (the colorist) accomplished on the page. For example, let’s take the famous last page of the comic, shown above. There’s a lot that can and has been said about these nine panels – the use of the palette of reds and purples and oranges and yellows that runs throughout the comic, the way that the headlights turn into the flashlight beam from the joke (which Moore has already set up from the scene where Batman goes to the lunatic asylum, which he further emphasizes with the use of repeating dialogue), the ambiguity of the laughter and the siren that convinced Grant Morrison that Batman killed the Joker, and on and on.

In the movie? It’s just a shot of a puddle. No beam of light, no paralleling, nothing of what made this comic special in the first place. Maybe Alan Moore was right – there are some things comics can do that movies can’t.

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  • it’s kind of the reverse

    As it were, the reverse-Batgirl position?

  • gorillagogo

    Heh. I saw this and assumed it would be about the 80s era post-punk band Killing Joke. I thought “those guys are still touring? “

  • Murc

    Given that in the comics, Barbara’s paralyzing was the moment where she had to stop being Batgirl and become Oracle instead, the Prologue has her retired when she’s attacked.

    Pedantry: Barbara had retired as Batgirl before Killing Joke happened. Unless you’re using “had to” to mean “couldn’t have started vigilante-ing again even if she wanted to.”

    Mark Hamill puts in a great vocal performance

    Hamill has been wanting to do Killing Joke for years. This was a labor of love for him above and beyond the normal zest for the role he has.

    (I am prepared to argue that Hamill has had more cultural and artistic impact defining one of the great villains of page and screen of the 20th and 21st centuries than he’s ever had as Luke Skywalker.)

    • I guess she’d technically been “retired,” but a one-off special is easy to miss.

      • Murc

        A real fan would have known. You must be one’a them fake geek boys I’ve heard so much about. I bet you don’t even have the Jason Todd 1-900 deathline number memorized.

        • I’m just a young’un. I was five was Jason Todd got whacked.

          • Murc

            … holy hell, I’m two years older than you. Wow. I feel super old.

            Well played, Steven.

            Well played.

            ETA: Good lord, you were thirteen when A Game of Thrones was published.

            • I was indeed. And yet I’ve only been writing about it since 2012.

            • Stephen Reineccius

              I’ll do you one better. I was 3.5 when A Game of Thrones was first published.

              • Brett

                Goddamn ’90s kids….

            • Brett

              Woh, are you really less than five years older than me? I thought you were like 45, Murc. Now I feel old, and that I’ve completely wasted my life.

  • twbb

    The Killing Joke comic was both boring and made no sense; not sure why it became so famous, except maybe at the time it was “edgy.”

    • The Temporary Name

      The Killing Joke comic was both boring and made no sense

      I didn’t think either at the time, and I liked the art, but the story seemed “regular” to me somehow and I wasn’t excited. That Watchmen came before was likely the problem.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        I finally read Watchmen over the weekend (it poured rain all day Saturday). I had to dip into it in a couple of places and then when I got into it went back to the start and straight through. Aged a lot better than “Dark Knight” did

      • twbb

        Yes, Watchmen actually deserves the hype.

    • runsinbackground

      I could not possibly disagree more. For me, The Killing Joke is the best, most succinct, and most iconic interpretation of two of the most iconic characters in American comics. The Joker and Batman both see the world in the same way: as random and irrational, where bad things happen to good people and no one knows why. The Joker’s response is to embrace madness, and to try to convince as many people as possible that he’s right, while Batman embraces imperfect human order and the Law. Two forces of nature in opposition, with neither stronger than the other. Alan Moore didn’t come up with that idea, but he’s given us the best version of it to date. Bruce Timm, on the other hand, has given us Latex Catsuit Harley Quinn, “Heart of Ice”, and the va-va-voom character designs in Lilo and Stitch.

      • wjts

        The Joker’s response is to embrace madness, and to try to convince as many people as possible that he’s right, while Batman embraces imperfect human order and the Law.

        I’m not really a Batman fan (and don’t find the Joker particularly interesting), but I’d like to see a story where that idea was explicitly stood on its head. The Joker is, in part, a comedian and comedy, surprisingly, has loads of rules and structures. Batman, on the other hand, spends his time running around breaking the law (assault, kidnapping, breaking and entering) and is accountable to no one but himself. Make the Joker the force for order and Batman the agent of chaos, and I might read that story.

        • Aaron Morrow

          Not quite that, but I remember “Going Sane” from Legends of the Dark Knight #65-68 being pretty good.

          After a life-and-death struggle, The Joker seemingly kills Batman. Faced with the loss of his nemesis, the insane Joker can only retreat…into sanity.

          J.M. DeMatteis (writer), Joe Staton (penciller), Steve Mitchell (inker)

          • snarkout

            Kinda-sorta happens during Morrison’s run on the comic, with Joker [spoilers!] adopting the persona of British true-crime author Oberon Sexton to help Batman defeat the Black Glove.

            (Also, if I remember correctly, in Morrison/Millar’s Aztek crossover with Batman, Aztek ends up saving the hospital full of babies or whatever the Joker was up to through distinctly Agent Cooper-ish reliance on serendipity.)

        • sharculese

          So, like something closer to Red Son Batman, but with the Joker instead of Superman.

          • wjts

            Maybe? Literally (and I mean it in the sense of “literally” and not “figuratively”) the only thing I remember about Batman in Red Son is that he wore an ushanka with little bat-ears on it.

        • twbb

          That was actually one of my problems with the Killing Joke; Gordon telling Batman that he wants the Joker brought in “by the book.” To a costumed vigilante working outside the law. Apparently the Gotham PD policy handbook is a bit unusual.

          The other nonsensical thing, is of course, having Batman share a laugh with the Joker after he just tortured Gordon and sexually humiliated and paralyzed Barbara Gordon. Moore basically created the one Batman storyline that couldn’t plausibly end with that ending; it would have been fine in any other.

    • Duvall

      I’m wondering if The Killing Joke could have been made less problematic by merging the plots of Jim Gordon and Barbara Gordon. Probably not.

    • wjts

      I think I remember reading an interview with Alan Moore where he said it wasn’t one of the better things he’d written and, in retrospect, he regretted the streak of edginess-for-edginess’-sake in the book.

      • Hob

        Oh for sure, he hasn’t been shy about saying so – a search for “Alan Moore Killing Joke interview” will give you half a dozen interviews like that.

    • AcademicLurker

      It’s hard not to read The Killing Joke through the lens of the subsequent history of comics. This was right at the beginning of the “make everything darker and grittier” craze that would dominate the 90s until “a darker gritter version of X” became a punchline.

      • JMP

        And which DC is largely repeating with their movie output, though Marvel’s own films are avoiding it (but that latest Fantastic Four film was an awful example of it).

    • Halloween Jack

      It was Moore arguably at the height of his creative powers; this was around the time that he was working on Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing (which featured the creation of John Constantine as a supporting character), and Miracleman all at the same time. He also did a two-part Superman story, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”, that acted as sort of a valediction to the Silver/Bronze Age Superman between the Crisis on Infinite Earths megacrossover event and Superman’s reinvention by John Byrne, that at the same time was an early self-critique of Moore’s own contributions to the grimdark trend.
      The Joker had already had something of a makeover himself, returning him to his psychopathic roots, but Moore made an audacious gambit at trying to give him a sympathetic origin.

  • Stephen Reineccius

    I was considering paying to go see it. Now I’m glad my husband and I didn’t pony up the money. I really wanted them to do this well (a/k/a not completely screw over Barbara Gorden). But I will still probably watch it if only for Mark Hamill. He always was the Joker to me. Though, even for a 90s kid, Adam West is my Batman.

  • sharculese

    Semi-on-topic: Stephen, have you been watching Preacher? Because, if so, then after the finale I’d love to hear your thoughts on the decision to just completely the storyline.

    • Stephen Reineccius

      I’ve been meaning to watch it. Worth it?

      • sharculese

        Yeah, they fiddled around a lot with the plot, most of it for the better. The first season has mostly been about the people of Annville with the supernatural stuff woven into it.

        They also rewrote Eugene’s backstory and added one for the Saint of Killers (who the show is calling the Cowbow) that are really well done. Cassidy’s backstory hasn’t come up, but I’m hoping to see that in season 2.

        Oh, and it’s gorgeously shot.

        • Stephen Reineccius

          That settles it. Binge watching Season 1 this week.

        • Murc

          They also rewrote Eugene’s backstory and added one for the Saint of Killers (who the show is calling the Cowbow) that are really well done.

          “Added one?” The Saint of Killers already had a backstory. Do you mean they added more to it, or they re-wrote his as well?

          • sharculese

            I literally forgot that he had a backstory.

            They just use the one from the original but the whole thing is very well done.

  • Bill Murray

    acting like a remote, emotionally-stunted jackass.

    Isn’t this the default Batman characteristic?

    • Murc

      No.

  • sharculese

    Also, someone recolored the trailer to match the look of the orginial:

    http://www.avclub.com/article/animated-killing-joke-trailer-gets-redrawn-be-clos-239184

    I’m fine with the alterations to the look. The original coloring would have been cool, but having a consistent aesthetic across the DC animated universe is sort of Warner Brothers’ thing, so it doesn’t bother me that they stuck to it.

  • Latverian Diplomat

    What might have led people to that conclusion is that after this line, Batgirl and Batman have sex. Now, I don’t necessarily have a problem with this in the abstract. While some might feel that “Batman has had a primarily parental relationship with Barbara, which makes this scene problematic for many fans on its most basic level,” I don’t agree. Having watched a lot of the Adam West show where Batgirl was substantially older than Robin and Batman would go into these rhapsodies about the perfume of this mystery woman, the idea isn’t without precedent.

    FWIW, this was also a thing in Bruce Timm’s DCAU, specifically Batman Beyond. It works fine there, IMHO, because it’s Barabara revealing it and talking about it from her perspective, and it’s in the past (the future’s past, to be more precise.)

    Of course, the Batgirl to Oracle thing was not part of the DCAU.

  • Halloween Jack

    I’ll just link to a comment that I left in MetaFilter about Azzarello. (For context, this is also in response to Azz calling someone a “pussy” at a comic con when they complained about the movie. Needless to say, I’m not a fan.)

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