The Democratic National Convention kicks off today, and I’ll probably have something to say about that – and the DNC email leaks – later on, but we saw The Killing Joke over the weekend, and I have a few things to say about that, first.
So, The Killing Joke is a graphic novel written back in 1988 by Alan Moore. It provides a sort of origin story for the Joker, portraying him as a loser with a wife he loved, whom he was trying to support by committing a crime, except it all goes drastically, tragically wrong. It draws a parallel between the Joker and the Batman, painting them as two sides of the same crazy coin, a theme which has stuck with the Batman ever since.
It’s also the story where Batgirl was crippled by the Joker and – depending on how you read it – raped by him. Although I think the story’s author and editors have since said that they weren’t intending that particular interpretation, so take that for what you will.
The Killing Joke is an iconic Batman/Joker story. It’s considered one of the all-time great stories by fans. Which doesn’t mean it didn’t come under fire for the way it treated Batgirl (aka Barbara Gordon). The story caught a whole bunch of flak for fridging Batgirl. And rightfully so, considering editor Len Wein’s response to the idea of crippling Batgirl: “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.”
Despite the criticism, The Killing Joke is a great story, and fans have wanted to see it made into an animated film since animated DC became a thing. So when it was announced that not only were we getting an animated version of The Killing Joke, but we were also getting it voiced by some of the most well-loved voice actors in the animated Batman genre – Mark Hamill as the Joker, Kevin Conroy as the Batman, and Tara Strong as Batgirl – people were thrilled.
Then word started leaking out about the art and animation, which were a bit hinky-looking in the trailer, and folks started getting nervous. Then came the San Diego Comic Con this weekend, the weekend of The Killing Joke‘s release, and the whole thing devolved into an epic shitshow.
The Killing Joke was a pretty short story, so obviously, to make a movie of it, the plot was going to need some padding. And Bruce Timm, beloved creator of the animated Batman series and generally considered to be a doer of no wrongs when it comes to animated Batman stuff, said he wanted to address the controversy surrounding Batgirl’s treatment in the story. So that’s what the padding was built on: rectifying the fridging criticism.
Which they did by turning Batgirl into a fangirl who donned the cape to chase Batman and finally bang him. Yes. Batgirl banged it out with the goddamn Batman in the animated version of The Killing Joke. Then Batman went all crappy boyfriend and dumped her, so she left superheroing. And then got crippled and – at least – molested by the Joker.
Yep. That happened.
I just… y’know what? Take a second and let that ferment a bit in your brain. I’ll be over here beating my head into the wall.
Are we done? Okay. So, we watched The Killing Joke over the weekend, just to see if it was a bad as the reports coming out of SDCC had it. And, for the record, yes, it totally is. But we’ll get to that.
The meat of the story, the actual adaptation of the graphic novel The Killing Joke, is pretty good. The art and animation style, while no match for Brian Bolland’s originals, is nowhere near as bad as folks were making it out to be. The voice acting is stellar. Mark Hamill is on point as the Joker, as creepily perfect as he could possibly be. It’s everything a reasonable fan could expect and would love from an adaptation of The Killing Joke.
It’s just that the bits they did with Batgirl were completely awful, made no sense, added nothing to the story, and actually made the fridging worse.
They added about a half-hour on to the front of the story, a kind of prologue, dealing with why Batgirl was Batgirlling. It’s because she has the hots for Batman. Which is super weird, y’all, because Batman and his sidekicks are always presented as “the Bat Family,” of which Batman is the patriarch. He’s everyone’s father figure – all the Robins, Batgirl, whatever other sidekicks turn up – Batman is their father figure and mentor. So it’s really odd to see his “daughter” having the hots for him and him sexing it up with her. It feels gross and tonally off.
Bruce Timm is on record (from Comic-Con) as saying that he feels this Batman/Batgirl pairing has always been there in the subtext, but I’m pretty sure he’s gotten his own personal masturbatory fantasies confused with what’s actually in the books.
Anyway, Batgirl is obsessed with Batman, finally knocks him down and does the nasty with him, and then Batman never calls her back the next day because he’s all “Whoa, that was weird,” or something. So Batgirl confronts him, and then decides to quit Batgirlling.
This whole half hour is a hot mess of relationship cliches and stereotypes. It doesn’t fit with the flow of the rest of the story, the writing is obviously not Alan Moore’s, and it looks, feels and sounds exactly like what it is: garbage tacked on to an otherwise good story.
But then we get an epilogue.
After the ending of The Killing Joke, we turn back to Barbara Gordon, wheeling through her apartment in her wheelchair, chatting on the phone with her dad. She finishes her phone call, opens a secret door, and rolls into her supercomputer room, where she gets to work as Oracle.
Oracle is how DC tried to make up for what they did to Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke. And to be fair, it’s a pretty damn good make-up attempt. In one fell swoop, they turn Batgirl into Batman’s intellectual equal, and create a pretty awesome superhero who is also disabled.
So what I think Bruce Timm, et al, was trying to do was soften the blow of The Killing Joke against Batgirl by sandwiching it in between Oracle’s origin story. Then Barbara Gordon’s part in this story becomes less of a fridging and more of an origin story for a very cool hero. I think this is what Timm meant to do. I just don’t think he managed it very well.
Also happening in the prologue, in between the sexing and relationship garbage, is a throw-away story about a throw-away Joker analogue who has a serial killer crush on Batgirl. It’s intended to function as a brief look into the Joker’s madness for Batgirl. The way the story is structured, I think this, more than the weird Batman/Batgirl pairing, is meant to be what drives Batgirl out of superheroing. It’s just that the relationship dynamic, and the way it’s handled by the writers, really overshadows the rest of what’s going on.
I think it would have worked a lot better if they’d left the relationship garbage out of it and concentrated on making “Paris Franz” (yep, just that bad) and his wafer-thin mafia take-over plan a better, more well-written bit of story.
Overall I have to call the attempt inspired, but ultimately a failure in execution, which mars the rest of an otherwise good adaptation of The Killing Joke.