In “The Killing Joke,” the relationship between Batman and Batgirl has left a lot of fans speechless. And not in a good way.
Spoiler alert! This post contains spoilers for “Batman: The Killing Joke.”
Hooo boy. Where do I start? OK. How about with this: Released to VOD and select theaters today is the long-awaited DC animated film based on Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke.” In an additional scene not part of the original graphic novel, Batman and Batgirl get, ahem, friendly with each other on a rooftop in Gotham City. And the funny part? That new scene is the least controversial thing about “The Killing Joke.”
Over the weekend at Comic-Con International in San Diego, fans were abuzz, and not in a good way, about this seemingly random addition to one of the most polarizing Batman stories ever published. But first, let’s back up and explain what “The Killing Joke” is for those of you who are like, “Wait. What?”
“The Killing Joke”: The Story Of How A Story Become Unintentional Canon
If you’ve never read a Batman comic before but have a friend who does, the odds are pretty good they’ve recommended you read “The Killing Joke.” “The Killing Joke” is … OK, I can’t do this without being completely honest: “The Killing Joke” is this overrated, garbage pile of a graphic novel from the 80s. It’s a relic of a time when everything in comics had to be “grim” and “gritty” because the industry decided, stupidly, that it should only cater to a hardcore audience of comic readers, instead of making comics fun and accessible for everyone. Glen Weldon, the author of “The Caped Crusade: Batman and The Rise of Nerd Culture,” refers to this as “The Great Inward Turn.”
“The Killing Joke” is written by Alan Moore, whom everyone in the comic industry worships. Moore has gone on to distance himself from the story at every opportunity. In the graphic novel, The Joker decides he’s going to try to break Commissioner Gordon’s mind to show Batman that everyone in the world is just like him: one bad day away from going crazy.
The novel provides an origin story for The Joker, which is why people like it so damn much. There’s also a nebulous ending that suggests Batman may or may not have killed The Joker. (The animated feature also leaves the ending ambiguous on that front.)
Originally, and this is very, very important, “The Killing Joke” wasn’t meant to be Batman canon. So Alan Moore was allowed to go off and do pretty much anything he wanted to the characters, and that brings us to Batgirl. Poor, poor, Batgirl.
The Problematic Victimization Of Batgirl
DC Editorial gave Moore permission to cripple Batgirl (Barbara Gordon, the Commissioner’s daughter). According to Moore, the exact words of comic writer and editor Len Wein were, “Yeah, OK, cripple the bitch.”
Not only did they decide to cripple Batgirl, but after The Joker shoots and consequently paralyzes Barbara Gordon, he strips her. The Joker then proceeds to photograph her naked. What happens next has been a source of contention for almost 30 years. Some fans over the years have decided that, between taking pictures of the nude and paralyzed Batgirl, the Joker raped her. Others, including Moore, have said The Joker did not rape her. I’m of the opinion it didn’t happen, because my interpretation of The Joker has always been that he’s an asexual malevolent presence that only exists to mess with Batman. (“Don’t you want to rev up your Harley” jokes aside.)
Both camps on the “did he or didn’t he” front are pretty polarized. Those who think The Joker raped Batgirl are derided as “SJWs” or “Feminazis” who try to censor everything because of their delicate sensibilities. Those who don’t believe The Joker raped Batgirl are accused of participating in rape culture by explaining the event away and not acknowledging the trauma and experience of rape survivors. Furthermore, the accusation goes, they’re showing their privilege.
In all the drama surrounding “The Killing Joke” movie’s release, three points have been overlooked:
1. Regardless of whether or not The Joker raped Batgirl, I don’t think the people who felt he did should be dismissed and ignored. What happens to Barbara is still highly sexualized violence that happens for no other reason than to advance the story of two male characters. To make matters worse, after she’s shot, Batgirl becomes an afterthought in “The Killing Joke.” That is not OK. It should not have been acceptable then, and it is not acceptable now.
2. It’s perfectly fine for adult things to happen in comics made for adults. However, and I can’t underline this enough, something that serious shouldn’t happen as an afterthought, for the sake of being “edgy,” in the way it’s done in “The Killing Joke.” It’s not the fans’ place to tell the creators what they can and can’t do. We can, however, not support things we dislike with our money. So just don’t buy those comics.
3. “The Killing Joke” wasn’t supposed to be part of the main DC canon. When it became a hit, that changed. So much so that for decades Barbara Gordon found herself wheelchair-bound. Writers returned to “The Killing Joke” well again and again, rarely trying to salvage what they could to help lift Barbara Gordon back to where she was before the story. Instead, they chose to wallow in her misery.
Now Let’s Talk About That Sex Scene
Imagine my surprise, and more than a few others’, when DC Entertainment decided they were going to adapt “The Killing Joke” into an animated feature. By all accounts, the animated feature is faithful to the source material. But it was precisely this faithfulness that presented a problem. “The Killing Joke” is a short graphic novel. How, then, do you make the feature over an hour long?
The answer: Tack on a Batgirl prequel story that, at best, has nothing to do with anything, and at worst, changes the narrative of “The Killing Joke.” The story now goes from Batman going after The Joker because he’s Batman, and stopping The Joker is the right thing to do, to Batman going after The Joker because he done wronged his woman. I’m not kidding. (There’s also a new, questionable line of dialogue that may confirm Batgirl was raped because … Seriously?)
Here’s the thing about Batman: The character is over 75 years old. Depending on how old you are and where you first encountered him, your conception of Batman can be very different from the next person’s. Depending on what version of Batman and Batgirl we’re talking about, their relationship differs significantly. So I’m going to focus on three of them.
Batman and Batgirl: A History Of Failing To DTR
Batman 66: Without this Batman series, there would be no Barbara Gordon/Batgirl. She was created for the show to keep away those pesky rumors of a relationship between Batman and Robin. That’s right: Barbara was brought in explicitly for Batman to have someone to flirt with. So if we’re looking at Batman and Batgirl’s relationship from a purely historical perspective, then it is OK for them to want to get friendly in an animated feature based on an awful and overrated graphic novel.
“Batman: The Animated Series” and “Batman Beyond”: Batman’s relationship with Barbara Gordon in “Batman: The Animated Series” stays close to the comic book, which we’ll get to in a moment. But in “Batman Beyond,” which existed in the same animated universe as “Batman: The Animated Series,” it turns out that Batman and Batgirl had a relationship that went south for nebulous reasons. So again, we have a different version of Batman, some 30 years after Batman ’66, which involves Batman and Barbara Gordon having a relationship of some kind. Also important and worth mentioning here is that in both instances of Batman and Batgirl getting it on, we’re talking about television. There is a much, much larger audience of people watching TV than reading the comics. So to those viewers, a sexy rooftop encounter between the two comes as little surprise.
In the comics, however, Batman and Barbara Gordon’s relationship is usually (I have to emphasize this) often restricted to a mentor/mentee relationship. After she’s crippled, Barbara and Bruce’s relationship evolves. Barbra becomes the operations center for Batman and all of his associated heroes, supplying them with intelligence and information. Sometimes a comics writer might sneak in that Bruce and Barbara were having a relationship, but it was (and is) pretty rare. So if you read the comics, your default position is that Batman takes in Robins, Batgirls, The Outsiders, The Teen Titans and Catwoman and acts as their surrogate father figure. Batman is filling his cave with the family he never had and thought he would never have, because he’s dedicated his life to fighting crime. That’s a powerful thing, and that’s also where the ick factor of the new film’s sex scene activates for a lot of people. If Batman is like a father figure to Batgirl, then the last thing he should be doing is getting friendly with her.
This clash between the few people left reading comics, and the millions of people who know these characters through television, are what created the controversy here involving the brief sex scene. I mean, on top of the fact that this garbage story was made into a film in the first place. A lot of prior direct-to-DVD/VOD animated films from DC have taken liberties with the source material in the comics. If DC was serious about doing “The Killing Joke,” they easily could have made changes to excise the possible rape scene and give Batgirl more to do than pout at Batman not answering her calls. (Yes. This is something she does in the new animated film.)
I’m one of those weirdos who prefers Adam West’s version of Batman to Christian Bale’s Batman. So from that perspective, if that’s the version on which “The Killing Joke’s” Batman is based, then it makes sense for Batgirl and Batman to have a thing.
However, that’s not what we get with “The Killing Joke” animated film. It’s a messy movie that conflates the Batman of “66” and “Batman Beyond” with that of Batman from the comics?—?these are similar but distinct versions of the same character trying to coexist with each other in a way that fails to work.