Batman: The Killing Joke

  • Year:  2016
  • Director:  Sam Liu
  • Series Rank:  #10
  • Year Rank:  #145
  • Oscar Nominations:  none
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none
  • Batman Villains:  Mark Hamill (Joker), Maury Sterling (Paris Franz)
  • Love Interest:  Tara Strong  (Batgirl)
  • Batman Allies:  Ray Wise (Commissioner Gordon), Brian George (Alfred)

“But my favorite comic book character is Batgirl.  My uncle has a lot of Batman comics and there’s a lot of Batgirl, and she’s cool and she reads (because she’s a librarian) and she kicks butt and she’s smart.  She’s awesome.”  That’s my character Kayce speaking, but in many ways she speaks for me there.  Batgirl is smart and cool and awesome.  What she is not, is a love interest for Batman.  That being said, writers are free to do what they want.  If you want to look at a good example at how to make her a love interest for Batman, just wait until tomorrow’s post.  For a primer on how to do it absolutely, completely wrong, I present to you Batman: The Killing Joke, a straight to DVD film made as part of DC’s Animated Universe but which earned a theatrical release and thus makes it into this series.

The Killing Joke is one of the most important and acclaimed comics in the history of the industry, which I will write more about once I put up the Reading Guide.  It was inevitable that it would eventually be made into a film, especially since it was the one thing that Mark Hamill still wanted to do as the Joker.  The problem is, at 48 pages, it just wasn’t long enough for a feature-length film.  That’s made clear in the film itself because the contents of the original comic make it to the screen almost word for word and only take up the last 50 minutes of the film (with some added fight scenes to make it longer).  So, the filmmakers needed to present some sort of story that would make the film longer.  So, instead of focusing on the relationship between the Joker and Batman, which is the whole point of the comic, they add on a thirty minute opening sequence that focuses on Batgirl and her relationship with Batman and they fuck up the job so badly they should have to endure public shaming from every fan of Batgirl.

Without any disrespect to Gail Simone and her work on Women in Refrigerators, I think what happens to Barbara Gordon in the original comic is different from what happens to many female comic book characters for a couple of reasons.  The first is that DC wisely made use of her in a new way once she became Oracle, which is why it took over 20 years before they were willing to restore her ability to walk and put her back in the Batgirl outfit.  The second is that, while she was Batgirl and was the partner of a hero, it was because of her position as the daughter of the police commissioner that put her in peril.  I think that makes the circumstances different.  Yes, this hero was treated brutally, but not because she was the hero.

That’s all thrown out in this film.  We begin with a terrible story about some ridiculous leering young crime boss who is made a threat beyond any reasonability.  He somehow manages to take out Batgirl multiple times and then taunts her so badly that she completely falls for his scheme.  The character itself is terrible, but to have him triumph over Batgirl so completely makes it much worse.  Then, aside from her failures against this crime boss, she ends up having sex with Batman.

If there is a good argument to be made that Barbara Gordon deserved to be on the Women in Refrigerators list (and there is), it’s that they crippled a character who had been around for 20 years in a story that wasn’t even about her.  It was just a side-note in a story that was really about the duality of Batman and Joker, about those moments at the beginning, where Batman discusses how one will probably kill the other and the end, where they somehow manage to share the joke.  The story wasn’t even about her.  But here, the story is about her, about her failure as a hero, how she then sleeps with Batman and then gives up her role as a hero before being crippled (yes, it tries to redeem itself by making her Oracle at the end, but it waits until a mid-credit sequence to do it, as if to say, well, we don’t want to ruin that iconic ending by then showing her finding a way to being a hero again).  It makes her incompetent as a hero, has no problem showing her in a bra or in a tank top and panties and by having the whores that Batman questions mention that Joker usually comes to them and he might have a new girl, adds the implication of rape to her shooting so strongly that when it aired on HBO (where I watched it), they added Rape as one of the reasons it was rated R (the MPAA itself rated it R for “bloody images and disturbing content”).

What’s more, one of the few things they actually change from the original story, once we get past the terrible half hour add-on story (aside from the line from the whores and the stupid fighting) is that when Batman visits her in the hospital, she no longer refers to him as Bruce.  Batman, early in the film, tells her they are partners but not equals.  We see her undress but not him and we never get any indication that she knows who he is.  But in the original story, he says to her “It’s Bruce” and she calls him Bruce.  By eliminating that, they really are reducing her as an equal because it gives us no indication that Batman has shared enough of himself, other than his body, to have let her in.  The Batgirl they have given us seems like a brand new partner who shouldn’t be all that good.  But she’s been working with Batman for three years (she tells us that right away).  This is all inexcusable.

Now, given all of that, this film could have been a lot worse.  It has some very good animation, especially Batgirl, Batman and Joker.  When we get into the actual Killing Joke story, it so perfectly replicates some of the original art from the story that it’s almost breath-taking, especially the Joker in the shadows and the iconic image of him after he’s been changed.  It has a magnificent voice performance from Mark Hamill that might be the best Joker he’s ever done in the story that practically defines the Joker.  It has a number of images that gloriously reference the entire history of Batman, from the first appearance of the Joker to Strange Apparitions to the death of Robin to the Burton and Nolan films.  In those moments, you can see the glorious film this could have been instead of the misogynistic mess that it ended up being.