Batman enthusiasts may have recently noticed a controversial headline or two about the highly anticipated home video release of Batman: the Killing Joke. Starring the beloved voice talents of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, this classic story was hailed as one of the seminal tales of the Batman mythos in the 1980s, and is credited with moving the Dark Knight into dark territory with its violent plot and surprisingly tragic (possible) backstory given to the Joker. One of the most impactful developments in the story involves the crippling of Barbara Gordon, who up until this story had been Batgirl, and whose horrific treatment at the hands of the Joker lays the groundwork for her eventual rebirth as the wheelchair-bound superhero, Oracle.
Right before the film’s release, news websites began posting about a significant change to the character of Barbara Gordon in the animated film, particularly involving her relationship with Batman. Cast as a problematic and unwelcome development, the news centered around the introduction of Barbara, as Batgirl, having a sexual relationship with Batman during the course of the film. Taken as is, these headlines could easily leave Batfans in a state of acute pique, especially any source material purists who don’t recall any cannon relationship between the two of them.
At first, I jumped on the bandwagon that mocked and rolled its collective eyes at this news. Many of my friends reacted, making statements to the effect that Barbara couldn’t possibly have any worth in this story unless she was a damsel in distress to give Batman some man pain to motivate him to fight the Joker. And, at first, I joined them.
After having seen The Killing Joke in theaters this week, I’m of the opinion that the first third of the film, which is told from Barbara’s perspective, is a problematic but ultimately necessary subversion of the original story by Alan Moore. After it moves into the conflict between Batman and the Joker, Barbara is essentially abandoned after the Joker shoots, cripples, and sexually violates her. She is effectively a prop, an easy example of Women in Refrigerators whose sole function is to raise the stakes for the men in the story.
Isn’t that a biting indictment of a story? Barbara gets mutilated, and the story is not even about her.
In hindsight, Alan Moore holds no love for this event, if his interviews are to be believed. Of the contrarian opinion that The Killing Joke isn’t a very good story of his, he also mentions that DC editorial’s decision to let him cripple Barbara was a mistake, one where they should have “reined [him] in,” but failed to do so.
The Killing Joke, as Alan Moore wrote it, is essentially about Batman and the Joker, and to a lesser degree, about Jim Gordon. It’s not about Barbara, her struggles as Batgirl, or even her triumphant attainment of the Oracle mantle. Yet it’s absolutely integral to her evolution as a character, because of what is done to her. For that reason alone, I don’t take issue with the film creators’ decision to inject her perspective into the beginning of the narrative. Given the enormity and tragedy of what is inflicted on her in the course of this story, this deserves to be her story, too.
With all of that said, however…
I think the decision to make Barbara infatuated with Batman didn’t do the character any favors. It’s the sole, stark issue I have with this part of the story, for a number of reasons. Comic book continuity aside, Barbara has never struck me as a person who needed Bruce or Batman to complete her identity as a person; she had always been an independent, resourceful woman whose inexperience was often counterbalanced by her cleverness and intelligence. The idea that she would pine after her mentor in crimefighting—her “yoga instructor,” as she codes to her gay best friend when dishing about guys—is also more than a little disturbing.
However, with that said, I like a lot of the other issues raised by this part of the story. Barbara’s exploration of her role as a crimefighter takes a compelling turn when the nephew of one of the mob bosses becomes obsessed with her. She scoffs, like I would guess any young vigilante would, when Batman tells her she’s not taking a dangerous situation seriously enough. Her enthusiasm balances her uncertainty, with which she does struggle in a believable fashion. What her mentor thinks of her, what lengths criminals will go to in order to get what they want, how she handles stress and surprises in their line of work—these are all issues she encounters, and deals with in ultimately relatable ways. It’s only when the romantic/sexual/infatuation elements come into play that things come off as contrived or off-putting.
In short, I think the headlines many websites and publications used to sensationalize this development were misleading and manipulated to generate clicks. Surprise, surprise, I know. But I think anyone who was excited about this movie and then put off of it because of the headlines owes it to themselves to see it for themselves. I myself was guilty of judging the film based on those headlines, and while I won’t rate The Killing Joke as one of the best animated Batman films I’ve seen, it’s certainly nowhere near as bad as the naysayers would have you believe.
There is, of course, more to this film than the changes that were made to the story, and I’m giving them such short shrift because, for the most part, they’re fine, and we all know what to expect from them. The script is nearly line for line accurate to the comic, and the animation and voice acting is all top-notch. I even didn’t realize in the original comic that Joker actually sings during one phase of his tormenting the elder Gordon. It’s certainly not a bad adaptation. I just happen to think the changes surrounding Barbara’s character are the most significant part of the story, and that they bring both positive and negative elements to bare upon the narrative.
It’s definitely worth a watch, if for no other reason than as a lesson that you can’t always trust the headlines you see on the internet.