Photo: Graham Campbell, CC BY 2.0
The Killing Joke movie takes a problematic storyline and makes it worse.
Warning: The following includes basically All the Spoilers for the graphic novel and film versions of The Killing Joke, as well as a spoiler for the graphic novel version of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Also, this one turned out long. Like, really long. Apparently I have lots of feelings about this. Proceed accordingly.
When I first heard that there would be an animated version of The Killing Joke with the voice actors from Batman: The Animated Series, my reactions, in order, were basically “Oh my God that is so cool!” and “Oh my God what is this ominous sense of foreboding doom?”
For those of you not in the know, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke is considered one of the greatest superhero stories of all time. It’s frequently referred to as the best Joker story, and one of the best Batman stories, in the history of the canon. It’s big.
As a feminist comic fan, it is also deeply, deeply troubling, as it contains possibly the most famous example of Gail Simone’s “Women in Refrigerators” syndrome, as a major plot point concerns the Joker shooting Batgirl when she is acting as civilian Barbara Gordon. The shot hits her in the stomach, travels to shatter her spine, and paralyzes her. The Joker then strips Barbara and takes photographs of her while she is nude, then uses the photographs to torture her father, Commissioner Gordon.
The action is sadistic, sexualized, and also, used entirely in order to perpetuate the stories of male characters.
Barbara is not shot because she is Batgirl, and is willingly putting her life on the line in order to fight crime. She is shot because she is the daughter of an important man, a man who is even more important because he is friends with a more important man. The panels that show her injury and her debasement are grotesque (and apparently audiences were spared some of the most overtly sexualized panels in the original printing.) It was a brutal action against a beloved character, and it wasn’t even originally intended to do anything to advance Batgirl’s storyline.
And Batgirl, and her storyline, were apparently only beloved by readers: Moore reports that when he approached his editors at DC about his plans to include a storyline in which Batgirl was crippled, DC editor Len Wein replied (seriously) “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.” We’ll let that just sink in, shall we?
Moore himself has expressed regret over how he delivered that storyline, and suggested that this would be a time that someone should have exerted more editorial control and kept him from doing it. (And remember, this is the man who wrote a story in which the Invisible Man assaults Mina Murray/Harker and is then punished by being raped to death by Mr. Hyde. The dude who wrote that thinks he went too far in what he did to Batgirl.)
While Barbara’s injury led to her becoming Oracle, who is possibly one of the best and most positive representations of an individual with disabilities in the world of comics, it’s clear from Moore’s telling and Wein’s reaction that this wasn’t really part of the original plan. It isn’t as if Moore went into The Killing Joke thinking “I’ll have her become disabled so that later she can become an empowering character for readers with disabilities, and broaden the way we define “superheroes.”’ Barbara Gordon’s turn as Oracle is an example of Kim Yale and John Ostrander taking sexist lemons and turning them into kickass lemonade.
So despite my love of Bruce Timm, Kevin Conroy, and Mark Hamill, I had some reservations as the animated version of The Killing Joke was in development, even as I was excited about it. I got a bit more excited when I learned that, as a remedy for the problems of trying to turn a short one-shot into an animated feature film, there were plans in place to add extra material that heavily featured Batgirl and fleshed out her storyline in the feature. Then the reviews started coming in, and I was suddenly much less excited. Then I actually watched it, and I was actually pretty pissed.
The additional footage, as Charles Pullman-Moore accurately puts it, “insults everything Batgirl stands for.” It squishes a bizarre array of RomCom tropes, a new bad guy who’s main schtick seems to be an unhealthy sexual obsession with Batgirl, and a problematic sexual relationship with Batman on top of the story where she is already shot, stripped, and brutalized. That’s like telling your friend that you’ll make her feel better and take her mind off the death of her father, and then you do so by killing her dog. “Better” in this case means “worse, hurtful, and very confusing.”
So let’s summarize the madness that is this film, and the ways in which the creators seem to be at best unaware of some of the implications of their work, and at worst openly hostile to the idea that they might be contributing to sexism. (Apologies if any of the following is slightly incorrect or out of order, I’m relying on memory and notes I took while watching it, because I’m a cheapskate and caught it on TV. And also I refuse to pay money for this garbage fire in order to double-check myself.)
So we start with some frankly awesome animation, and some voiceover from Batgirl. She sees Commissioner Gordon (again, her dad) and Batman exchanging a file. Her voiceover helpfully explains, “I tend to stay out of these discussions. I mean, why push my luck.” It’s really unclear if she means that she doesn’t want her identity to be revealed to her father (I legitimately can’t remember if her father knows about her secret identity in this storyline) or if she means that she just doesn’t like to interrupt the menfolk while they’re talking. Batgirl tries to stop a truck that is escaping some robbery, and the bad guy blows her a kiss before he gets her tossed off the truck. Batman comes to get one of the thugs that she’s incapacitated and explains that he’ll need some alone time (for torture, not masturbation, BATMAN DOESN’T ALLOW HIMSELF TO FEEL PLEASURE DON’T UNDERESTIMATE HIS MAN PAIN) and Batgirl stammers “Yeah sure, maybe I’ll see you later” like Batman just blew her off for an offer to go get pizza.
Meanwhile, bad guy (who I shit you not is called Paris Franz) is decompressing and talking about the future, and also how much he wants to bone Batgirl. “What can I tell you, Batgirl is hot,” he tells one of his flunkies. Which is objectively true, but super creepy coming from a man who just got her tossed off a truck.
We skip to Barbara Gordon’s day job as a librarian, where the script writers have decided to insert a Stereotypical Gay Best Friend named Reese who presses her for the details of her love life. Barbara Gordon goes from ass-kicking superhero to Super Uncertain RomCom lead when she explains to him that “It just so happens I’m involved with someone. Sort of. Kind of.” Yep. That is super clear.
Later, through some order of events I can’t remember, Paris Franz gets into another conflict with Batgirl, and asks her where Batman is by asking her where her boyfriend is. Because obviously a male and female crime fighting duo are sexing each other up!
“Where’s your overbearing boyfriend?”
“He’s not my boyfriend.”
“Then maybe I have a chance.”
Franz then fulfills the “uuuuugh” trifecta by drugging her and trying to kiss her. Also, this makes the second time that Batgirl has been incapacitated in a fight against someone who basically is just a douche/date rapist.
Batman saves the day, and brings her coffee. (Like superheroes…do?) Then he starts to scold her about how she should have waited for him, and they have the following Exchange Between People Who Are Ostensibly Equals:
“You wanna work with me, you do what I say.”
“And that’s it? You speak and the words are law.”
(paraphrasing) “Yeah, basically.”
Then we go back to Barbara’s day job, and we get the super confusing exchange between her and Reese in which she explains Batman as her… yoga instructor. Because that is the most accurate analogy. Yoga instructor.
“He’s always been controlling. Usually I’m okay with it.”
“But there’s no sex?”
“God no.” (Spoilers! Later there will totally be sex.) Then Barbara freaks out emotionally and shouts at her coworker in the middle of the library they both work at. Like sane, emotionally stable superheroes do.
We now switch to the boat owned by Paris Franz (God I can’t take myself seriously when I type that name) where a series of sex workers are being led off of the boat. The redheaded one (for the next bit to make sense, remember that Batgirl is a redhead) apologizes for having to ruin a pillowcase in order to make the mask that Franz wanted, and explains that she has masks in the office. Then she throws the mask in the ocean, because she apparently doesn’t believe in recycling. We see it is a mask cut to look like Batgirl’s mask. So now the bad guy is paying sex workers to dress up like Batgirl while he has sex with them. Don’t you all really feel like this extra material was added to make Batgirl a strong character with a vibrant backstory?
Franz does this semi-flirtatious luring/teasing thing with Batgirl and she tries to frame it as flattering for… reasons? And Batman manages to say something smart but also sound like a condescending prick at the same time when he replies, “No, he doesn’t know you. He’s objectifying you.” Then he throws her off the case, like she’s not an adult woman or something. So she of course goes after Franz on her own and, of course, gets damseled again and Batman has to rescue her while she’s cornered by bad guys. Batman and Batgirl argue, Batman claims that while they are partners they aren’t equals, Batman is kind of a dick, Batman tells her to leave if she doesn’t like things, they start physically fighting and it ends with her leaning over him and then…. they kiss.
And then Batman puts his hand on her ass.
And then she takes her top off.
And then Batman and Batgirl have sex.
….yep. So that happened.
This is disturbing to me on a few levels. First is the fact that, while it has been alluded to or addressed in a few incarnations of Batman, a relationship between Batgirl and Batman is usually considered off the table. She’s much more frequently paired with Robin or Nightwing, aka, the sidekicks who are not old enough to be her father. And that’s where the rest of the disturbing comes in. Batman has almost always behaved in a very paternalistic fashion towards Batgirl. In this particular instance, he just finished explaining that he doesn’t consider Batgirl to be his equal. Any relationship they have is guaranteed, thanks to his own words, to be one that isn’t very much about equality or partnership. And apparently that just… turns her on more? I dunno.
So now we’re back to the library. Reese the walking stereotype accuses her of holding out on him, and then she admits that she had fantastic sex but that now he is avoiding her. Because again, we attached a RomCom to this flick. She leaves a restaurant and sees a man and a woman arguing, with the man saying he wants his space. Then, in a move that is definitely logical and in no way freaking crazy, she throws him into a bush and asks if he is happy with his “space.” She throws a complete stranger who is having a fairly common argument with his partner into a bush for daring to have a situation slightly comparable to hers.
Later she is being Batgirl again, but she is literally waiting by the phone for Batman, holding onto and staring at her commlink. When she finally gets in touch with Batman again, he is all Broody Distant Man and says they’ll talk later, and she falls all over herself insisting that the sex meant nothing and they can just go back to how they were.
Batgirl is finally able to confront Franz again and accuses him of ruining everything. He claims it must be that time of the month. Because this is a super progressive movie that was released within the last year. She punches him. A lot. Like, so much. When she finally realizes that her hand is all bloody and Franz’s face is indistinguishable from a Picasso painting, she stops and is horrified by herself.
Later, she voluntarily gives up her costume to Batman, implying that this loss of control was enough to mean that she’s not worthy of being a hero anymore. (Remember, a few days earlier in movie time Batman needed some “alone time” to scare/torture information out of a henchman. But repeatedly punching a dude who has thrown you off a truck, drugged you, paid sex workers to look like you, and insulted you is a sign of craziness and that you shouldn’t be a hero anymore.)
And then Batgirl basically just gets to be Barbara until the Joker arrives at her door. She stares at him, and at the gun, for a few seconds, as if she’s never seen either before. He shoots her in the belly and she falls backwards. He starts making jokes that make it clear he was intentionally aiming for her spine. He jokes about her like he’s a book— talking about a coffee table edition, a hole in the jacket, how the spine seems to be damaged, and a crack about “softbacks.”
Then we get to the really weird sexualized parts, and the parts that make me wonder if Bruce Timm was reading his own source material, or watching his own movie. The Joker starts to unbutton Barbara Gordon’s shirt and remove her bra. Later, it is reported that she was found in a state of “undress,” and while the Joker is trying to torture her father, he shows Gordon large images of Barbara’s nude and bloody body. Batman, trying to track down the Joker, talks to more sex workers. Apparently the Joker usually comes to have sex with them first thing after he’s out of prison, but not this time. One worker muses that the possible cause of his changed behavior is that “he found himself another girl.”
In other words, it is super heavily implied that Joker rapes Batgirl. Even if it isn’t outright shown (thank God) between all of these details, it seems pretty clear that this is what’s up.
Unless, of course, you’re Bruce Timm. Charles Pullman-Moore explains Timm’s somewhat bizarre inability to read anything into the scene that might imply sexual assault:
According to Timm, this scene doesn’t imply rape or any type of sexual assault because, in his mind, that was never in the original comic’s subtext. “I never, ever thought that he actually raped her. Even in my first read of the comic, I never thought that,” Timm told Vulture. “It just seemed like he shot her and then took her clothes off and took pictures of her to freak out her dad.”
…yep. Joker just shot her, intentionally paralyzed her, stripped her of her clothing, and took photos of her. Definitely nothing there that would suggest that he might rape her as well, especially as a final way to break the mind of her father. He certainly wouldn’t go that dark, would he? (Do we need to link to the unused panels again?)
To me, it seems to add insult to injury that Timm is insisting that the Joker would not sexually assault Barbara Gordon when all of the other actions, and some of the added material, all suggest so strongly that assault happened, and when every other “Woman in the Refrigerator” shorthand has been used to de-power and humiliate Barbara Gordon in order to make male storylines progress. It’s a bizarre “wink wink, nod nod” that seems to let us believe that the Joker took that final horrible step, but without taking responsibility for actually inserting a rape storyline. To me it reads as them saying “well yes, we made an animated movie where Batgirl has sex with Batman, has to be rescued repeatedly, is objectified and stalked by a bad guy, and is shot, stripped, humiliated, and photographed by a psychopath, but at least we didn’t show the Joker raping her! Where’s our Good Guy Brownie?”
Timm and co-writer Brian Azzarello seem bizarrely fixated on the notion that they have done a good job. That they have done justice to the character of Batgirl/Barbara Gordon, and that they have presented her as a Strong Female Character. (They probably almost broke their arms patting themselves on the backs for including a scene at the end where Barbara, in her wheelchair, enters a secret room in her apartment and assumes her identity as Oracle. A thing which, remember, doesn’t freaking happen in the original The Killing Joke.) Timm insists that Batgirl’s sexual relationship with Batman and her frequent follies with Franz makes her a more “human” character. Azzarello claims that it isn’t Bruce Wayne/Batman that Batgirl is attracted to, but rather violence. Which is… better? Azzarello also really, really doesn’t like it when you point out his sexism by shouting at him during a comic con panel, as reported by io9:
It was during the Q&A that things got dicey. A Joker cosplayer asked the writers why they would downplay Barbara Gordon, such a strong female character, and make her story more about the men in her life. According to Bleeding Cool reporter Jeremy Konrad, the writers insisted she was still a strong female character. Konrad, who’d already seen the film and didn’t agree, himself sarcastically shouted, “Yeah, by using sex and then pining for Bruce.”
Yep. That’s gonna win over hearts and minds, and convince viewers that you’re not sexist and that you value strong characters. That’s definitely the language you use to convince someone of that.
In summary, The Killing Joke movie takes a problematic storyline and makes it worse.
While both Bruce Timm and Brian Azzarello have done excellent work in other venues related to Batman, it’s pretty clear (to me at least) that they have fallen far from the mark with this one, and don’t even realize that they have done so. By substituting a cliché (and somewhat messed up) romance storyline for character growth, by inserting new villains that basically only exist to make sure we understand how objectified Batgirl is and to provide opportunities for Batman to save her, and by refusing to acknowledge the ways in which these changes have actually made the character of Batgirl worse and not better, the creators of the film have done the nearly impossible by making this a more problematic and sexist text than it already was. And by making me hate something that involves characters, an animation style, and voice actors that I absolutely adore.
I’ll probably never watch The Killing Joke again, and most frustrating part may be that the men who are the reason why don’t even understand what they’ve done.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not explaining in great detail everything that went wrong with The Killing Joke, she studies gender in popular culture.
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