Batman: The Killing Joke Succeeds and Fails by Taking New Risks

I’m not going to lie, since the screening I had at SDCC last night, I’ve been racking my brain trying to collect my thoughts on DC’s newest animation, The Killing Joke. Such an iconic story, controversial on it’s own has suddenly become even more controversial. There’s obviously a gigantic elephant in the room to address, but before we get into that (which will include massive spoilers), let’s talk about the rest of the movie.
For those who don’t know, The Killing Joke is the latest DC animated film based on the classic Alan Moore storyline of the same name. Love it or hate it, The Killing Joke is a pretty big deal in the Batman mythos and the hype for the movie has been pretty huge. What makes it an even bigger deal is that the original Batman: The Animated Series reprising their famous roles specifically for this movie, with Kevin Conroy as Batman, Tara Strong as Batgirl, and Mark Hamill as the Joker.

The main problem with trying to adapt the Killing Joke, and this is something that is openly acknowledged by Bruce Timm, is that it’s a very short story. More needs to be added to make it a full length feature. Since Batgirl was really only used as a prop in the original story, Brian Azarello and Bruce Timm decided that in order to fill in that extra time, it would be a good idea to give Batgirl her own story to flesh out her character and give her more emotional weight in the grand scheme of things. To their credit, it is a very good idea; however, there execution of this story is something that is going to have fans split. Unfortunately, it really is impossible to talk about it with going into spoilers, so let me start with overall impressions, what worked and what didn’t work, before going fully into spoiler territory.

Let’s get one thing clear, the actual adaption part of this film is fantastic. Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy knock it out of the park and deliver performances that are complex and nuanced as they are haunting and deeply disturbing. This movie reminded me just how sadistic this story line really is, and I loved that the movie took risks and wasn’t afraid to actively make the audience uncomfortable with the Joker’s actions. The famous (or infamous) Barbara/Joker scene is done flawlessly, and will make you feel disgusted and on edge unlike anything any of the other DC animated movies has been able to do before. There are some little changes from the source material that, quite frankly, are a little baffling to me (you complain that the Killing Joke story is too short for film but you cut the Joker’s “Average Man” speech?), but it’s tightly nit and it hits the emotional highs and lows that it’s clearly going for. As a shot-for-shot remake of the classic storyline, The Killing Joke is a massive success.

So here’s where things get complicated, because now we need to talk about Batgirl’s story line. Now I don’t think that, on the whole, this segment was bad by any stretch of the imagination, and I can absolutely see what they were trying to do with it and how it plays into the larger story (most of which will be discussed when spoilers are finally brought in), but it’s definitely where the most problems in the film come up. It starts out as a more fun, happy-go-lucky look at Barbara’s life as Batgirl, that gets increasingly dark until it eventually reaches the Killing Joke. Along the way, we’re faced with a antagonist that becomes obsessed with Barbara in a sexual context and has enough power and influence to make her life increasingly stressful as Batman doesn’t want her involved – for fear of her coming to harm because of the man’s obsession.

Barbara obviously isn’t a big fan of that, but she goes along anyway, and shenanigans happen that place her where she needs to be when The Killing Joke starts. Okay, before getting to the elephant in the room, let’s discuss the elements of this Batgirl substory. First and foremost, the antagonist in this story is remarkably boring. His sole identification is that he’s attracted to Batgirl and that’s about it. There really isn’t a whole lot to make him compelling or interesting. I am also surprised that while I have heard many people talk about the controversial scene that occurs later on during Batgirl’s story, there hasn’t been a single mention of the openly gay stereotype present throughout her story line. This feels like the gay stereotype that Patton Oswalt would make fun of in his stand-up, it just feels remarkably offensive. And while it is nice to see a gay character in a DC Animated movie (the first one that I know of anyway), but is this really the best they could do? Why aren’t more people talking about this one?

Alright, I think I’ve put this off for as long as I possibly could, so if you haven’t heard about it already and don’t want to know any more, turn back now. MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD

Still here? Okay, so about halfway through the movie, Batgirl lets her frustration with Batman get the best of her and ends up pinning him to the floor. Batgirl then decides to start making out with a clearly uncomfortable Batman (but he still goes with it) and they have what I can only assume is very aggressive sex. This leads to Batman distancing himself from her and Barbara retiring as Batgirl after she finds she can no longer work with Batman under professional circumstances. This eventually leads to where she’s at by the time the Joker comes knocking.

So let’s break this down, because there’s a lot to talk about. Now, to be honest, I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about this, because I see both sides of the argument, and I don’t think either one is particularly right or wrong. On one hand, this scene makes many people uncomfortable and says goes against character because Batman and Batgirl have traditionally shared a Father/daughter type of relationship. Before anyone points it out though, Bruce and Barbara have shared a relationship in the past that was canon during Batman Beyond and was also briefly highlighted during the direct-to-video movie, Mystery of the Batwoman (and it was creepy then too). Actually, the way it’s done in Mystery of the Batwoman is about 10 times creepier than what’s here, to be fair, but I digress.

Aside from the potential creep factor of it all, there’s also the fact that a plotline meant to flesh out a much needed character in the story, turns into a character that is defined largely by other people’s sexual advances and her own sexual desires. To my knowledge, this has never been a big part of her character, nor should it be. I can see it working more for character like Catwoman or Poison Ivy, characters who have openly used sexuality as a tool or a weapon to achieve their ultimate goals, but that’s never been the case with Batgirl and it’s disappointing to see that be the first direction they take it.

One common complaint I’ve heard quite a bit is that it doesn’t fix the issue of Batgirl being a prop in the story. In fact, it makes it worse, in that it turns Batgirl from a helpless victim that was in the comics to a rejected lover of Batman, and gives him a greater reason to be angry. I certainly understand where this complaint comes from, and understand if that’s how you see it, but I personally don’t see it that way. While that is undoubtedly an element in the film, I don’t think it’s what defines her. I would personally argue that the point of the story was that in increased frustrations brought on by her struggles, she made a very stupid and very human mistake that everyone involved immediately regretted, one made off impulse and adrenaline. In doing so, not only has she placed herself in an incredibly uncomfortable position, but also left her in an emotionally vulnerable position to lose control and almost kill a man as a result.

Now, before you all race to the comments sections to tell me off, I’m saying that’s what they intended, NOT what they necessarily accomplished. While I don’t condone the overly sexualized approach to a character that already has a bad history with gender presentation, I do see what they were going for, and from a storytelling standpoint, I think there’s a greater purpose than is being described online. That being said, if it bothered you to the point where it ruined the movie for you, I wouldn’t blame you for a second. Like I said, I’m still not sure how I feel about it myself, but I can see and respect both sides.

Out of all the DC Animated movies released so far, this was the first and only one that’s been released where I had to genuinely sit down and think pretty hard about the implications of what I saw, and whether or not the film succeeded or failed in what it was trying to do. The fact that it could get that reaction out of me, and that it’s still sitting with me even now says something. It says that while they fumble with controversy like this, they’re still trying to push the envelope and take bigger risks with what they can say and do, and I do think it deserves some credit for that. Now you’re going to have your own opinion on all this, as well you should, but I hope you can at least appreciate that it actually started a discussion in a way that no other DC Animated film has. Whether or not it’s a good discussion is questionable, but it’s a conversation none the less, and the fact that we’re at a point with these animated films that we can start moving beyond the usual punching gives me hope for the future of comic book animation.

So am I recommending this movie? Yes. Despite it’s flaws, I still think the good outweighs the bad, but whether you love the changes or hate them, at least you’ll have something to talk about.

Michael Medina

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