This review was very difficult to write.
I am a big 80’s Batman fan. I wrote my senior thesis on comic books, and devoted an entire chapter to the depiction of Batman in the late 80s and 90s, choosing select storylines to analyze and discuss. Needless to say, The Killing Joke was one of them.
This comic is a powerhouse: written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland, this short comic is now considered a classic by critics. The Killing Joke was published in 1988, in the wave of Batman revisionism that followed Frank Miller’s landmark title, The Dark Knight Returns). Batman was now dark, angry, and not always right. TKJ is very much in this vein, and takes the Joker-Batman relationship to newer, darker level.
The original TKJ has some of the most lyrical dialogue I’ve ever seen in a comic book. It’s all about how Batman and the Joker are part of the same coin, and Batman fears he’s going to have to break his vow against killing in order to end the cycle of violence that the Joker has begun. There is no catharsis, no superhero beat-‘em-up ending. It’s a quiet discussion of the Batman-Joker mythos, and is, in that respect, well done.
But I have one major, major issue with the story, and it’s something I will not defend and cannot forgive.
-TW for Sexual Assault-
TKJ is famous for one scene, where the Joker shoots and wounds Barbara Gordon, paralyzing her permanently. She would become The Oracle (only after writer Kim Yale brings her back), working from her wheelchair in Gotham and providing information to superheroes like Batman. It is also implied that during her wounding, Barbara was subjected to sexual abuse of some sort. Moore, the author, says that there was no sexual abuse, but stripping a woman naked and forcibly photographing her in a state of distress implies otherwise.
At any rate, Barbara was hurt to forward the plot and not given any time of day. Even Moore admits to how poorly he treated her, and regrets much of TKJ. She is not seen as crucial to the story, and is hurt only to cause Jim Gordon harm. It’s the classic “hurting a woman to develop a man’s character,” thing, and it is shitty, old as sin, and not okay. As Leigh Alexander said : “It seems when you want to turn a woman into a hero, you hurt her first. When you want to turn a man into a hero, you also … hurt a woman first.”
Barbara Gordon would still support superheroes as The Oracle, but her assault and injury is sidelined in the comic for Man Angst. I’m not very articulate with this, so here are a few quotes explaining it better.
Donna Dickens, HitFix:
“Her pain and her naked body was used to shock and titillate the reader, to drive home how deranged the Joker really was without giving Batgirl a chance to fight back or even have a shred of agency.”
Charles Pulliam-Moore, Fusion:
“The Killing Joke also left a dark smudge on the DC universe that, for a while, abused and disposed of a well-loved superheroine just to make a male villain more “complex.””
TKJ has some admirable aspects to it: the art is beautiful, and some of the writing is fantastic. But TKJ’s treatment of Barbara Gordon is unforgivable. When coming to the movie version, I knew that the creators added a new plotline to beef up the length of the movie, so I had hopes that the filmmakers would revise the story.
They revised it, alright.
I guess this is where I review this
Batman: The Killing Joke is awful. There are no two ways about this.
I could write off the TKJ comic as a vestige of the 80s, and call out its major faults. Moore himself has acknowledged its problematic elements. But I cannot “write off” this film.
The creators knew better. They had seen the controversy around the original. They knew how even Moore felt.
The filmmakers had the opportunity to include a respectful narrative around Barbara Gordon, eliminate the sexual assault, and still tell the story of TKJ. The main tension between The Joker and Batman is the heart of TKJ, not Barbara’s wounding. DC had a chance to learn from past mistakes, and update TKJ for modern audiences.
Instead, they clumsily try to “include” Barbara, as if it were some method of making up for her eventual assault. I first had a little bit of hope for TKJ: maybe they were going to center this narrative around Barbara, and at least try to give the person being harmed and used as “character development” her own agency. This would by no means remedy TKJ, but it would a least be a vague attempt to update the plot and give Barbara more respect.
Lol, that glimmer of hope faded as soon as it flared up. This Barbara Gordon is every bad stereotype about women in one character: distracted by romance, over-emotional, driven by her attraction to Batman. They could have emphasized her skill as a fighter and a detective; because she is an incredibly powerful superhero, physically and mentally. Instead, they gave her a weird, paternalistic relationship with Batman, who has to explain to her, the silly girl, that she’s being objectified by Paris Franz. And then of course, they fuck. Do you see what’s weird about this?
I don’t have issues with the tension between Batman and protégé: it’s the classic dynamic between Batman and young Robin all the time. But the fact that Batgirl is a grown-ass woman who he chides and belittles and then ends up having sex with is uncomfortable and disrespectful to Batgirl’s character.
I wanted to like Barbara Gordon very much: I want it to be okay that she’s emotional and into romance. I want that to be okay and something that a girl can do and still be seen as strong. But when the rest of her plot is considered in TKJ, her characterization becomes insulting.
Women are still fighting for representation in comics. The second a lady character shows a hint of “girlish” emotion or any inclination towards romance, she’s generally torn apart as “weak.” It’s horrid, because real humans have emotions and like romance. But women have had so comparatively few superheroes that it feels like every instance of representation means that they have to be able to swing with the big boys: they have to be tough, emotionally and physically. There is no room for femininity for them to be taken seriously.
This is blessedly changing, and many women-driven comics are complex and lovely and fall prey to none of this nonsense. But TKJ does. As such, Barbara’s outright characterization as a walking stereotype of “unfavorable” feminine qualities is old and tired. I know that TKJ wasn’t the time for nuanced discussion in women’s representation in comics; it’s made very clear that this story is not about Barbara. But dammit, she deserved better.
A note on The Oracle
Hardcore defenders of TKJ say that without Barbara’s injury, there would be no Oracle. Let’s get this straight: The Oracle is important. She’s a disabled superhero, and one of few. And at least this movie alluded to her role as the Oracle towards the end, whereas the original comic totally forgets about her. But TKJ didn’t need to harm Barbara just to further another character’s arc, and then throw her to the side.
On top of that, TKJ was not created with the intention of making Oracle. As Donna Dickens points out,
“At the time the comic was released, DC had no plans to do anything with Batgirl; it wasn’t until Kim Yale fished her out of the discard pile that Oracle became a character. Oracle is a wonderful character but her existence is in spite of Killing Joke, not because of it.”
Barbara Gordon deserves better.
Batgirl deserves better. Oracle deserves better.
Some other shitty things
And another thing: the plotline with Barbara and Paris Franz (which was added in to beef up running time) had damn near no connection to the original TKJ plot, which was animated almost line-for-line from the book.
Also the gay best friend trope? This is SO OLD. FULL STOP.
On top of this, the animation also does damn near no justice to the art of the comics. And the dialogue falls flat. The vitality of the original comic is completely lost.
BARBARA GORDON DESERVES BETTER
The original comic made me uncomfortable. This made me angry. DC squandered its chance to take the fundamentals of TKJ (the nuanced relationship between Batman and the Joker) and remove what made the original comic so gross. There was no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater: instead they threw out the baby, kept the bathwater, and added some battery acid, and got mad when people refused to drink it.
I’m angry and disappointed. I know DC can do better. I’ve seen DC do better. The world of comics is finally starting to leave its shitty parts behind and embrace a complex, diverse universe.
DC, catch the fuck up.
I’m gonna go read some Marvel Girl and Rat Queens to wash the taste of that travesty out of my mouth.
More on Kim Yale, the woman who brought back Barbara Gordon as Oracle: http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2007/02/15/a-perhaps-unnecessary-guide-to-oracles-formative-years/
An interview with Alan Moore, where he discusses his TKJ regrets : http://moviepilot.com/posts/3888180