Batman: The Killing Joke – Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s seminal Batman comic in which The Joker sets out to prove that any man can go mad given one really bad day – has finally received a much-anticipated animated adaptation (releasing digitally this week, and on Blu-ray/DVD August 2nd). The film was produced by Bruce Timm, Alan Burnett, and Sam Register (each veterans of DC Entertainment/Warner Bros. Animation), directed by Sam Lui (Justice League vs. Teen Titans), and has a screenplay adapted by Brian Azzarello (Joker graphic novel, New 52’s Wonder Woman).
This esteemed group of creators were tasked with bringing to life a comic considered by many to be one of the best Batman stories ever told. However, the comic itself isn’t very long, and in order for there to be enough story to warrant a 70+ minute animated film, new material was needed. To address this it was decided that Batgirl – a.k.a. Barbara Gordon, a character who does play a minor though terribly significant role in the original comic – would be the focus of this new material, providing a prologue story for this adaptation of The Killing Joke. And for fans who always found issue with Barbara Gordon being used as little more than a plot device, the opportunity for her character to be given more agency in the story (and perhaps over her fate) was a welcome one.
Unfortunately, while great care was given to adapting The Killing Joke for animation, crafting what is a fairly good interpretation, the additional material starring Batgirl is a huge misstep – one that sadly hurts the film as a whole.
Before diving directly into how this new prologue does more harm than good for Barbara Gordon’s character, here’s a quick refresher on who she is. Originally conceived for the 1966 Batman TV series in hopes of increasing female viewership (where she was portrayed by Yvonne Craig), the character was quickly introduced into the DC Comics universe in 1967’s “The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl”. A creation of the Silver Age, Barbara was very much a symbol of the women’s liberation movement: a brilliant young woman with a PhD in library sciences and the head of the Gotham Public Library. She even served as a U.S. congresswoman while on a break from her vigilantism.
Unlike the Robins, Barbara became Batgirl all on her own, deciding to become a crime-fighter after saving Bruce Wayne from Killer Moth while dressed as a female Batman on her way to a costume party. Though impressed with her abilities, Batman discourages her from continuing (citing her gender), but Batgirl openly defies him. This is a key element of Batgirl’s origin, and is often included in some manner in any subsequent origin tale, like Batgirl: Year One or Batman: The Animated Series‘ “Shadow of the Bat”. Barbara isn’t allowed to be Batgirl or gifted the role – she chooses it for herself.
Over time, Batman accepts Batgirl as a member of the growing Bat-Family, and she would become closest with the original Robin, Dick Grayson, starring with him as the “Dynamite Duo” in several issues of Batman Family. Their romance, however, wouldn’t truly begin until later during comics’ Modern Age, propelled by their relationship in Batman: TAS. Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl wasn’t created to add any romance to Batman or any other character’s life, as had been the case with the Golden Age’s Bat-Woman and Bat-Girl.
Barbara was Batgirl for over two decades, yet never rose above being a minor character in the DC Universe, only ever appearing in backup stories, one-shots, and specials. As comics turned darker and more mature in the wake of The Dark Knight Returns, DC became less interested in her character and she appeared less and less, eventually hanging up her cowl for good. She would next appear in 1988’s The Killing Joke, where Barbara is featured on a mere six pages for all the awful things done to her; a byproduct of an industry already inclined to violently harm its female characters for shock value and an editorial department that cared very little about the retired Batgirl.
The events of The Killing Joke are by far Barbara’s lowest point – relegated to being a victim in a story that had nothing to do with her in the first place (and initially wasn’t even considered canon). What came after, however, would be a triumphant reemergence as the computer genius and all-around informant for the superhero community, known as Oracle. Created by writers Kim Yale and John Ostrander, Barbara’s return to crime-fighting came about from the two despairing at her treatment in The Killing Joke and out of a fear she’d fade away into obscurity.
As Oracle, Barbara was established as Batman’s intellectual equal, utilizing her photographic memory, technological knowledge, and expertise as a hacker. Oracle worked for Amanda Waller as a member of the Suicide Squad and later headed up her own team, the Birds of Prey. Though confined to a wheelchair, Barbara continued her training, building incredible upper-body strength and arming herself with eskrima sticks and still the occasional batarang. Throughout it all she remained the go-to information source for Batman and practically every crime-fighter in Gotham (and beyond).
In the New 52, it was decided Barbara would return to the role of Batgirl, regaining the use of her legs after an experimental surgery – a controversial decision considering Oracle became a high-profile and positively portrayed character with a physical disability. Still, Barbara retained much of the characterization she received during her years as Oracle, and her Batgirl remained a feisty, clever, and determined crime-fighter. In the years since The Killing Joke, Batgirl’s popularity has grown immensely, cementing her as one of DC’s best known and most beloved characters.
Batgirl’s New, Larger Role in The Story
The opening 30 minutes or so of Batman: The Killing Joke focuses squarely on Batman and Batgirl trying to bring in a low-level mobster, Paris Franz, who over the course of their meetings becomes dangerously obsessed with Batgirl. Though it’s stated Batgirl has been Batman’s partner for some time, she repeatedly makes rookie mistakes, letting Franz get under her skin. Batman repeatedly scolds her for this, first for acting without him and then for letting her ego get the best of her. He even chastises her for thinking of crime-fighting as more of a thrill than a serious undertaking. Concerned she’s treating the situation with Franz too naively, he takes her off the case.
Furious with Batman, she lashes out, first verbally then physically. The two begin fighting, but during a pause in the action Batgirl kisses him, then removes her cowl and top, and it’s heavily implied that they have sex. The following night, Batgirl calls Batman, clearly wanting to discuss and possibly apologize for what happened between them. Batman gives her the cold shoulder and again refuses her help in hunting down Franz, only to at that moment get ambushed. Batgirl overhears the attack and comes to his rescue. During the ensuing battle she subdues Franz and beats him within an inch of his life.
Afterwards, frightened of how she lost her control with Franz and thinking more about what Batman said to her, Barbara decides to quit being Batgirl.
From this prologue, the film transitions right into the story of The Killing Joke. Beyond a short scene of Barbara jogging and a phone call with her father, there’s barely any attempt to bridge the two stories. The fact that Batman and Batgirl’s relationship became a sexual one is never again addressed, and really has zero impact on the rest of the story. The animated Killing Joke progresses, for the most part, just as readers will recall.
The Joker still shoots Barbara, strips her naked and photographs her writhing in agony; all part of his plan to give her father Jim – the very moral fiber of Gotham City – the worst day imaginable in order to prove a point to Batman that any man can be driven insane. Barbara is then shown waking up in a hospital, where her paralysis is confirmed. She’s largely absent from the rest of the story – except for when the Joker tortures her father with those photographs.
However, in this animated version, there’s one final coda in where Barbara returns home, wheelchair-bound, and is revealed to be continuing her vigilante work as Oracle.
How It Fails Her
It’s almost unimaginable that there could be a version of The Killing Joke with less consideration for Barbara Gordon than the original comic – acclaimed as the rest of the story may be – but the animated adaptation manages to be just that, despite devoting even more time to the character. The Killing Joke is by no means Barbara’s story, but she is the character who became most defined by it. In fact, writer Barbara Kessel was asked to write Barbara’s final Batgirl adventure in which she retires just so readers would “give a hoot” when she was later maimed.
Ironically, this is the same line of thinking that led to the decision to include an extended sequence of Barbara as Batgirl in the animated version. As Bruce Timm explains: “The audience gets to spend more time with Barbara Gordon as a person before the events of The Killing Joke. We get to like her more. We get to understand who she is as a character.”
The audience does certainly get to spend more time with Barbara in the prologue, but it isn’t clear what efforts have been made to make this version of the character more likable, or richer. Batgirl never wins in the prologue, and there’s never any opportunity to root for her. That brilliance she so often displays under fire? Gone. It’s unclear whether Barbara is meant to be Batman’s seasoned partner or a rookie recruit, as he’s regularly condescending and treating her like a petulant child – which, honestly, makes his decision to sleep with her all the more unsettling.
This Batgirl is incompetent, repeatedly needing Batman to save her, and on the one occasion she saves him, she loses control, incapable of reining in her emotions. That Barbara is presented as a woman incapable of keeping her emotions in check is the most troubling aspect. She lets her pride get the best of her, leading her to put herself and her mission in danger. She has unrequited feelings for Batman that seemingly come out of nowhere, leading to an ill-advised hook-up.
She’s angry over Batman’s unwillingness to discuss their changed relationship, acting like a jilted lover and later taking her frustrations out on Franz’s face. Instead of regaining her wits and coming to terms with what’s taken place, she instead chooses to give up being Batgirl altogether. Worse yet, it’s a decision that, frankly, comes across as motivated more by an inability to work so closely with Batman given what took place between them.
Even more mystifying than this incredibly tone-deaf portrayal of Barbara Gordon is what bearing any of it has on the events of The Killing Joke. If the reasoning for including the added material was to make audiences care when Barbara is attacked, it really doesn’t make any sense to portray her in a bad light at all. Why not show her as an accomplished, loyal heroine and an asset to Batman in the field? Finally, absolutely none of what happens in the prologue has any actual effect on how either Batman or her father react to her attack. One could read Batman’s anger as being tinged with regret and jealousy – but again, that has nothing at all to do with Barbara and only furthers his narrative.
In an interview with Vulture, Timm offers a bit of an explanation for there being so little joining Barbara’s story with that of the graphic novel’s adaptation – making things even more confounding in the process:
“It’s kind of an odd structure for a movie. It isn’t one long complete story. It really is two different stories with a break in the middle. We just decided that would be the best way to go with it. I honestly don’t even think of them as being one story. As weird as that may be.”
It is weird, Bruce. Really weird. Barbara’s role in the original Killing Joke was already problematic, but it was possible to overlook the plot beat and enjoy the story for what it’s really about: a debate between Batman and Joker’s opposing philosophies.
But by including a Batgirl vignette in the beginning, and an oddly tacked-on scene of her future as Oracle at the end, the filmmakers have actually shone a light on the comic’s most ill-conceived and criticized moment. The Killing Joke isn’t Barbara’s story, and the decision to make it about her only muddles the message. Are viewers supposed to feel that Barbara has achieved a victory by becoming Oracle in the end? As if being paralyzed was an eye-opening experience for her? And is the actual implication that Barbara will be more effective as Oracle than she was as Batgirl, kept away from the action and hidden behind a computer screen?
If the intention of the filmmakers was to erase or recolor the awful truth of what happened to Barbara in The Killing Joke, to somehow make the story about her rather than using her as yet another instance of a comic harming a female character to advance the narrative of male protagonists, then they most certainly failed. And in doing so, viewers are given not only a muddier, less concise adaptation of The Killing Joke, but one that has even less regard for Barbara Gordon than the original.
Batman: The Killing Joke is available now on Digital HD, and will arrive on Blu-ray and DVD on August 2nd.