By Heather Nichols, Tawfik Zone Contributor
Let me start off by saying if you’re a hard core fan of Batman you’re going to want to see the newest entry, Batman: The Killing Joke. If you’re not a Batman expert, this is not the film to start off with. However, if you would like to jump into the Batman animated pantheon there is no shortage of material. I highly recommend you start with the 90s animated series, it’s very film noir, and possibly the best direction of a comic book series to date. Well, now I’m about to spoil this whole thing so if you want to go watch it and come back, please do so now.
The Killing Joke, adapted from the graphic novel of the same name which has influenced most of the newer Batman-related material, follows the basic outline of what is considered to be one of the darkest Batman stories ever told- In an attempt to drive Commissioner Gordon insane, the Joker tortures and subsequently paralyzes his daughter, Barbara aka Batgirl, in front of him. The plot point as well as the ambiguous ending has long been a source of controversy amongst the Batman fandom community. Of course, now that we’ve seen it play out on the big screen, the controversy continues.
The 1988 graphic novel only spans about 64 pages, which really doesn’t cut it for a feature length but it’s also not short enough to cram into one episode, so the creators decided to go ahead and write an almost half hour long prologue that focuses on Batgirl, setting her up as the central character. This is fine because in the events of the graphic novel she’s just there as a catalyst and really there’s nothing more to her involvement. In fact it’s something that to this day has angered Batgirl fans (of which I’m actually not), feeling that the comic disrespected her by disregarding her life and using her suffering as a motivator for the men in her life. The prologue sequence adds depth to the character, showing her as strong and capable and for that I like it.
I’m just going to start off by tackling the “big controversy” since the main issues are in the Batgirl prologue arc. The main reasons circulating around the internet by Social Justice Warriors who see this whole arc as a misogynistic portrayal of Batgirl include, the fact that she’s a librarian (which comes from the comics guys), she has a sassy gay friend (who doesn’t?), the fact that she isn’t as capable at fighting crime because she’s a woman (first of all that’s your reading into it, secondly even Batman states she’s still a rookie, a thrill seeker, so nope not letting you have that one) and of course there’s the whole thing where Batgirl has sex with Batman…
So let’s back it up here- the film opens with Batgirl and Batman in pursuit of a cocky little SOB- named Paris France, who is planning on robbing his mafia boss uncle and is obsessed with Batgirl. Not much to him. However the devil is in the details with this one, if you pay close attention to his dialogue he’s basically representative of a misogynistic fanboy. It is heavily implied he regularly uses date rape drugs, which he unsuccessfully tries this tactic on Batgirl. A subtle but notable moment that emphasizes how deep his fetishism of Batgirl goes is when he has a call girl wearing a bat mask. His lines are sexist, at one point saying that “it must be her time of the month,” when she delivers a word of hurt on him. However neither Batgirl nor Batman actually addresses his comments, rather they just ignore him and continue to kick ass.
Now as far as the Batgirl/Batman relationship goes this is where some fans might be turned off out of the sheer idea of Barbara being with anyone other than Dick Grayson, aka Robin who eventually becomes Nightwing. His character is noticeably absent. He was most likely omitted so we could really focus in on the central players, not to mention he’s not actually in the source material so keeping it simple is just the way to go sometimes.
Barbara’s story fits into the classic, rookie cop makes amateur mistakes and gets bailed out by veteran cop. It’s not a sex issue. Several Robin stories also have this sort of mentor-who-has-to-correct-his-dumb -pupil storyline (see Son of Batman for another example). To further this point Batman even says, “You’re not like I am Barbara, it’s still a game for you, still a thrill.” And he’s right. In fact it’s pretty early on and she’s already starting to lose that thrill of being Batgirl. But there’s still a couple things driving her down this path; one giving her the chance to open a world of hurt on Paris France, the other her feelings towards Batman.
But of course Barbara is a layered character. To simply say she’s Batgirl just because she’s in love with Batman doesn’t do her feelings justice. In one of her exchanges with her sassy gay friend she says she’s in a relationship with her yoga instructor and wants the acknowledgement that she is his best pupil- this of course is code so as not to give away their identities. When he asks why the instructor, she says it’s the yoga, she likes the yoga.
So breaking that down, she’s attracted to the Batman but she’s also frustrated by him. Some people on the internet are using this as fuel for their misogyny argument. To them I say imagine this scenario- you’ve had a crush on your favorite celebrity for years and now you’re finally working with them and you’re realizing they are a giant pain in the ass to work with, but you’re still attracted to that idea of them. I can totally believe in Barabara’s sexual frustration if you look at it from that angle.
Furthering my point is the fact that Barbara is the one who initiates the sex; she knocks him down, she takes off her own top before the camera pans up and away- if the film makers wanted to they could have shown the whole thing, the film was rated R. They didn’t because this was supposed to be a moment for Barbara to shine as a strong sexual independent woman and they didn’t want to spoil that image because if they showed everything that’s all anyone would talk about.
So we get to see Barbara in the aftermath of that and it’s not the prettiest of pictures but keep in mind this is Batman, a character with dozens of love interests both with and without the cowl (really, check out DC wikia. His love interests have their own separate page). Are we surprised he didn’t call? People have been critical of the scene after in which Barabara walks by an arguing couple and throws the guy in a bush, citing it as an example of “women’s rage.” You know for a fandom community so concerned with misogyny ya’ll make some pretty messed up comments.
I think this scene is just thrown in for comedic effect and I think she’s mad because her hopes and expectations are not being met- oh my god she’s acting like a real life human being. The first arc starts to wind down, and yes I’m still talking about the first 30 minutes of this film. They confront Paris France and she beats him nearly to death and then every piece of advice Batman was giving her just sort of clicks in her head. She doesn’t like the idea that she nearly beat a man to death and decides this isn’t the life she wants so she retires the Batgirl and goes on to live an otherwise normal life… and then you remember you’re watching The Killing Joke…
The remainder of the story follows the original graphic novel almost note for note, with a few lines of dialogue updated since it is from a story written in 1988. There are two narratives interwoven, the current timeline where Batman is perusing the Joker and a series of flashback that gives the Joker an origin story, one where the audience can finally view him in a more sympathetic light. How Barbara plays into this, as mentioned before, the Joker shoots her and as a result she becomes permanently paralyzed. In a featurette they showed after the film they mentioned that even though they had the R rating, they wanted to tell the story in a way that didn’t make you want to jump off a cliff at the end.
Barbara is raped after being paralyzed by the Joker but it’s never explicitly shown, however we know it happened from four subtle beats. The first being the Joker undoing her top button before the camera cuts to the next scene. When Batman is visiting her in the hospital a detective says something to the effect that she was found naked and bleeding on the floor. While searching for Joker, Batman questions three escorts and one playfully says he usually pays them a visit first but didn’t this time so they assume that he’s found a new play thing.
The final piece solidifies this when Commissioner Gordon is forced to endure a hellish roller coaster ride, during which Joker sings a disturbing song and at the end television screens are covered in bloody naked pictures of Barbara. We don’t seeing anything explicitly detailed, but we know what’s going on. The reason I break this down is because of how much flack the sex scene earlier in the film had. I’d much rather know that Barbara was living life to the fullest then have my only image of her in the film be the victim of a horrific act of violence.
My criticism of the film is that the whole first part was supposed to be an introduction but really it feels like an episode lead in to a miniseries. Then you have two stories being told simultaneously that have very little to do with the introduction. However I think I understand why the directors did it because prior to the start of the Graphic novel DC was in the process of retiring the Batgirl character so she’s just a tool in a male driven storyline.
To show her in her prime, being Batgirl, kicking ass and showing that she’s just decided to live a normal life gives the audience more of an emotional attachment to the character and gives her more agency to the overall narrative rather than “oh well she was just there.” The biggest criticism the graphic novel received was that it crippled Barbara for no reason. But the film was already alluding to Barbara’s computer skills and in doing so her eventual dawning of the identity of Oracle, so it all comes full circle. The last image of the film is of her, so we know that although broken she is not defeated.