(This is a review of the Batman: The Killing Joke animated movie adaptation that was just released. I’m going to mostly avoid spoilers if I can, but they will be there. But the book is from 1988. Honestly, there isn’t much to spoil… but if you’re worried about that… well, i guess that’s your damn fault for waiting almost 30 years to read something. I will also mention a few of the changes, but I will keep relatively vague, But they’re more or less things that were known from press releases and trailers going in.)
Back in the day when I was but a wee lad, growing up and reading comic books, I used to frequently have this thought. I’d put down a great comic book, like say Watchmen, or The Dark Knight Returns, or The Killing Joke, or “When Cometh the Commuter” (Amazing Spiderman #267) and I would think “Oh my HOVA, that was amazing! Wouldn’t it be great if they made a movie about this some day?” See, that’s thing about back in the day. The day was the 1980s, and there was basically no fucking chance in the world that anyone was going to make a movie out of any of those stupid superhero funny books, so it was ok to dream about a day that might never come.
Now it’s 2016 and the day is over. Now they make film adaptations of every comic book. Why? Because back in the day people like me asked them to. And in a way that’s good. I still like superheroes. I still like the funny books. And it’s kind of neat that we get to see some of my favorite stories from when I was a kid translated to the screen. But the thing is, the Killing Joke was released in 1988 and when I decided I wanted to see it as a movie I was 13. When Watchmen, The Dark Knight and When the Commuter Cometh came out I was 12. And at least in the 1980s, for better or for worse, movie studios knew not to take programming advice from a fucking child!
What the hell happened?
I still like The Killing Joke, In fact, I love The Killing Joke. I love The Killing Joke so much that it is a required text book for the class I’m teaching this fall. For all the problems people may have with it, and the manner in which the character of Barbara Gordon is treated, I think it’s an incredibly rich and important story and I was excited to see the translation. I wanted to see how they adapted it. I wanted to see how they addressed the feminist issues with the story. I knew that in 2016 they’d feel they HAD to. They really didn’t have to. I think it’s ok to tell a controversial story that just isn’t for everyone. It’s ok to tell problematic stories. But in the comic geek world, the issues with Barbara Gordon’s treatment in this story are legendary. I knew from the moment that it was announced, DC was going to feel like they had to do something in order to acknowledge that they understood the complaints of the detractors even while they were going to try and stay faithful to the fans.
I’m glad they did. But in a way I really wish they hadn’t.
More on that in a bit. First I want to address the technical aspects of the film. It looks… fine… It looks like animation that was designed for a direct-to-DVD film. And this makes sense, because that’s what it was. Because of the buzz surrounding it, WB decided to put it in limited theatrical release last week. I had the opportunity to go but opted not to. I decided I’d be perfectly happy just waiting til the bluray ended up on my doorstep yesterday. And that was the right decision. The animation is fine. It’s a bit stiff, but it is as good as you might expect on Cartoon Network or the Disney channel. It AIN’T Pixar. Furthermore the story of the Killing Joke is just… small… it was always small. It was intimate. There’s nothing about it that feels like a theater experience and in effect it’s probably better left to the small screen. There is one really nitpicky thing that bothered me about it. There is a scene when Batman is at the Joker’s carnival and he is confronting goons on a merry-go-round. For some reason the merry-go-round is 3D rendered CGI. I get that in 2016, we don’t have Chuck Jones or a sweatshop full of Japanese animators hand drawing every single frame. I’m sure much of the animation was done by computer. But for some reason in this ONE scene, it is very obvious that the merry-go-round background does not stylistically match the foreground of this scene or any artwork anywhere else in the film. That brought me out of it quite a bit and I could’t wait for the scene to be over because of that.
As for the primary story, it is exactly what you would expect. It is 76 minutes long, and if you are a fan of the original graphic novel, the last 46 minutes of it will pretty much go through the paces and give you what you are looking for. This was neat, but kind of a problem for me. It was TOO exact.
Benjamin Smith has argued that there are three ways of adapting a comic book property to the screen: Type I is completely faithful to source text, recreating the visual aesthetic and storyline as completely as possible; Type II, which recreates the source text representationally but with modifications to make it appropriate to its new medium and the storytelling preferences of the new creator, Type III, a reimagining of the source text which remains thematically based on the original but is essentially the new director’s attempt to tell the story his own way. Most superhero movies are Type III; we can see the influence of the Iron Man comic in the films but we know its a different thing. Each movie picks and chooses from various different Iron-Man stories and it isn’t meant to represent any one narrative directly. Kick-Ass and V For Vendetta, on the other hand, are Type II adaptations. The base story is the same, but the directors are reinterpreting them to tell them in their own words. The original Sin City movie is a nigh perfect Type I adaptation. Every shot attempts to be a picture perfect remake of the original comic. In Sin City’s case there almost seems to be some artistry to this. Part of the fun of that film is marveling at how amazingly Robert Rodriguez translated Frank Miller’s images to the screen. One of the drawbacks of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is that he tried to do a Type I adaptation, and it’s pretty impressive when he pulls it off (Comedian being thrown through the window) but many of the places where he fails really call attention to themselves. The occasions when he does modify the script to better set his personal storytelling needs in a Type II style seem out of place and confusing, Or worse, there are places where something that works in the graphic novel and his attempts to copy it just seem too… COMICKY in the film.
In The Killing Joke, there are just places where it came off as pointless. The first 30 minutes are an original story, a Type III adaptation before the film moves into becoming a Type I. Starting at at minute 31, I knew everything that was going to happen and everything happened exactly like I expected it to and sometimes I simply got bored. It’s not that it was bad. The story is still the story. The tension between Batman and Joker is still there. The parallels between their lives are still there. Thematically, it “works” but somehow, it’s just one of those stories that feels better when it is read than when it is watched. Furthermore, artistically it felt wrong. The art style seemed to be kind of a hybrid attempt to please both fans of the books Brian Bolland and the animated series’s Bruce Timm. Somehow it falls slightly short of both. It’s not “bad” but it isn’t “right” either. All in all, it was “fine” and for someone who has never read the book it would be an engaging story (modula its issues with Barbara, which I will get to in a second). For someone who has read the story it would be… the story on the screen.
That bring us to elephant in the room. The treatment of Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl. I understand the aversion people have to the original story. In the graphic novel, Barbara Gordon becomes the basic poster girl for Women in Refrigerators… at least until Alex Dewitt becomes the ACTUAL poster girl for Women in Refrigerators. Barbara is actually worse in a many ways. Alex was a character created for the sole purpose of stuff in that fridge. Barbara was a longstanding character with agency who was reduced to a simple plot element. I’ve written before that I believe what actually CAME OUT of that story was a net positive for the character, but in the actual narrative of The Killing Joke as written, she is completely incidental. It doesn’t even matter that she’s Batgirl (in fact, she only appears on five pages and her status as superhero is never mentioned). She is pure victim, implying that a woman’s place in the superhero land is simply as motivation for the hero. Her only purpose in the story is to be attacked so that Joker and prove a point to Batman. He even tells her that it isn’t about her. He attacked and molested her in an attempt to drive her father, Commissioner Gordon, insane. He doesn’t even care about the Commissioner; he only wants to piss off Batman. In a sense, at least to the Joker, the least important part of the rape of Barbara Gordon IS Barbara Gordon (or the sexual assault, I know there is debate on this subject, though the distinction here is sort of beside the point. I have personally always read the scene as a rape, so that is how I will be referring to it here). It is certainly a problem, though I would argue it is a problem that the book raises that should be discussed as WHY this is representative of the form, rather than a problem that should be swept away by ignoring the book or be fixed through rewriting it. Why doesn’t she matter? Why does the Joker not care? Why are we given her as a victim with no other purpose. These questions are important. That’s why I’m teaching the book this fall in the first place. That said, since the film is being released in 2016 and not 1988, and there has been 28 years of criticism over the choice, I understand the producers’ motivation to try and address it.
However it is the way in which they chose to address it that seems to be causing the problems. Barbara’s part has been expanded in the film version (a few spoilers here). The film version of the story adds a subplot wherein we learn that Batgirl and Batman have had a one-night stand. Yep, that happened. Unsurprisingly, critics of the original work’s poor handling of Barbara from a feminist point of view where not amused. And for good reason. Now, instead of just being a hapless victim of sexual assault and a brutal maiming, she spends the first 30 minutes of the film as Batgirl in a semi-abusive and overprotective relationship with Batman. She pines away for him in an unrequited crush. She knows that he has feelings for her, but he is domineering, controlling and emotionally distant. In short, he is pretty much a dick. And of course he is. He’s Batman and Batman would make horrible boyfriend material. And she knows that. She knows that it could never work and so she keeps her distance. That is, until one night, after getting annoyed at him treating her as his inferior she flips out and they get into a physical confrontation. He holds back attempting not to hurt her, but eventually she knocks him to the ground, at which point they are both so overcome with passion that they give in and she fucks him on the rooftop.
So yeah, basically throwing gasoline on the fire there. It is not in the least bit surprising that anyone who had a problem with the original comic has a problem with this new scene. Now instead of being an unimportant victim, the helpless daughter of a friend of the hero, Barbara is important because she’s Batman’s side piece of ass. If she has been upgraded from hapless victim, it is to damsel-in-distress. If anything, the fact that the new version REMINDS us that she was Batgirl and not just some random defenseless librarian, makes it that much more frustrating that she is ultimately dispatched with a single bullet, paralyzed and raped and then more or less removed from the story. Any potential that she has is squandered so that the film can move on to it’s primary objective of presenting a Type I adaptation for the remainder of the film. Once again she just doesn’t matter. And once again, I’m actually OK with that from an analytic story point of view. The Killing Joke graphic novel was never Batgirl’s story. It is Joker’s and Batman. Nothing matters except in the ways in which it affects those two characters.
Except, The Killing Joke film IS Batgirl’s story — or at least it starts out that way. She is the first character we see, swinging through the rooftops of Gotham City. Her voiceover is the first heard as she directly addresses the viewer with “First of all, I realize this is probably not the way you thought the story would start. Not with a big shiny moon or a city that could look stunning in spite of itself — or me. But I wanted you to know that before the horror began, before it all came crashing down, there was a time when capes and cowls and fighting crime really was exciting.” From the very beginning she announces that this is now her story. Something that critics of The Killing Joke and her treatment in it have basically been begging for for three decades. And for those first thirty minutes, it is her story. Yes, it is not a nice story. It is the story of a lovestruck college girl who has fallen for her older mentor and allowed him to treat her like garbage ultimately resigning herself to be his fucktoy and becoming a whining shell of herself once she begins to realize that being a fucktoy does not necessarily lead to the relationship that she wants. It is the story of an emotionally abusive relationship and a young woman learning to navigate it. And it was actually pretty good.
It WAS pretty good … until it is ended prematurely in order to get to the primary narrative.
And that’s my real problem with it. In order to address the criticism of Batgirl’s lack of importance to The Killing Joke, the film made her important — too important. By the time the actual story proper begins, I no longer cared about it. I was invested in Barbara’s story. For the first 30 of 76 minutes, we are entirely in the head of Barbara. She is our narrator. We are given the story of her sexual frustration at being with Batman but not being with him. We are present for her shame after their one night stand. We are treated to an interesting parallel story about a villain who pines away for her as he appears to be attracted to the IDEA of Batgirl in the same way that she is in love with the idea of Batman. We are even shown that she is willing to manipulate him through that attraction in a way that connects her to (and yet also differentiates her from) the emotional detachment that Batman shows. We are shown her confusion as she attempts to decipher the feelings of her emotionally detached love interest and her eventual attempts to move on and mature beyond him. For thirty minutes, it IS her movie. And then suddenly, it’s not.
Since the second half of the film is a Type I adaptation, Barbara suddenly becomes incidental and invisible as the focus shifts to Batman and Joker. Since I already knew the story of The Killing Joke and was now invested in the story of Barbara, I now found myself missing her far more than I ever did. When she is shot, the film, much like the book cuts away BEFORE the rape. This makes sense, as it wasn’t her story. Batman doesn’t experience the event and by his own admission it is unimportant to the Joker. In the original story, this makes sense in an odd way. In this story, which has been framed as being Barbara’s, and from her point of view, it now seems odd because the single most traumatic and important event in her life, negative though it may be, is now omitted. As in the book, she wakes up in the hospital and tells Batman what happened, but then disappears from the narrative. Since she is the character that has drawn me into this version of the story (Batman never even appears as Bruce Wayne) I was now far more invested in seeing her rehab and come to grips with being paralyzed than I was in following Batman to confront the Joker. But since that doesn’t happen in the source material, Type I adaptation doesn’t give me that opportunity.
This is complicated further by a mid credits coda that is added into the film We see Barbara, now in a wheelchair, roll-up to a computer bank and log in, signaling to comic-savvy viewers that she has become Oracle, the cyber hero watchdog. While this is a nice easter egg for those in the no, the film offers no explanation of how she got there or even what she is doing. It is simply something that the film expects viewers to know. It is as though the producers have said “if you haven’t read the comic books, don’t worry about this.” But since the last time we saw Barbara, she was in a hospital bed, it isn’t at all clear how she got to this point.
In addition, the Blu-ray version of the film contains a bonus episode of The New Batman Adventures, “Old Wounds” (s1e17) which details how Barbara became Batman’s partner as he had a falling out with Dick Grayson/Robin, her boyfriend. Since Barbara tells us that at the beginning of this film she has been partnered with Batman for three years, after rewatching “Old Wounds” for the first time in years, I found myself wanting to see how she overtime shifted her attraction from Robin to Batman. I was interested in that backstory. A story that I didn’t know.
I’m not really bothered by the rooftop fuck-romp. I called it a fuck-romp intentionally. That’s what happened. Or at least, I think that’s what happened. Honestly, I could have used more fucking. Not for titilation, though I don’t actually have a problem with that if that’s what this movie wanted to be (it didn’t). But if this film was going to be R-rated for sexual content, it needed to commit to that rating and use it for narrative reasons, rather than just barely tiptoeing over the R-line (and I’m not sure they even really did, honestly) for the sake of saying it was R-rated.
So I *THINK* it was a fuck-romp. It is treated as a one night stand; they certainly don’t make love and I hesitate to be so clinical as to say they have sex. They fuck — once — on a random rooftop. The film is Rated R. Honestly, it didn’t need to be. There is no nudity and the level of violence and adult language isn’t really above what could be shown in a PG-13 film. However, since it is immediately proceeded by her physically attacking Batman, as well as her emotionally bottoming herself to him for the entire film leading up to that point and then succeeded by her telling her conveniently gay male friend that she had a one-night stand with her crush and that it was amazing thought it made things weird, I would like to have seen something that showed her either taking control as a sexual aggressor, as she did during the fight, or at least submitting to her own latent submissive fantasies just so that I knew where she stood. Or anything in between. For all of the flack that the Catwoman and Batman sex scene in her relaunched New 52 title took, a reader is at least shown that the encounter was both consensual and violent. Their sex was rough, aggressive and passionate but emotionless and anonymous. We understood their relationship, unconventional though it may have been.
Instead, here Barbara removes her shirt and the camera pans away in a manner reminiscent of a 1950s code-era Hollywood romance. It needed to be clear and unambiguous about what happened. It needed to establish the type of sex that occurred and how it was experienced for both characters or at the very least for Barbara. Much like the omission of the traumatic rape in the original (and this version), the sexual encounter is presented to us as though it was important to Barbara. We are told she wanted it before and we are told that it was important after the fact. Panning away from it after a brief shot of her in her bra tells us that her experience of it is incidental to the viewer but for a brief moment of male gaze pleasing PG fan-service. If we were given a chance to see several encounters, where she either becomes Batman’s girlfriend or his late night bootycall, I would at least be able to read her as a proper motivation for him in the second half of the movie. As is, since the source material does not have that relationship, the Batman post-minute 31, almost seems to have forgotten that he fucked her. She is no more important to him as a lover than she was as the random daughter of his work-associate in the source material.
And this makes the film frustrating. As is, it was never going to please everyone. The source material has the problems that it has always had. There are multiple ways to read it, and I still consider it valuable. Had the film been a 46 minute direct adaptation, that would have been fine. The fans would still love it and the haters would still hate. Or, if the decision had been made to rewrite Batgirl as an integral part of the narrative (as it appears for 30 minutes at least, it has been) I wish they had simply gone to the Type II adaptation style and rewritten the story — made it Barbara’s story all the way and play Batman and the Joker as a backdrop as we see her work towards her resolution (becoming Oracle — an identity of her own design rather than an extension of her male counterpart). While this would have soured some comic fanboys who want the purest adaptation possible, it might have reclaimed those who had leveled criticism at the story of her treatment in the original. Instead of one incohesive 76 min movie, they could have even given me two separate 45 minute episodes that told the story from both points of view separately.
Instead, in attempting to shoehorn the stories together, the film hopes to simultaneously please the fans of the original and its critics, but ultimately likely disappoints if not outright outrages both. If you have no interest in the Batgirl narrative and only wish to see the struggle between Batman and the Joker, the first part of the film may seem like an out of place waste of time. If you are emotionally invested in her, and willing to give a story that you have possibly hated for 28 years a chance in the hopes of seeing some sort of feminist redemption and reclaiming of her stolen agency, the abrupt lack of resolution to her narrative is incredibly frustrating.
What we are given is fine. It is a far better and more cohesive than DC’s recent film outings. Seeing The Killing Joke in motion is interesting. It is even fun. The sad thing is that it had the potential to be so much more. For 30 minutes, it was so much more. And I only wish that that potential could have been realized. So all in all, it was an OK movie it was fine. It’s just that it could have been great. It could have possibly been even better than the original. Instead, it just came across as cash grab to duplicate something that already existed just because it could. At this point, of my four favorite superhero comics from when I was a kid, now Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke have all been adapted for the screen in some way or another. Dear Hollywood, for the love of HOVA please don’t try to make a When Cometh The Commuter film. You’ll only fuck it up. Of course, if you do… I’ll be the first in line to buy a ticket.
★★¾☆☆(2.75 out of 5 stars)