Batman: The Killing Joke Expands on an Iconic Story

Late in July, I was taken by surprise when a coworker reminded me that my long wait for the release of the animated Batman film The Killing Joke had finally come to an end. I believe that DC’s animated films are far better than their efforts toward live-action ones, so this was much more than another notch in my belt.

I’ve never been too deep into the comics mania; I only started reading them in high school, and I definitely preferred Marvel over DC, but that is an article for another day. All preferences aside, I made my way through the library’s collection and eventually came across the legendary Killing Joke. The reputation of this comic preceded itself, and even the librarian oohed when he saw my selection, urging me to take in all of it in one sitting, and to make sure I wasn’t exposed to distractions. He was right to warn me—ever since reading it, this comic has stayed in the back of my mind, and always will.

Cover featuring the Joker taking a picture with an evil grin

Cover of the Killing Joke comic. DC Comics

Before I go any further, I will offer a spoiler alert. If you have not read the comic already, go do so immediately. DC fan or not, Batman fan or not, comic-book fan or not, this is a story that everyone should read.

A very brief summary: The Joker, in his most infamous act of evil, goes to Commissioner Gordon’s home and shoots Gordon’s daughter, Barbara, through the gut and spine, paralyzing her. He then kidnaps Gordon and stuffs him into a carnival ride that shows a slideshow of his daughter’s then-assumed death, all the while singing a song about going loony, in an effort to show Batman (and the world) that anyone and everyone is simply one bad day away from going completely insane. In the end, Batman stops the Joker and makes his only attempt (as of the comic’s original 1988 release) to talk to him in an effort to stop the madness. All of this is done while also showing the readers just what exactly created the Joker and started all his madness in the first place.

The animated film of the same title holds true to this core story line, but it does add enough content to warrant discussion. Before viewers even get to the original story line, they are presented with about 30 minutes of added story, focusing on Barbara Gordon—or, as she is known by night, Batgirl. In this added plot, Batgirl and Batman are going about their usual job while tracking down mobsters. During their efforts, Batman tells Batgirl that she is off the case and needs to stay away from their target, Paris Franz. Batman’s logic behind this is that Batgirl has made several rookie mistakes, and Franz’s unique blend of crazy, along with his infatuation of Batgirl, make for Batgirl becoming a risk to the mission and herself. Batgirl obviously doesn’t like this idea, and she rebels against Batman’s orders multiple times. The tension comes to a boiling point that results in the two of them having sex under the Gotham night sky—a scene that has sparked some divided reactions. Soon after, the original story takes place, and I couldn’t recall any other deviations from the classic text.

At first, I was averse to the additions to the story, since I firmly believed that you shouldn’t mess with perfection. But after some reflection, I’ve developed a bit of a different opinion about the creator’s decisions. In the comic, Barbara was a very two-dimensional character, and I mean very. By my memory, all she did was get shot and then be used as footage for the Joker’s carnival ride—after he stripped her and took pictures of her naked, bloody body. Granted, this was written originally in 1988, and the equality movements in the comics industry were not quite what they are are now. In addition, writers could get away with a lot more when they had more clout in the industry, which is the case for author Alan Moore, creator of Watchmen and V for Vendetta, among others. But with the new additions, Barbara is not only given a lot more drive but also shown to have a lot more strength as a character. She kicks some serious butt and gives us her own internal struggles with her relationship with Batman, including her feeling of being second seat to him.

It is at this point where I found a line drawn in the sand for fans of the Caped Crusader. On one side are those who see the additions to the story, along with elements from the original, as a continued way to restrict Barbara Gordon to being nothing but a plot device—a tool used to fill the time needed for a movie and subjugate her as a super woman in a super man’s world. On the other side are those don’t quite see it that way. I often find myself conflicted in matters such as this, not because I can’t see what is right and wrong when it comes to portraying characters, but because I find that to develop any kind of opinion requires a larger sense of perspective when it comes to the environment that something like this was created in. The Killing Joke was written almost 30 years ago, back when Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” and Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” were topping the charts, and when we as a nation first thought it was a good idea to elect a George Bush into office. Needless to say, this was a much different time. When Alan Moore wrote his minor depiction of Barbara, she was one of the most brutally attacked people in comic history, and we need to take his decision to write the story in such a manner with a grain of salt.

I don’t feel comfortable when I read that sequence of events—I didn’t the first time, and I haven’t any other time I have read that book. But I do understand why it was done, and why Barbara was chosen to be the one to suffer at the hands of a madman. Who else was closer to the commissioner than his own daughter? The anguish a father suffers at even the thought of his daughter’s torture and death is incomparable to anything else in his life; then imagine him riding through that tragedy in a cart, watching the most gruesome presentation anyone could fathom. I can’t say with any confidence that I could make it to the other side of that ride a whole man. What was written 28 years ago is set in stone now, at least when it comes to the comic book, and it has shown to be a successful (if controversial) decision.

What needs to be considered now is the decision made in our time, with the prologue expansion. The rise of more positive and well-written female representation in comic books has taken root in our time, and I couldn’t be happier with it. We have a woman Thor and a woman Iron Man, and we are even going to see superheroine-led movies like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel very soon! So why is it that despite this environment, the Barbara Gordon bonus screen time in this movie is so heavily saturated with her being seen as an object of desire by mobster thugs, or with her own infatuations with Batman? These answers might be harder to come by than I would like.

My initial reaction is that most of the issue comes down to a matter of time available for use. Watching the film, it is obvious that there already was a huge chunk of the run time that was taken by the already-written part of the script, and what was left was a very small amount of time to work with for the new content. In that short space, the writers needed to bring a three-dimensional persona to someone who was only shown in the comic opening a door and getting shot. A good way of doing that is to make the viewers know that not only is Batgirl important to Batman, but Batman is also important to Batgirl. Newer Batman comics have already shown him having intimate relationships with Catwoman and Talia al Ghul, so Batman and Batgirl seem only to be a stone’s throw away by comparison. Still, I’ve come across a lot of people giving a lot of flak for Barbara’s epilogue only pertaining to being an object of lust. Seeing so many other reviews like that, I worry that there might be those who are out for blood with this new rendition of a classic. I don’t think that the choices made in this movie were perfect, but I do think reflecting on this matter with a stronger sense of optimism might prove more useful than not. Although I didn’t see as much as I would have liked of Barbara, I did see a lot more than I expected. I saw someone who had internal struggles with her morals, someone who suffered the challenges of being a woman in a man’s game, someone who had her whole world shatter in the pull of a trigger. I saw someone who picked up those pieces and went on to take herself from feeling like a replaceable sidekick to someone who is a critical part of Batman’s operation, acting as the omniscient eye above Gotham known as Oracle.

The additions to the plot are what seem to be what is drawing most of the attention of fans lately, but it is important not to ignore the reason this film was made originally. The main plot of the film offered so much satisfaction for me, mostly due to those behind the screen: voice actors Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hamill (the Joker). Both of these legends wielded their mighty talents in Batman: The Animated Series. I grew up listening to the struggle between these two for years as a kid, and to me, no one else will ever be able to don the mantle as either of these icons. Many will be able to bring something new to the characters, but no one will ever replace Kevin and Mark for me. Not only was it nostalgic simply to hear the Kevin’s velvety voice mesh against Mark’s haunting howls in a new film, but to be able to hear them act out the most iconic story between them was more than I could have ever imagined it could be. I am truly thankful to be able to add both versions of this legend to my library.

Experiencing both versions of this story, 1988 comic and 2016 film, shows us what kind of culture we have come from and what kind we have evolved into as a whole, along with being able to see what kind of moral standing still hold true even to this day. For me, despite the story’s issues, it was truly a blessing to be able to witness legends perform art in motion, even if only for once more.

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