Special Thanks to @tom_eaton for fact-checking and consulting!
This week, DC Comics and Warner Brothers Animation are releasing an animated movie version of “The Killing Joke,” based on the 1988 seminal Batman graphic novel. In doing so, the publishers are revisiting one of the darkest moments in the Bat-verse’s continuity–the point at which Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) is shot by the Joker, an event which left the character paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. But “The Killing Joke” is particularly sensitive territory for many fans, because it contains imagery that arguably implies that the Joker rapes Barbara.
And whether the original authors intended to make a sexual assault part of the story is only partially relevant–because the fact is, for a lot of fans, the rape is canon, and part of the experience they’ve had as readers. And Barbara’s eventual recovery, and her development into a new, wheelchair-bound superhero (The Oracle) over time has become a source of pride and strength for a lot of Batgirl fans.
All of which is to say: Making any big changes to “The Killing Joke” needed to be done with care–the story’s legacy is intense.
DC Made Insensitive Changes, Then Botched Their Fan Response
Now that the movie is out, with an additional 45 minutes featuring Batgirl in a story that never appeared in the original “Killing Joke,” it’s clear: DC blew it. The publisher retold one of their most controversial narratives, effectively retconning Batgirl’s origin story so it now hinges on a storyline of sexual disempowerment. The new version spends more than a half-hour showing how Batgirl is less effective as a hero because of her emotional and sexual interest in Batman, and ultimately reframes the ending, making Batman her protector.
And that was a dumb thing for them to do–but the missteps don’t end there. When fans spoke up, the producers made the whole situation worse. At San Diego Comic-Con 2016 last weekend, at the end of a lengthy panel celebrating the release of the movie, a fan dressed as Batgirl asked why the writers chose to add in a Batgirl story that was all about the men in her life. When the panelists couldn’t put a coherent answer together–the best they gave was a mansplain-y “it’s complicated”–a reporter from Bleeding Cool, Jeremy Konrad, shouted from the audience that Batgirl now was “using sex and pining for Bruce.”
In response, the movie’s writer, Brian Azzarello, became hostile and defensive, angry that Mr. Konrad was at that point walking away. He called Mr. Konrad a pussy.
(Let’s all take a deep breath and appreciate the gravity and irony of that particular response to an accusation of sexism.)
So there are two things to dissect here:
- Why and how the narrative changes made to “The Killing Joke” were shockingly insensitive to women’s issues, and…
- How DC’s responses to criticism (historic and present) show that they don’t think there’s a problem when it comes to women in their comics. (Spoiler alert: They’re really, really wrong.)
The New “Killing Joke” Changes
Here’s a quick rundown of what they added to Batgirl’s story in the animated “Killing Joke”:
- There’s a new gangster in town, Paris Franz. He’s a murderous mobster who becomes instantly sexually fixated on Batgirl.
- Paris and Batgirl tangle in an action sequence, but he gets away.
- Batman scolds Batgirl, telling her that (a) she’s “too close” to the case — I think this might be man-code for “you’re getting all emotiony about this” — and needs to back off, and (b) he wants her off the case, because he has more experience with insane criminals. This latter part is of course foreshadowing for Batman’s upcoming duel with The Joker, but nonetheless, it comes off as painfully condescending.
- Barbara Gordon confides in her gay friend–lisp, limp wrist, “honey” and all, just in case anyone in the audience was confused–that she’s involved with someone, sort of. A lot of time is spent on showing that she doesn’t know how she feels about Batman.
- Barbara decides to stay on the case, and Franz leaves traps for Batgirl, describing their relationship as a romance (at one point, after leaving a clue, he sneers, “I thought women loved scavenger hunts!”).
- Batman again scorns Batgirl for remaining involved, angrily stating that they’re not peers: He is in charge.
- In the heat of their argument, she kisses him. This leads to Batman and Batgirl having sex on a rooftop.
- Batman doesn’t call Batgirl after that. Barbara gets distressed about his post-Bat-sex behavior.
- When the original “Killing Joke” story begins, Batman still hasn’t spoken to Barbara since their rooftop tryst.
It’s important to note here that the Batman/Batgirl romance dynamic didn’t come out of nowhere: In “Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker,” Bruce and Barbara did once share a romance, in a reality where the two of them are left behind as the two last members of the Bat-family. That development of their relationship is pretty different from the one in “The Killing Joke”; we see it progress over time, rather than the two of them having impulsive rooftop sex. “Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker” was also directed by “Killing Joke” director Bruce Timm, so, for the sake of argument, I can see how in Timm’s mind, it’s a normal thing to have these two characters get together. Even though Batman is much older than Batgirl. Even though they work together. And even though she’s the daughter of the one cop who has always had his back.
I also give credit to Timm and company for trying to give Batgirl more screen time at all. Batgirl is a great character, and I can almost see how there’s an odd logic to the idea that, because “Killing Joke” originally acted as an origin story for Batgirl’s survivor arc, it makes sense to flesh out that origin story even further now. In their own strange way, maybe DC and Warner Brothers Animation were trying to cement “The Killing Joke” as a part of the character’s history of strength. Maybe.
But the root of the problem lies in how the audience sees Batman’s motivations when entering the final battle. In the finale of the print version of “The Killing Joke,” Barbara is used as a way to get her father, Commissioner Gordon, to go crazy and reject the criminal justice system altogether. What happens to her is tragic, but for The Joker is a means to an end. The Joker shows Commissioner Gordon multiple images of his daughter after the assault as a way to torture him. Batman then comes after The Joker to save Gordon — and here’s the important part — motivated by saving Commissioner Gordon and bringing Joker to justice. That’s it.