We Need to Talk About The Killing Joke

batgirl

Posted by Jaime

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:

  1. Why and how the narrative changes made to “The Killing Joke” were shockingly insensitive to women’s issues, and…
  2. 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.

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Beating the Season Finale Blues: Five Freshman Shows to Binge Watch

Posted by Jaime

It’s that time again: TV finale time, when many shows close up shop for the season, leaving fans to another summer of watching reruns. It’s both my favorite and least favorite time of year: I get all of the crescendos, conclusions, and cliffhangers that I’ve been waiting for, and at the same time, May heralds another several months of waiting for new episodes.

It’s also the time of year when I go back and dig through all the new shows I could have been watching, to see if there are any that deserve regular rotation in my DVR. (As you can imagine, I end up sifting through a lot of bad TV. I even try to give shows a fighting chance of several episodes—Cooper Barrett’s Guide to Surviving Life had such promise!) So if you’re looking for a new show to keep you sated over the summer, here are five that have been renewed and are definitely worth digging into.

Superstore

A lot of people I love and respect would consider these fighting words, but here goes: Superstore is the only heir apparent to Community. It’s true! Aside from the fact that many people from the Greendale production crew migrated to Superstore, the show brings a diversity of characters, surprising heart, and biting wit that just isn’t present on any other sitcom currently airing.

With its ensemble cast, Superstore takes aim at how retail corporations treat their workers and their customers, without going over the top or condescending to anyone. The diversity of the characters is almost beside the point—there are gay, black, Asian, poor, thin, heavy, old, disabled, and even straight white male characters—because they all live within corporate culture. The ensemble in Superstore is united by the common experience of having to turn over their identities and become box store workers. While the blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em jokes and tight plot lines are hilarious, the season-long arc is a commentary on the culture of Walmart, Target, CostCo, et al, and puts some relevant questions in front of its audience, like “Are those low prices worth it, if it means denying working class people health care?”

That’s a big deal, and one that shows that Superstore has promise for seasons to come.

The Real O’Neals

As a huge fan of show co-creator (and “Savage Love” podcaster) Dan Savage, I was very wary of this one—how would an idea from my favorite sex advisor translate to broadcast TV? It was hard to see his brand making it past the censors; my Spidey-sense just couldn’t see prime time being very welcoming of discussions of pegging, orgies, or…really, anything Dan regularly talks about.

Despite Savage himself explaining that the show “went in a different direction” than he initially conceived, The Real O’Neals is able to get away with quite a bit, and ABC is surprisingly embracing of the show’s premise of a gay teenager’s life after coming out to his conservative Catholic family.

Social politics aside, The Real O’Neals is easily one of the funniest new shows this year, largely in part due to the acting of series leads Noah Galvin and Martha Plimpton. In a time when other ensemble shows have become bland and predictable (cough cough, Modern Family), The Real O’Neals is full of surprises every episode, and laugh-out-loud gags.

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Unpopular Opinion: I Loved the How I Met Your Mother Finale

Posted by Jaime

Editor’s Note: When Jaime came to us with the idea for this post, I laughed and laughed and laughed some more. “You KNOW how I feel about the HIMYM finale, RIGHT?” It’s been two years and I am STILL angry. True to my word, I’ve never gone back and watched an old episode since the finale aired. (I never did get around to having a bonfire with my DVDs though.) I still quote it and reference it fairly often, but it is always with a sense of melancholy (“Ugh, remember when that show wasn’t dead to me?”).  Needless to say, I was very curious about what Jaime would have to say regarding loving something that I personally find to be indefensible. I may vehemently disagree with him but he raises many points that are valid. YOU DO YOU JAIME. It’s the Head Over Feels philosophy after all. Thank you for your bravery in owning up to this. It actually made me want to watch the show again. 

But I won’t. How can I watch something that no longer exists? 😉 -Kim

It’s been two years since the end of How I Met Your Mother, and I think it’s finally safe to admit it: I loved the finale. Whew! I said it.

Had I come out with this opinion when it first aired, I likely would have received a barrage of angry tweets—but hopefully some of the backlash fires have died down by now, and we can talk about where it worked, where it didn’t, why it was doomed from the get-go, and the idea that while it may not have been the ending that most fans wanted, it was the one that Ted’s story needed.

Why Most Series Finales Stink

Series finales are a dangerous TV tightrope for writers: they have to keep their balance between pleasing the fans and successfully completing their character and story arcs. If they lean too far in one direction, they fail, and either end up with a beloved, pandering mess that betrays the ethos of the entire series, or they end up with a tight storyline that leaves behind an angry mob of devoted watchers. Serving both the fans and the arcs is the trick; the stakes are high—there can only be one finale—and so are the expectations, particularly for shows that have been on for several years.

Every show approaches the conundrum a little differently:

Seinfeld gave fans what they wanted by using the final trial as a way of parading every guest star or catch phrase they’d ever used on the show; at the same time, the trial itself was the direct result of years of the gang’s horrible selfishness. The story demanded that there be consequences for their years of bad behavior, and landing them in jail was narratively perfect.

Parks and Rec dropped all pretenses about caring about serving the series-long storyline arcs when they jumped into the future. From a storytelling perspective, the show absolutely should have ended at the end of season 6 (because, you know, that ending was about the triumph of the entire Parks Department, and everyone within it); instead, it slogged on for another year, and ended with a finale where every character magically lived happily ever after in their own personal paradises. While it was easy to walk away from the series finale in a good mood, the last episode completely abandoned what made the show great: small moments of zaniness in the most mundane of settings.

The Community finale—one of my favorite half-hours of television ever, period—prioritized character arcs over fan service, but respectfully. By constantly asking questions throughout the episode, like Annie’s “If I were a character in a TV show, and I was in my sixth year of community college, at some point, wouldn’t the audience start to feel sorry for me?”, Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna wrote a closing that ultimately got us to want the characters to move on. Where they could have spent the time taking a victory lap through side characters and paintball—*cough, cough*, Community season 4 finale, I’m looking at you—they instead prioritized their character storylines in a way that openly explained why that was the best choice.

Now, on top of the challenge of writing a good series finale, ending a show becomes exponentially more difficult when the entire premise of the show is based on solving specific mysteries for viewers. LOST was based on the implicit promise that we would someday find out exactly what was happening on that damn island. The Fugitive finale set ratings records based on the promise that we would discover the truth about the one-armed man. Arrested Development kept viewers in suspense for three years, promising answers to questions like: was George Sr. innocent? And if so, then who was sabotaging the Bluth family? When fans have been watching one of these “I want answers, dammit” shows for years, the finale has far more gravity (and pressure upon it) than a typical TV show.

So in this context, the HIMYM finale was doomed from the start: forty minutes was never going to be enough time to do right by fans, provide character closure, and deliver the epic romance we’d been waiting nine years for.

Where the HIMYM Finale Worked…

But like I said, I think they gave us the ending Ted’s story needed, and actually did do right by the fans too—so let’s get into all of the reasons behind this opinion. (It’s OK to get a head start on writing angry response tweets if you want to start now.)

Ted’s entire narrative arc was based on a consistent pattern: his heart was constantly pulling him in directions that his head was unwilling to admit he wanted, and the most meaningful moments of the show were interactions of someone pointing out this hypocrisy to him. It started in season one: Ted was in a cab on his way to Robin’s, and his head was literally unable to cope with admitting his feelings for Robin, so he imagined Victoria there, explaining it to him. And while it wasn’t always about Robin—he did, after all, spend a season denying his feelings for Zoey—we did repeatedly see Ted acting on feelings he wasn’t willing to acknowledge, and the members of the gang took turns calling him out on it.

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Five Reasons CBS Needs to Renew Supergirl

Posted by Jaime

Major caveat to this article: I’m not a woman. I don’t pretend to have an intrinsic understanding of what it means to be female in a culture that has prioritized men for…well, ever. But gender equality and justice on TV are important issues to me. These issues are particularly meaningful to me as I’m raising my son—I want him to grow up with a TV landscape with more strong women in it than I did—so I’m writing this post as someone who thinks that superhero TV can, and must, do better, especially when it comes to depicting women as protagonists and role models in the same way it does men.

News came out this week that CBS may have Supergirl on the chopping block for cancellation, and while that’s not a definitive answer on the show’s fate by a long shot, it is cause for concern for fans. Despite the sub-par pilot episode (which made her more Spice Girl than action hero), Supergirl has developed into a complex, rewarding show that also carries symbolism and meaning to its audience, and its cancellation would represent a real loss to the TV landscape.

Supergirl is a major step forward for how women are depicted in TV superhero culture. Sure, there are plenty of strong female characters out there, between Arrow, The Flash, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, but Supergirl is the only present-day powered female that’s a prime-time lead. That’s a big deal, and one that means that the renewal of Supergirl should be considered from a philosophical level as much as it should from a ratings or plot perspective.

There are SO many reasons why CBS should renew Supergirl, but let’s stick with the top five…

5. Because she’s more interesting and flawed than Superman.

Superman’s powers have always been the gold standard for the word “superhero,” but as many have noticed, he’s often the least interesting character in any of his stories. And that’s because good characters, characters that we as an audience care about, have flaws—one might even say good characters are their flaws—and Superman has no discernible flaws whatsoever.

Supergirl, on the other hand, has all of the cool stuff about her cousin, plus plenty of character flaws to boot: she cares what other people think of her; she has trouble standing up to authority; she is perpetually lonely as the only one of her kind (that isn’t evil, anyway); she doesn’t know how to maintain a love life. She’s made of steel, yet somehow, through her flaws, she becomes relatable. She’s an alien, but we get her.

(Batman v Superman just came out, but I haven’t seen it. So maybe Superman is less boring now. I kinda doubt it, but we’ll see.)

In Supergirl, we get to see a Kryptonian that we can care about and relate to. We get to see that life would always be a struggle, even if we had superpowers. So while DC hasn’t announced any plans for a Superman TV series, I can already tell you I would cancel that before giving Supergirl the axe.

4. Because of Cat Grant.

While the Supergirl/Cat Grant relationship started the year as the Dollar-Store version of The Devil Wears Prada, Ms. Grant has since developed into a thoughtful media mogul who continually surprises the audience.

All season long, Cat Grant has struggled with the different sides of forgiveness. We saw that in her relationship with her son, she desperately wants to be forgiven for years of neglect. At the same time, she has an extremely hard time forgiving Supergirl for not being perfect (and, ahem, for almost killing her once). In a show where she could serve as a one-dimensional surrogate for all media (like J. Jonah Jameson in Spider-Man, or Perry White in Superman), she’s instead a character dealing with the very real human problem of not wanting to forgive and seeking forgiveness at the same time.

We also keep getting hints that Cat Grant cares about Kara (Supergirl), but sees the need to push her by being hard on her. Instead of replacing her with Siobhan, she had them work together—which showed us that she’s challenging Kara, not punishing her. When Siobhan betrayed Kara, Ms. Grant stood up for her. And, of course, when she’s alone, Cat Grant knows exactly how to pronounce Kara’s name.

It’s exactly the development we want to see: a Darth Vader who is eventually making his way away from the dark side. TV needs more characters like her.

Yeah…if you could just renew Supergirl, that would be great.

(And CBS: I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you that The Good Wife is ending this year. If you cancel Supergirl, both Cat Grant and Alicia Florrick disappear. There aren’t a lot of shows about career-driven single women, much less good ones. Renew the ones you can.)

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‘Ship / Wrecked: Why DC is Better for TV ‘Shippers Than Marvel

Posted by Jaime

Editor’s Note: Everyone welcome Jaime Vazquez to Head Over Feels! Jaime is a stay-at-home dad, a long-time comic book nerd, and a huge fan of reading too much into TV shows. (Follow him on Twitter, or check out his interview with Community creator Dan Harmon here.)

The problem with being a TV ‘shipper in general is this: if a show’s writers are any good, they’ll come up with clever ways to show you that your favorite two characters are perfect together, and immediately follow that up with compelling reasons to keep them apart. Good writers make us root for amazing couples while simultaneously reminding us they can never be together. Even when they tell us the smart money is on the poison, they get us to bet on Romeo and Juliet.

In the world of TV superheroes, it’s no different: both Marvel’s and DC’s shows are filled with heart-meltingly good, yet doomed, romances. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage open up to each other, then have surprisingly hot superhero sex, but can never be together after he learns the truth of what she did while under Kilgrave’s spell. (Although if they did stay together, the show would have to move from Netflix to Cinemax pretty quickly.) Marvel’s Agent Carter has pitch-perfect flirty banter with Wilkes, who quickly becomes a ghost with no physical form. Even though we see how happy The Flash is with Patty Spivot, he cares too much to put her at risk, and has to break up with her. Perfect, but ill-fated loves: those are the rules of TV romance, and it’s the belief in those rules that allows us to forgive the writers each week, even if Barry really belongs with Patty. Because he does. (I won’t even go into that last kiss of theirs.)

It’s a funny thing, though, because Marvel and DC play by these rules in very different ways, ultimately making it a lot easier to be a ‘shipper on the DC side. In the DC TV universe, couples are granted brief happiness before our hearts are torn in two by their splitting up. In the Marvel TV universe, there’s no such thing as relationships that work, and we’re left with star-crossed lovers who are as miserable about their love lives as we are. (As others have noted, this is especially true on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)

Don’t get me wrong: both DC and Marvel TV give us plenty of opportunities to yell at our screens over romances that should happen but don’t. I’ll never forget the moment when Simmons was gobbled up into another dimension moments after agreeing to go to dinner with Fitz, or the Season 2 finale of Arrow revealing that Olly confessing his love to Felicity was a ruse (my wife stood up at that very moment, declaring as she left the room, “That’s it. This show is dead to me now.”).

But here’s where the writers of DC shows give us more compelling romances to watch: even when we know a relationship is headed for doom, they give the characters–and us watching–moments of happiness before things go haywire. Those brief respites of love make it easy for us to see why they care for each other, and give us ‘shippers moments to melt. On the Marvel side, it’s all build-up to a tragedy; on the DC side, there’s always an intermission of happiness before the inevitable end.

An interesting example is how both The Flash and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had their romantic date scenes turn out this season. On The Flash: although his first date with Patty Spivot went comically bad, Barry’s temporary blindness somehow endeared him to her. Her figuring out that he was trying to hide his blindness made for a clever meet-cute, and by the end of the episode, I was more than ready for her to be the woman in his life (and honestly, Iris’s selfishness had really been bugging me by that point).

Compare that date scene with the date that Fitz set up for Simmons this year on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: their evening is marred by Simmons’ PTSD, and is awkward and sad from start to finish. Neither Fitz nor Simmons can acknowledge the elephants in the room: they care for each other, but it’s never going to work. The night ends in tears.

Like I said, I get the rules: neither couple can be together. The Flash and Patty eventually had their relationship end tragically, and Fitz and Simmons had to contend with her ex from another planet. But the quick few episodes we got of Barry and Patty together, as a couple, were so freaking cute that it was easier to get invested. She loved his wit, and he loved her gumption. (In contrast, it’s been two and a half years, and I’m still not certain what Fitz and Simmons like about each other. Even after this week’s declaration that they’re “starting over” in their relationship, if history tells us anything, it’s that it’s going to be a while before we see them kiss again.)

Some other stray examples worth pondering:

  • Roy and Thea on Arrow weren’t together long, but didn’t we all love how they rescued each other?
  • It was pretty obvious that Ronnie and Caitlin on The Flash weren’t going to be able to stay together for long after they resurrected him, but we got to see them reunited, and reconnecting.
  • An odd DC outlier: Supergirl has been friend-zoned by Jimmy Olsen. Nonetheless, my fingers are crossed.
  • Diggle and Lila are cute new parents. I know something bad is bound to happen to them soon, and even though I know that, I’m still going to curse at my TV when it does.
  • Hunter and Mockingbird from S.H.I.E.L.D. are getting their own show next year. I’m rooting for them as a couple (and they are married, after all), but their chemistry seems to rely on violence. We’re likely to get more Mr. and Mrs. Smith from their show than When Harry Met Sally. I’m not holding out out a lot of hope for getting any feels from them.
  • May and her ex-husband might have shown a spark to rekindle their romance…except for that whole him-being-a-serial-killing-monster thing.
  • An odd Marvel outlier: Wilson Fisk and Vanessa (from Daredevil) weaved a romantic origin story for the Kingpin. Their relationship, while dark and violent, feels authentic–she accepts him for who he is, and he is vulnerable to her only. As a show, Daredevil did an exceptional job letting their relationship bloom, getting the audience invested in them as they got invested in each other.

In the end, I’ll keep watching both universes, and I’ll be a relentless ‘shipper on both sides regardless of how tragically their relationships end. I’ll keep watching and ‘shipping, partly because I’m a geek, but mostly because it’s somehow comforting to think that even though we don’t get to live in a world where people have superpowers, we do get to live in a world where love can last (and doesn’t have to end tragically). I like to think we got the better end of the deal.