Giving Women More Screen Time Doesn’t Erase Problematic Storytelling.
When it was announced in 2015 that DC Animation would be tackling Alan Moore’s controversial one-shot graphic novel, Batman: The Killing Joke, more than a few eyebrows were raised. While the book has been called the one of the definitive Batman and Joker stories, it has also received a large amount of criticism for its treatment of Barbara Gordon, who is paralyzed and sexually assaulted by the Joker as a means of taunting Batman. It’s an opinion with which Moore seems to agree, as he has since distanced himself from the story.
In April, a trailer for Batman: The Killing Joke (2016) was released, which showed Barbara Gordon fighting alongside Batman as Batgirl. Subsequently, the film’s writer, Brian Azzarello, told fans that the source material wasn’t just padded out but instead a Batgirl story was included so that viewers could really get a sense of the character and and her relation to Batman. This would also help ground the violence against her as something viewers could feel emotionally invested in – Barbara isn’t just being introduced to be shot, she’s a member of the Bat Family being targeted. Sound good, right?
Maybe not. Batman: The Killing Joke starts out with Barbara’s portion of the story, which primarily focuses on her relationship with Batman and the takedown of a social-climbing mobster named Paris. An opening sequence showcases Barbara as Batgirl, but she comes off as incompetent, letting the bad guys escape and needing Batman to take control of the situation. This is paired with a glimpse of Barbara’s life out of costume and working at her day job as a librarian. We briefly see her computer abilities as she mentions that she is helping build a surveillance network for the Gotham Police Department but this is overshadowed by a conversation with her co-worker, who keeps badgering her about her need of a boyfriend. When he mentions to her that there are plenty of single men in the library for her to choose from, Barbara alludes to having a relationship with Batman. There’s no sense that Barbara is incredibly badass and intelligent; instead, because she is a woman without a boyfriend, she’s portrayed as lacking and incomplete.
Although Batgirl is competent enough to track Paris and his goons to their hideaway, she is still physically overpowered by him (perplexing, given she later flips Batman) and is sprayed in the face with a chemical that blurs her vision and starts putting her to sleep. Before she stumbles to safety, Paris leans in and puckers, asking her for a good night kiss. The date rape implications here are mindboggling, especially given what happens later on in the actual source material. Paris’s strange fetishization of Batgirl only serves to enrage Batman, who, rather than saying that Barbara is being targeted, says that she is being objectified. It was a strange word choice for an animated film that would go on to show close ups of Barbara’s butt and breasts while she is jogging through the park. After telling her that she’s no longer working on the case, Batman tells Batgirl that they are “partners but not equals, not even close.” He goes on to say that fighting crime is just a fun game for Batgirl because she hasn’t been taken to the edge yet. And there it was: the justification for the ugly things that were to come. If Barbara needs to be driven to the edge, rape would do just that. Was Batman: The Killing Joke turning into another warped misrepresentation of a rape-revenge narrative? Would Barbara become like Sansa Stark, suffering brutalization at the hands of a monster only to come out stronger and more competent in the end without making any commentary on the lack of actual justice for rape victims?
Inevitably, the answer is no. Barbara doesn’t get to participate in the revenge aspect of her narrative at all, this is something left solely up to the men in her life. But before even getting there, Batgirl goes after Batman for his statement, telling him that she’s only been donning the costume for him. She then starts fighting with him before pinning him down, kissing him and, after an awkward Batman ass grab, Barbara removes her costume and it’s alluded that the two have sex. Batman avoids Barbara afterwards, which culminates in her awkwardly pleading with him for things to go back to normal because it was only sex and she doesn’t have to care about it. In the final showdown with Paris, Batgirl finally comes to Batman’s aid but this is watered down because of the romantic implications. As she battles with Paris, she screams at him for ruining everything with Batman. He retorts by asking her if it is that time of the month.
As if this wasn’t enough, Barbara’s side of the story ends by completely stripping her of her agency before the ugly assault even occurs. In the final scenes, Barbara watches a couple kissing in the street from her apartment window just to hammer home the incomplete lonely woman theme one last time. She then turns on the news in time to see Batman get credited for the arrest of Paris. Here is the perfect opportunity to highlight how men have long taken credit for the hard work of their female contemporaries (looking at you Watson and Crick), but instead Barbara says nothing. The next scene shows her turning in her costume to Batman and walking away from the Batgirl mantle because she is only doing it to protect Batman and not the citizens of Gotham. It’s a truly depressing and deflating end to a character that should have been depicted as the empowering, intelligent and kickass woman she truly is instead.
After this, the film kicks into the graphic novel storyline, alternating The Joker’s current actions with sepia-soaked flashbacks to his former life as a failed standup comedian trying to make ends meet for his pregnant wife, Jeannie. It’s worth noting that The Joker’s wife is killed in a freak accident, something that happens off-screen and something that is simply a plot device to make The Joker’s bad day a little bit worse.
Because it wasn’t shown in the trailer, some wondered if DC Animation would forgo the notorious rape scene and just have Barbara get shot and paralyzed instead. Unfortunately, the scene was included and seeing a bloodied, terrified Barbara begging to know why she’s being targeted is made even worse by watching The Joker slowly unbutton her blouse and telling her that it’s to prove a point. The entire scene is jarring, triggering and ugly but most of all, in 2016, it’s unnecessary. But somehow it’s made even worse by a follow up scene in which Batman is questioning a group of prostitutes about the whereabouts of The Joker. The girls tell Batman that The Joker normally comes to see them after he escapes custody and that he likes a good time. Kinda gross. Sexualizing The Joker definitely feels weird. But then one of the girls says that The Joker hasn’t come to see them this time and that maybe he’s found a new girl instead. Let that sink in for a minute: Barbara is that new girl. Barbara, who has just been raped.
The brutalization of women isn’t an edgy plot device, it’s cheap, misogynistic writing that was as unnecessary in 1988 and it is today. If Brian Azzarello felt that incorporating a fresh Batgirl story, however problematic, into Batman: The Killing Joke wouldn’t dilute the original material, then he just as easily could have removed the rape of Barbara Gordon. Not only was this included, but it was turned into a trivial joke. Because of this, the film feels especially uncomfortable to watch.
But this isn’t the only reason Batman: The Killing Joke isn’t a good film. Although it faithfully captures the stunning art style of Brian Bolland, the source material itself just feels outdated. Moore’s idea of one bad day pushing a good man over the edge is a strong one, but it’s told to greater effect in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). Heath Ledger’s pockmarked Joker who lies about his Glasgow grin and who just wants to watch the world burn feels a lot scarier than a failed standup comedian. And the final tense sequence in The Dark Knight, where stranded citizens refuse to blow up a boat full of criminals, is a lot more effective than Commissioner Gordon asking Batman to take The Joker in “by the book.”
And so, as DC Entertainment forges ahead with their cinematic universe, they can take one important lesson from Batman: The Killing Joke — the vital need for women to tell their own stories.