The biggest problem with The Killing Joke movie’s portrayal of Batgirl goes beyond a poor approach to a female character. Its biggest problem is that what it adds to Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s original 1988 comic is so pointless, that its shoddy treatment of Barbara Gordon becomes all the more insulting.
In the wake of the film’s less-than-stellar reception at San Diego Comic-Con this past weekend, I watched The Killing Joke for myself. But even as a fan of the original comic (although never an appreciator of Barbara Gordon’s role in it) the movie really is a disappointment.
The film can be split into two sections, a 30-minute prologue set a week before the events of The Killing Joke which is entirely new material, and then a 45-minute adaptation of the original comic. Regarding the latter, It’s clear that the creative team behind the film holds great respect for TKJ, but almost to its detriment. It is as reverent a by-the-books an adaptation of the source material as you can get, adding nothing to it. The movie feels unnecessary, especially when a copy of The Killing Joke is not exactly tough to come by and read anyway.
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Of course, the animated movie does add something before the adaptation of the comic—the aforementioned first 30 minutes, ostensibly aimed at giving Barbara Gordon a larger role in the overall story. But it’s 30 minutes that feels like it was also written back in the ‘80s, when women served as plot devices instead of characters. In a sense, it’s true to its source material—but only because the original comic relegated Batgirl to a horrific casualty in a story about two male characters. The Killing Joke movie’s new additions treat her just as horribly as a character, but in a very different way.
Throughout The Killing Joke’s new prologue, Barbara Gordon is very rarely treated as her own self, rather than an as an object of desire, a weak-willed woman or, in the case of Batman, a young girl who needs protecting. One of the very first times she’s referred to, by a crime boss she and Batman thwart in the opening minutes of the film, is as “Batman and his bitch.” The primary antagonist of the prologue’s—said crime boss’s nephew, Paris Franz—entire arc is that he develops a one-sided infatuation with Batgirl, constantly sexualizing her.
That wouldn’t be too surprising for villains, it’s a shorthand to tell us that they are unpleasant people. It would be fine if the prologue stopped with its diminishing of Batgirl as a hero and as a person there. The problem is, even Barbara’s allies—even Barbara herself—demean her. When Barbara’s out of costume, the entire focus is not on her, but her love life, as she regales to a co-worker (himself a lazily written gay stereotype) about a “man in her life” that she cares for but has yet to sleep with. It’s portrayed as an infatuation that is dominating her emotions, considering at one point she makes a scene in the library out of frustration at the fact Batman has yet to reciprocate her feelings. When she’s in costume, that apparent lust she has for Batman is barely present, instead giving way to the father-daughter relationship they traditionally have in the comics. Batman constantly lectures Barbara, giving her orders and expecting her to follow them.
When she defies those orders and almost gets herself killed, it leads to an argument that, out of nowhere, culminates in the now infamous sex scene. There’s no build up, outside of Barbara’s every moment out of the Batgirl costume being spent discussing how she would very much like to have sex with the Batman. It feels wildly out of place, and Batman’s complete lack of a reaction—other than to ignore Barbara for a while after the encounter, and then reluctantly accept her resignation as Batgirl following Franz’s capture—makes it feel all the more awkward. We’re told in the very beginning of the prologue that Barbara, who’s been Batgirl for three years at that point, has always wanted to be a hero, inspired by Batman. But the prologue does not show us that desire at all. It replaces it with her desperate desire to have sex with Batman and very little else. Barbara says she’s resigning as Batgirl because she fears she might be close to going over the edge after the predicament with Franz and his infatuation with her, but for all the movie actually shows us it could just as easily, and unfortunately, be read as that now she’s slept with Batman, she’s got what she actually wanted out of being a hero and can move on. The fact that can even potentially be an interpretation of this moment is alarmingly disheartening.
Throughout this prologue, we learn nothing about her either as a person or as Batgirl. She’s still a plot device, it’s just now that she is a plot device defined solely by her sexual relationships to men. It adds nothing to Barbara as a character—but neither does it add anything to Batman (he already had an emotional connection to Barbara because she was Batgirl. Sex—especially sex that leads to Barbara waiting by her communicator the next night, desperately hoping Batman will call her—only cheapens them both.) And when the actual adaptation of The Killing Joke begins, she’s utterly ignored until it’s time for her to be shot by the Joker, just to further the emotional stakes for the men in her life.
Some people argue that Batgirl’s crippling in The Killing Joke is in fact one of her character defining moments—that fans of Batgirl should appreciate what TKJ did to her, because without it, Barbara would not have been set her on the path to being the strong character she is know. Certainly after Batgirl “died,” Kim Yale and John Ostrander took Barbara Gordon and reforged her as the brilliant, disabled Oracle for their run on Suicide Squad because they were so dismayed at this treatment of the character,
That legacy of Barbara’s strength and endurance in the face of horrific tragedy continued, as Oracle flourished into a major supporting character in the Batman books—and onward into series like Birds of Prey. It continued when Barbara was given the Batgirl mantle once more in the New 52. It flourished again when Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr rejuvenated the character in 2014 with the ‘Batgirl of Burnside’ arc, a story that introduced Barbara to a whole new audience of young female readers, catapulting the Batgirl comic into a position as one of DC’s best received and bestselling ongoing series. Now Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl is again thriving in the comics (her newly rebooted series’ first issue came out this past Wednesday).
But this evolution did not happen thanks to The Killing Joke, a book designed by DC to effectively end Barbara Gordon as a character. It happened in spite of it. As former Batgirl writer Gail Simone eloquently argued on social media in the wake of the movie’s release, crediting The Killing Joke for Barbara’s evolution as a character out of her shameful mistreatment at the hands of DC’s editors is like crediting a hit-and-run driver for the get well soon cards you receive after an accident. It is a fundamentally flawed justification for something terrible—the lowest point Barbara Gordon has endured in nearly half a century of stories.
In the run up to The Killing Joke’s release, Bruce Timm told Empire magazine that the adaptation was being extended to make Barbara a character rather than an emotional device for the men in her life. That it would “tell a Batgirl story.” It does indeed tell a Batgirl story—but not one that acknowledges the character Barbara has become in our current time. It tells a story rooted in a past where Batgirl was a problem for DC’s editors that needed to be swept away for the sake of advancing Batman, a past where the “shallow and ill-conceived” events of The Killing Joke (as Alan Moore himself put it!) were somehow an acceptable “end” to an iconic female character such as Batgirl.
Times have changed, and it’s crushingly disappointing that The Killing Joke movie is just too stuck in the past to see that.