A film adaptation of an Alan Moore-penned comic book is typically cause for celebration. He is, after all, widely considered the best graphic novel writer in history. Yet the latest on-screen transfer of Moore's work has generated much less enthusiasm, as Warner Bros. has adapted the highly controversial Batman story The Killing Joke.
(Editor's note: Spoilers for Batman: The Killing Joke ahead).
The Killing Joke is a one-shot graphic novel that Moore himself has disowned since its 1988 publication, largely due to the comic's gruesome treatment of Batman's female sidekick, Batgirl. In The Killing Joke comic, Batgirl — aka Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Commissioner Jim Gordon — is shot in the abdomen by the Joker, who proceeds to strip her naked and take photos of her as it's revealed that she is paralyzed from the attack.
Her sole purpose in the narrative is to serve as gratuitous, sexualized shock value for Commissioner Gordon and Batman — an understandable cause for criticism by feminist readers. Fear not, however: The Killing Joke film's executive producer Bruce Timm said the on-screen adaptation would improve and expand Batgirl's storyline. But all Warner Bros. Animation managed to do was take an already contentious storyline and make it even more abhorrent.
Giving Batgirl a larger role sounds promising on paper, but The Killing Joke's new "identity" for the character is to make her fawn over Batman. That's right — in order to expand Barbara Gordon's role, the writers decided that she should swoon over her much older, paternal mentor. That was their solution.
The situation is cartoonish, played out in a roughly half-hour prologue prior to the events of The Killing Joke. (The graphic novel is so short it couldn't feasibly be made as a feature film on its own.) Batgirl — as Gordon, local librarian — talks to her co-worker about her obsession with her "yoga instructor," whom she hopes will one day give her the attention she deserves in class. The inclination is clear: Batgirl isn't just a hero for the sake of fighting crime. She's also doing so to gain the Caped Crusader's attention.
Conversely, Batman is emotionally distant and bossy toward her, making it clear that she has to play by his rules. This tension culminates when Batman refuses to allow her to join him in taking down a mobster, one who is also attracted to Batgirl. As the two bicker over her role as his sidekick, she kisses him and they have sex off-screen — a sequence that did not sit well with Batman fans at San Diego Comic-Con.
The relationship between Batman and Batgirl ceases to exist after that; she's spurned in ways you might expect from a high school drama, not a superhero film. In one scene, Batgirl talks to herself about whether she should reach out to him through their walkie-talkies. Batgirl's prologue ends there: as the jilted love interest, at the mercy of the man who spurned her.
Now, enter the actual plot of The Killing Joke. Batgirl's role here is identical to her role in the graphic novel: She's shot and paralyzed by the Joker when she answers her door after a few lines of dialogue with her father. The only difference now is that Batman supposedly feels some added emotional weight for Batgirl's predicament; still, he just stands stoically at her hospital bed as a doctor notes that she'll never walk again.
The only other mention of Batgirl in The Killing Joke is offhand, unnecessary and disturbing. As Batman searches Gotham for the Joker and Gordon's whereabouts, he talks to a group of sex workers to find out if they've seen anything. They're surprised to hear that the Joker has escaped prison without their knowing — usually he goes straight to a brothel.
"Maybe he found himself another girl," one sex worker posits. So yes, instead of keeping it ambiguous, The Killing Joke wants to make it plainly clear that the Joker also raped a paralyzed Batgirl.
The Killing Joke film does nothing to improve the graphic novel's most problematic element. Instead, it doubles down on its twisted Batgirl torture porn by creating a mobster in the prologue who exists to sexualize her and create a rift with Batman, with whom she has sex and later pines over. The biggest difference between the comic and the film is that she now serves the purpose of lifting the storylines of not one, but several men — but still never her own.
Those who have expressed similar criticisms about the film's portrayal of Batgirl have been met with a childish response from co-screenwriter Brian Azzarello, who said "Wanna say that again? Pussy?" to one audience member during a Killing Joke panel at Comic-Con.
The onus shouldn't be put on fans and critics for disagreeing with the film's treatment of Batgirl. Rather, the fact that Azzarello and Warner Bros. Animation believe that they nailed a transformative storyline for the character is the biggest joke of all.