The Killing Joke has long been one of my favorite graphic novels. It is a rare glimpse at a backstory for an infamous villain with a mysterious past. Over the years, the Joker was never really given a definitive origin story save this story that comes the closest. But even within the story, The Joker tells us he’d rather his past be multiple choice, hinting that this could just be another scenario he has cooked up to keep you guessing, but never actually revealing the truth. It’s also a moment where Batman desperately tries to understand the mind behind the man and attempts to reason with him, pleading with the Clown Prince of Crime to allow accept his help to no avail. Overall, The Killing Joke is a comic that shows you how desperately The Dark Knight struggles with his ongoing battle with the infamous Mr. J. When it was announced that it would be animated, rated R, and mark the return of Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker, I was beyond excited and bought a ticket to the screening event immediately!
The funny thing about this story is that it’s considered a poignant moment in Batgirl’s storyline as well. However, her appearance, right down to the gunshot wound leading to her paralysis, is a mere plot device in a larger story that is much more about the relationship between the hero and his arch nemesis. I was actually sold this book by a clerk in a West Philly comic shop after I asked him if he had any good Batgirl graphic novels. He immediately went to this story and its reputation and the overall beauty of the publication sold me and I purchased this infamous title, excited to get it home and read about one of my favorite heroines. While I was disappointed that this wasn’t really about Barbara Gordon, my favorite incarnation of Batgirl, I enjoyed it for how it examined the dichotomy of two of my favorite DC characters. However, I’ve since moved on to better Batgirl stories, including Batgirl Special #1 which highlights the real reasons why Barbara ultimately hangs up her cape.
Ahhhhhh, the real reason. Here is where The Killing Joke lost its credibility as a film. Instead of Highlighting the epic Battle between Batgirl and the man who once “killed” her, Cormorant, they decided to come up with something new. They took liberties with Batgirl’s character, and rather than use what’s called The Last Batgirl Story as source material, they came up something which I assume screenwriter Brian Azzarello thought was better. He was wrong. Instead we are subjected to a peculiar opening that sees Barbara Gordon nursing a strange crush on her brooding, father like mentor. While we see her working in Gotham Library, her strength, intelligence, and overall capabilities are reduced to an emotional woman who can’t seem to keep her cool after what comes across as an awkward and completely unnecessary sexual encounter with Gotham’s dark detective.
Yes. You read that right. In order to explain why Batgirl has retired from vigilante crime fighting and why we find her at home, just plain old Barbara Gordon enjoying a night with her father, we have to first reduce her to a clingy, overly emotional, female stereotype. Way to go Brian Azzarello. Did you have to include the phone conversation where she calls him, questioning his silence, saying he couldn’t handle a little sex? “You don’t care, I don’t care, it’s no big deal,” she says in a tone that sounds like a woman trying to convince herself it meant nothing when clearly it did. In fact, she describes the encounter as amazing and intense. In the meantime, she is pissed at him for wanting her off a case where a crime boss’ nephew, Paris Franz, has set his eyes on her in a way that is a mix of sex and violence. Franz enjoys their fight where he gets the upper hand and sprays her with a toxin while having her in a choke hold. She is able to escape his grip and locks herself in a vault before she passes out and he remarks she is a smart girl. What exactly is being implied here? Did he just drug her with the intent of taking advantage of her? Did she escape sexual assault by locking herself in the vault?
The situation is worsened by the fact that she seems to be think his advances and flirtations are cute and that they should use them to their advantage. Batman however, knows the trouble that is coming and insists she cannot be on the case. This of course leads to an intense argument where she asserts herself as his partner, which he confirms she is, but is not his equal. All the built up tension leads to what will now be infamous and creepy considering how up until this moment we’ve been led to believe the nature of their relationship was much more like family, him being not only a mentor but also a father figure to her and all of his sidekicks. So then we go into the inevitable scene where she tries to reach out to Batman and try one more time for him to let her return to the case for help, he sticks to his guns and then lo and behold, he is ambushed and in need of help. Now, because her judgment is being affected by all the feelings swirling around in her head, she of course comes to the rescue but goes a little too far while beating up Paris, yelling at him about how it’s all his fault and he ruined everything. Really? I mean seriously?
So she realizes she let her emotions get the best of her and walks away from her mentor. Then we go into The Killing Joke. A near, to the panel adaption of a story that has gotten mixed reviews over the years, but it is exactly what you would hope for from a screen adaption of your favorite book. Even the original writer of the novel, Alan Moore, has since apologized for his treatment of Batgirl. But in my opinion, paralyzing her wasn’t nearly as bad as what the first twenty minutes of this film does. The infamous title is definitely a great Joker origin story. It even attempts to make you feel compassion for a man whose one bad day sends him spiraling out of control and into madness. His point throughout the book is to try and teach Commissioner Gordon and the Dark Knight that everybody is just one bad day away from being him. If you let go of the idea that this is not a Batgirl story, and more of an affecting look at one of DCs most deranged yet most beloved villains, how he comes to be and how the relationship between him and Batman effects not just him but Batman as well, you can enjoy this story. Alan Moore was trying to show audiences that these characters were simply mirror images of each other, both of whom react to a traumatic experience in opposite ways. And maybe, if you can start the movie from the point where Batman is meeting Gordon at Arkham Asylum, then you might be able to enjoy this film as well.
Batman: The Killing Joke is available On Demand now and hits DVD and Blu Ray on August 2nd