Batman: The Killing Joke is like Two-Face’s coin; a pristine perfect adaptation on the one side and on the other, according to a large portion of people who viewed the film, a defilement of Batgirl and Barbara Gordon.
The Killing Joke is a one and done story that creates an origin story for the Joker that in a lot of ways is tragic and sympathetic. By contrast it shows the Joker at his most depraved and psychotic. You want to know how he got those scars? Alan Moore shows us.
The brief stand-alone comic The Killing Joke is approached with a pious sanctity. Director Sam Liu is an animation director whose results directly correlate with the budget. This time he’s got the money for the mood and the rich aesthetic. In previous outings it’s as if we’re stuck using the offcuts from the Justice League TV series from the beginning of the 2000’S. When the aesthetic feels cheap one instantly has a knee jerk reaction to assume that “cheapness” is going to carry through to other aspects of the production.
The impact of The Killing Joke‘s story proper has diminished due to its influence. Every screen Joker we’ve seen since it was published has read the novel as homework, and every script writer for the Joker has taken a few lines off the top too. If you’ve been late to the party on hugely influential films (Star Wars, The Godfather, Jaws, Pulp Fiction, Blade Runner) by the time that you see them, you feel like you’re Those people out there who love The Dark Knight, you’re going to see scenes drawn together with Batman: The Animated Series stalwarts Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill that you’ve heard time and again.
Batman: The Killing Joke has been adapted from Alan Moore’s source material by another prolific and excellent comic writer, Brian Azzarello (The Dark Knight III: The Master Race; 100 Bullets; The Dark Knight: The Last Crusade). Here lies the controversy: Azzarello creates a prologue for Batgril/Barbara Gordon. The facts of the story are as follow:
Barbara sleeps with Batman and quits her position as Batgirl. As it plays alongside The Killing Joke proper, it’s being interpreted as a punishment for sexuality. Azzarello is also being accused that he’s reductively saying that Barbara’s motivations for fighting alongside Batman are about arousal. As Batman’s team are referred to as his ‘family’ there’s also additional allegation that the whole thing has an incestuous grossness not only for Barbara but for Batman. Add in the final pertinent facts that she’s A beautiful librarian (it’s always the quiet ones) and you’ve got enough circumstantial facts that those looking for argumentative ammunition are gifted a Terminator 2: Judgement Day MiniGun.
Facts are one thing but tone is another thing altogether. I interpreted Azzarello’s Barbara as a character full of internal conflict. She’s reached a point in her development where she wants to be an equal partner, but instead she’s quickly realising that she’s always going to have to defer final permission to Batman; and she doesn’t want that. When she’s faced with a slimy, fast-talking crook that she wants to take down; hearing that she’s too invested in the takedown bruises her ego. She’s alive as Batgirl, fulfilling an inner action junkie that her ‘Dewy Decimal’ day-job suppresses. The final sexual frustration surprised me without disturbing me. I didn’t feel like it diminished her power, in fact I think that her using sex felt like a reaction to isolation and her intimate and frustrating working relationship. In fact I’ve more of a problem with the fact that she relinquished her position alongside Batman before story of The Killing Joke proper began. Batgirl has always been a character with conflicting motivations. Living with Gotham’s top cop by day and working alongside Batman by night, you’re often left to wonder; why? Perhaps, in comic canon there are some amazing insights to what it’s like to have a front row seat to Gotham’s law enforcement ineptitude and gets to fulfil her family’s legacy of fighting crime in a meaningful way alongside the Batman.
A coin toss doesn’t work for Batman: The Killing Joke. Azzarello has been prosecuted on the facts, like a comedian whose jokes are drafted into transcripts and read out by unfunny, shiny people on morning television. Room for interpretation and intent has been crippled.
Batman: The Killing Joke sets the template for how to faithfully adapt future DC animation. It makes sense to have an entire team mining the endless back catalogue as the spine of future animated projects and expand them with scene setting prologues or epilogue expansions (regardless of how this particular interpretation has been received) . Sprinkle some of that Wayne Corp petty cash into visual directors that can rip the aesthetic right from the page and there you have it (jumps off rooftop).
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman