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The first R-rated Batman film fails at maturity

'The Killing Joke' makes a sexist misstep that kind of ruins the whole thing


August 03, 2016

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    Near the end of the clumsy 30-minute prologue created and designed to pad out Batman:The Killing Joke into a 76-minute movie, Barbara Gordon, as Batgirl, snaps and delivers a brutal beating to a defeated villain. The recipient of her relentless punches isn’t an iconic comic book character like Two-Face, Bane or Black Mask; it’s just a regular criminal (voiced by Maury Sterling), a sexist with a dangerous Batgirl obsession. The small-time mobster keeps his composure during his beatdown and coldly spits back, “Is it that time of the month?”

    Unfortunately, in this animated adaption of the iconic Batman-Joker comic, it’s not just the villains who seek to degrade Barbara Gordon; the writers have their turn as well.

    The Killing Joke is an iconic, one-shot graphic novel largely regarded by many as the definitive Joker story. It provides a tragic but potentially untrue origin story for the mad clown (because he’d rather his past be multiple-choice) and explores the twisted philosophy that drives his deranged antics.

    It’s an introspective look at the infamous villain, but it’s also the subject of much controversy due to the permanent paralysis and implied sexual horror Barbara Gordon undergoes. The Joker, in an attempt to mentally break Commissioner Jim Gordon, shoots his daughter in the spine, crippling her. He later strips her naked and takes photos of her bloodied body (with the sickening undertones of rape), barraging the police commissioner with these images after kidnapping him. It’s more gut-twisting and grotesque than gritty.

    Can a comic that contains the crippling, sexual degradation and humiliation of a beloved and respected heroine be a good story or a timeless tale? That’s a question the animated movie is unwilling to provide a thoughtful answer for.

    In the original comic panel, Barbara is barely present in the story that depicts the worst moment of her life. Brian Azzarello, the man in charge of the screenplay, attempts to rectify this problem by adding a 30-minute prologue with Batgirl as the main protagonist. However, Azzarello can’t escape making one questionable decision after another, adding fuel to the fire, piling controversy on top of more controversy.

    In the prologue, Batgirl (voiced by Tara Strong) prowls the city with the Dark Knight, attempting to apprehend Sterling’s sleaze-ball character while secretly pining for the affection of her much older mentor. She thinks about him during the day and tries to impress him during the night. This affection is soon reciprocated on the rooftops with a sex scene between the two crime fighters.

    The sexual component in the Batman-Batgirl relationship gives her torture at the hands of the Joker an added context, artificially raising the stakes: Batman isn’t just out to avenge his female protégé and colleague; he’s out to avenge a former flame. The prologue doesn’t deepen her character, it cheapens her. Even in her own story, Barbara is reduced to a sex object to be preyed upon and objectified by villains and a lover for Batman to defend.

    After the tactless and unnecessary supplementary content ends, The Killing Joke is rather faithful to its source material and certain scenes are even elevated due to its cast of talented voice actors. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprised their roles as Batman and the Joker. Conroy and Hamill have voiced these iconic characters countless times, from cartoons and animated movies to the popular Arkham games. There’s a flat line or a stilted delivery every now and then, but overall, these veteran voice actors are able to effortlessly convey a weariness and heavy history whenever their characters interact.

    Conroy and Hamill are given multiple opportunities to deliver some strong monologues about their seemingly endless rivalry, effortlessly capturing the nature of their relationship (which is bleak and gloomy with little hope of peaceful resolution). It’s not an action-oriented film; the main conflict is between their clashing beliefs.

    Despite a great cast and the riffing of an iconic comic, the two stories shown in Batman: The Killing Joke feel disjointed — except for the fact that they both fail to respect Barbara Gordon, a character I’m sure many young girls and grown women look up to and admire. The animated adaption attempts to shift a story focused on the Joker into a tragedy centered on Batgirl, but the only tragedy is how she is depicted and treated in both the 1988 comic and the 2016 movie.


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