Batgirl Takes Over: The Killing Joke Controversy

1988's Batman: The Killing Joke is often cited by many as the quintessential Batman-Joker comic book tale but its legacy is more notorious for changing the life forever of an innocent bystander, Barbara Gordon (aka the former Batgirl and daughter of the Dark Knight's most trusted ally in the police force). The recent animated adaptation of this story intended to make Batgirl more than a plot device but arguably turned an already controversial situation even worse.


Legendary writer Alan Moore's primary objective was to explore the disturbing psychology behind the unique rivalry between Bruce Wayne's costumed alter ego and the Clown Prince of Crime. Both are victims of One Bad Day in the past that subsequently put their lives on a collision course from which there is no escape and only one survivor can emerge. After all, one dresses like a demonic creature of the night yet sacrifices any possibility of having a normal life in order to safeguard the innocent and powerless in his crime-infested city. The other adorns the bright colors of a clown yet is a monster whose extreme playful nihilism toward the very concept of human life has brought nothing but massive bloody suffering to the same city. Batman's adamant refusal to kill even the most vicious criminals has kept the Joker alive but the former's patience is always tested with the latter's ever-increasing body count. Artist Brian Bolland's detailed work reinforces this grim reality through the effective use of shadows and noirish neon coloring (at least prior to the recoloring of recent prints).


Joker's gruesome act in this story involves the shooting of Barbara Gordon in her civilian identity and subsequently undressing her while lying in a pool of blood (rape is also implied but never outright confirmed). An awkward photo session followed.


Furthermore, he kidnaps her dad, Commissioner Gordon and forces him to wear a slave collar while naked in an amusement park ride that takes him through a tunnel decorated with his daughter's nude pictures. Despite nearly being traumatized by this incident, the incorruptible police officer still persuades Batman to lawfully apprehend the Joker. Interspersed throughout the main story is a possible origin for the deranged clown where he once might have been a struggling comedian (and former chemist) who wanted nothing more than to give his loving pregnant wife the life she deserved before agreeing to participate as an accomplice in a one-time crime that could've been his young family's salvation from the slums. Yet a highly improbable tragedy struck and the once timid man became an unpredictable bleached killer that would give nightmares to even the most powerful supervillains of the DC Universe. Batman tries to end the cycle of violence forever by asking for a truce after giving the Joker a heavy beating. The clown responds with a silly joke that makes even the Dark Knight laugh and they weirdly bond over this moment in the rain as police cars close in. It reinforces the point that these 2 are the only ones on the planet who really understand each other as a consequence of being 2 opposite ends of the same curve (a concept that is also explored in M. Night Shymalan's Unbreakable). In the original story, Joker's fate is left mysterious but since it became a part of canon, it was obvious that he survived to continue his reign of terror. Barbara Gordon was never ever the same though as her resulting paralysis from the shooting would not let her walk again until over 23 years later.


The recent animated adaptation tried to modernize the story by making Barbara more than a victim who was a sacrificial lamb by having the first half of the movie show her last ever mission as Batgirl. Despite ignoring Batman's warnings, she begins a vendetta against Paris Franz, an upstart Mafia leader who is focusing on overthrowing his own Uncle in order to take over the crime family's operations. Batgirl's naivete leads to her be manipulated by this cocky punk into situations where Batman is forced to bail her out of one jam after another. In a more reasonable world, these two Bat-themed vigilantes would just have a constructive argument over their philosophical differences in handling this specific case on a deserted urban rooftop. Unfortunately, something else happens that should never have left the drawing board.

Yes, Batgirl seduces Batman and has sex with him. First of all, it's not the sex here that is shocking. Barbara being crazily attracted to Bruce Wayne is not a big deal either since the Dark Knight is used to women throwing themselves at him. It's maybe understandable that an impressionable and idealistic young woman could fall for her mysterious and emotionally distant alpha-male mentor. The real crime here is Bruce giving into Barbara's seduction in a way that is no different than a middle-aged college professor sleeping with one of his students. Sure, it might be legal but it doesn't make it any less sleazy. Furthermore, she is the daughter of one of his closest friends and the occasional girlfriend of his adopted son, Dick Grayson (the first Robin who later becomes Nightwing). We're also talking about the man who has gone thru extreme mental conditioning to never easily lose control of his will. In the comics, he even crafted a glorious backup personality to take over if he ever got brainwashed. Writer Brian Azarello openly admitted that this story decision was made because it would be knowingly controversial. Producer Bruce Timm forced this relationship into Batman Beyond despite fans not liking it then either due to its sharp deviation from the comics. Anyhow, the stupidity of this singular moment in the movie nearly destroys it even before the main narrative begins. If an intimate scene for Barbara needed to be added in order take advantage of the rare R rating for a DC animated flick, Nightwing should have been brought in. Two exes could have reconnected and no one would have complained. Nightwing's presence could also have been milked to add more tension with his former mentor, Batman, whom he had outgrown. A wasted opportunity. Well, Starfire (Nightwing's 2nd love) might be the ultimate winner here.


Otherwise, the 2nd half of the animated movie is a pretty straightforward adaptation of the original story that is nicely brought to life through the reliable mastery of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill (yes, Luke Skywalker himself!), the best ever voices of Batman and Joker in the history of animation even after 24 years. This is the main reason why I still enjoyed the movie overall. Batgirl's tale during the 1st half doesn't really connect well to the main plot, leaving the final product disjointed and the aforementioned rooftop scene seems even more contrived to give Batman unneeded extra motivation to take down the Joker. In a nutshell, Batgirl is a fantastic character who deserved better than this. Many have also complained about the mid-credits scene in the end but I actually found it to be a fitting resolution after all of the messiness that Barbara had to endure in this movie. To conclude on a high note, here is hoping that we will one day get a Batgirl & Birds of Prey animated movie.


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