In “Batman: The Killing Joke,” a movie obsessed with power, it’s telling that the only character who has none (or agency, for that matter) is the female lead.
If you’re not a fan of comic books, you might not be familiar with the “women in refrigerators” trope. The name was coined by Gail Simone, a well-known comic book writer, back in 1999 and it refers to the death or mistreatment of females in comic books as a plot device to further the story for a male character.
The name actually stems from a 1994 “Green Lantern” comic in which the title hero comes home to discover his girlfriend has been killed and stuffed into a refrigerator. This is just one of the many instances in which Simone and others found women had been murdered, raped, violated or depowered simply as a means to an end for a male character.
One of the most controversial moments in comic book history is in “The Killing Joke,” a 1988 graphic novel written by Alan Moore. It’s a Batman story in which the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon, a.k.a. Batgirl, leaving her paralyzed. It’s a storyline that has divided comic book fans for years and was made into a feature-length animated film that just came out in July.
The savage brutality with which Batgirl is treated is enough to turn your stomach. But, it’s not just the bullet wound. After he shoots her, the Joker then takes her clothes off and takes pictures of her naked, broken body to use against her father, Commissioner Jim Gordon. You see, the latter has been kidnapped, also stripped naked and tortured by the Joker and his goons in a carefully crafted funhouse on abandoned carnival grounds.
It’s an experiment in a way, because the Joker believes that every person is only one bad day away from madness. He believes that each of us can be pushed over the cliffs of insanity by the events that take place in our lives. Terrorizing Jim Gordon and showing him photos of his daughter’s naked and brutalized body is something he does with an almost clinical detachment.
Underneath all of this is the fact that Batman has come to the realization that his relationship with the Joker is likely a fatal one. He truly believes that he may kill the Joker or that he may end up dying at the madman’s hands. The two have been foes for many years, and Batman is starting to wonder if there’s only one way their story can end.
It’s a hardcore tale that “The Killing Joke” tells, but it wasn’t actually long enough for a feature-film, despite the fact that the book also contains an origin story for the Joker. A 30-minute prologue was written and filmed to run before the 45-minute adaptation of “The Killing Joke.”
The writers also allegedly wanted to give Barbara more of a place in this universe. They wanted to show her as a strong, female protagonist and really flesh her out so that by the time that fateful gunshot comes, the audience will be devastated because they’d grown to care about her so much.
At least, that’s what they said they were doing. I’m not sure they actually know what any of those words mean. The film reunites the original voice cast from “Batman: The Animated Series” — Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamill as the Joker, Tara Strong as Batgirl and Ray Wise as Jim Gordon — but that’s about the only thing it does right.
In the prologue, Batgirl faces off with a thug who develops an obsession with her and manages to best her at every turn. Batman gets jealous. Wait, what? Batman gets jealous because a thug is attracted to Barbara Gordon, who’s always been like a daughter to him?
And then there’s Barbara, who has a thing for Batman, too. She talks about this controlling, jealous man she’s involved with to her friends. (I can hear the pitch: “It’ll be like ’50 Shades of Grey,’ only with masked vigilantes.”) Yep, our strong and sturdy Batgirl spends the 30-minute prologue pining away for a guy. And what’s worse — and totally devastating to the Batman fandom — she and Batman actually have sex.
Afterwards, Batman ignores her, which causes Barbara to get even more angsty as she waits for him to call her. Seriously? Batgirl first appeared in 1961, and throughout the years, she’s been strong, confident and resilient, but in one fell swoop, writer Brian Azzarello turned her into a pathetic, incompetent ninny that can’t handle herself and has daddy issues.
Writers didn’t know what to do with Barbara back in 1988, and they don’t know now. Moore has gone on record as saying that he checked with his editors and creative team before he did something so despicable to Barbara. He wanted to make sure he was cleared for such drastic measures. The response? “Cripple the b.”
I don’t know that Azzarello or current editors use such derogatory terms to describe Barbara’s character, but they definitely weakened her. Love is not a weakness, but this creepy, obsessive idolatry she has for Batman is. Their relationship is unhealthy, and while this isn’t the first time a romance between the two has been referenced, this is the first time the characters have been so savagely messed with.
Sex is a predominant theme in Azzarello’s “Killing Joke,” and it’s not relegated to one scene between the ultimate Gary Stu and Babs. Conversation after conversation is dedicated to these characters and their bedroom antics. We learn in a flashback about the Joker’s prowess, then we meet three prostitutes whom the Clown Prince of Crime likes to frequent. We also learn that the criminal who’s obsessed with Babs likes to hire ladies of the night and makes them wear black masks. Eww.
One thing I also found interesting is a change that Azzarello made in the actual adaptation of the graphic novel. In the original story, the Joker undresses Barbara and takes pictures. A police detective specifically mentions this fact and that a lens cap was found in the apartment. It’s always been a question of whether Barbara was raped before or after the photos were taken. In the film adaptation, the line about the lens cap is removed. The detective still says she was undressed. In both versions, he follows the lines by saying it’s “pretty sick” but by removing the line about the lens cap. Azzarello’s decision appears to be designed to make the viewer think she was raped.
All in all, “The Killing Joke” is an embarrassment, pulling up just short of fan fiction. It’s obsession with comic book characters and their sex lives is nothing short of appalling. It’s not edgy, fun, or intelligent. It’s cheap and trashy. And, it’s inclusion in a retelling of Barbara Gordon’s worst hour only compounds the problems of its source material.
The creative team had the opportunity to take Moore’s tale and transform it into something even greater. Instead, they fell short and produced a movie that will resonate only with a narrow slice of fandom, those who crave more adult material, more sex and violence in their stories. It’s even more divisive than the source material.
Maybe that was the point. DC surely wanted to pad its bottom line this year and sell more copies of Moore’s work. This is definitely one way to do it. Make people so mad about the garbage movie you produce that they’ll buy the graphic novel to clean out the bitter taste in their mouth.