Spoilers ahead! Turn back now!
The Killing Joke is one of the most iconic Batman graphic novels. In it, the reader sees the series of events that lead to The Joker’s descent into madness, and he or she also gets a unique view into the psyche of The Joker, Batman, and Commissioner Gordon. The reader finds that while Gordon may be the embodiment of law and The Joker chaos, Batman’s placement onto the spectrum is not so simple.
The other significant moment in The Killing Joke involves Batgirl. After The Killing Joke, Barbara Gordon becomes the superhero Oracle. This continued until DC’s New 52 where, due to Batman’s nanobots, she reversed her paralysis.
Now, the movie version of The Killing Joke, which was released earlier this week, is an almost panel-for-panel replication of the book. However, there is an added story at the beginning of the film that focuses on Batgirl. The instinct here is good. Rather than have Batgirl simply be a woman in a refrigerator like she is in the book, they took the time to add her more into the story and develop her character a bit more. They also got Tara Strong, my favorite voice actor, to play her.
Clearly, there are good intentions here, but it doesn’t actually work. The beginning of the movie is completely irrelevant to the rest of the film other than to explain why Batgirl hung up her cowl to live as Barbara Gordon. However, this in and of itself is problematic. Part of the reason why she hangs up the cowl is because she doesn’t want to become like Batman because it scares her (this makes sense), but, really, a large part of it is because she is in love with him and he does not love her back. More than this, the entire beginning of the film is about a man obsessed with Barbara and Batman feeling as though he must protect her. Most of Barbara’s story revolves around her talking to her co-worker about how she’s in love with Batman (or, as she calls him, her yoga instructor) and is scared to make a move and therefore face rejection. She argues that this works. She also argues that “there is no other yoga class.” That is, there is no other way for her to fight crime without Batman.
The inclusion of this storyline is basically arguing that, in order for Barbara to gain her independence, she had to be paralyzed and assaulted by The Joker. This again puts Barbara’s fate in the hands of a man. I doubt that this was the filmmaker’s original intentions, but the sloppiness of the movie was in line with the sloppiness in the book. Even in the film, Barbara immediately asks Batman about her father after she ends up in the hospital. The focus shifts to Commissioner Gordon where it had previously been on Batman. It is disappointing that, even after making sure that Batgirl is a more active participant in the story, the movie falls into the same tropes as the book. Including Barbara’s assault in the film is not in itself problematic (Oracle is a fantastic part of Barbara’s storyline), but the way to avoid these pitfalls is to make her a more active participant in the story that is being told–not to give her an entirely separate story.
The idea of The Killing Joke is a good one. It makes the reader question the difference between Batman and The Joker. Does it really take just one bad day to make the difference? However, rather than the film taking a good idea with a messy execution and expanding upon and improving it, they add a mediocre story to the beginning and make no discernable improvements.