“Why aren’t you laughing?”
If you find the concept of Batman and Batgirl having some rooftop sex after engaging in a fist-fight terrible and ill-conceived, congratulations — you understand the characters of the Batman universe better than the makers of Batman: The Killing Joke!
In 1988, writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland unleashed the graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, and Bat-books would never be the same. Coming just two years after Frank Miller’s game-changing The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke sought to explain Batman’s most confounding and infamous foe: The Joker. The book would garner awards and influence Batman writers for years to come, although in the decades since its release Moore has put some distance between himself and the work. “I don’t think it’s a very good book,” he said in an interview in 2000. “It’s not saying anything very interesting.”
In the comic, The Joker escapes Arkham Asylum, shoots Barbara Gordon aka Batgirl in the spine and abducts Commissioner Gordon. The Joker’s plan: drive Gordon insane to prove that all it takes is “one bad day” to turn an honest man into a monster. Through it all there are Godfather II-like flashbacks that show the (possible) origin story of the Clown Prince of Crime. With the book’s famous place in the history of all-things-Batman it was inevitable that DC Animation would get around to adapting the work, as they’ve done in the past with other seminal books like The Dark Knight Returns and Year One. A Batman story featuring a heroine being brutally crippled and sexually assaulted (Joker strips a bleeding, writhing Barbara nude and takes photos of her; photos he in turn shows to Gordon to drive him crazy) is already dark and unsettling enough, so it’s utterly baffling that writer Brian Azzarello, in adapting Moore and Bolland’s work, would make the story even more unpleasant by throwing in a sexual relationship between Batman and Batgirl.
The overall point of the “Bat Family” — which includes the many Robins, Batgirl, Ace the Bathound and more — is exactly what its moniker suggests: to be a family, with Batman as the patriarch of group. So while Barbara Gordon/Batgirl’s real father may be Commissioner Gordon, Batman is just as much of a father figure. To break Barbara down into some lovelorn schoolgirl lusting after Batman is a profound misunderstanding of these characters. Apparently sensing that the comic’s premise wasn’t enough for a full film, Azzarello has tacked on a half-hour intro that sets up Batman and Batgirl’s relationship. When a friend ponders why Barbara doesn’t go for the hunky dudes on campus lusting after her, Barbara explains it’s because she’s already in a “complicated” relationship with a guy — that guy just happens to be Batman. The concept of Barbara developing feelings for Batman isn’t that terrible or unrealistic — there are plenty of real-life mentor/mentee relationships that have resulted in those emotions. But to have Barbara and Batman act on those emotions is a whole other story. And that story sucks.
The lengthy, boring intro here involves Batgirl catching the eye of a psychopathic criminal named Paris Franz (“You’re joking,” Batgirl dryly comments when she learns the creep’s name). Paris is so smitten with Batgirl that he even has a prostitute put on a Batgirl mask for a tryst (hey, have I mentioned how gross this movie is?). Batman, being over-protective, wants Batgirl to sit this one out so he can catch Paris on his own. “He’s objectified you!” Batman barks at her, because Azzarello apparently believes that by throwing this line in it will absolve him of all the creepy bullshit he’s added to the story. Batgirl thinks she can take care of herself, but the rift between her and Batman grows to the point that the two end up exchanging blows on a rooftop. This fighting leads to Batgirl landing atop Batman, straddling him between her legs. At which point the two share a kiss. Batman reaches down to grab Batgirl’s ass; Batgirl pulls off her mask and top; and if at this point you want to turn this movie off, I won’t blame you.
You might be wondering, “Hey, where the hell is The Joker? Isn’t that what this story is supposed to be about?” Eventually, The Killing Joke gets there, more or less accurately adapting Moore and Bolland’s story (only Bolland gets credit, as Moore never wants anything to do with adaptations of his work, and when you see results like this who can blame him?). But the material between Batman and Batgirl is so wrong-headed, and so uninteresting, that it completely derails the film. It has no bearing on The Killing Joke storyline at all, and the Batman who shows up at Arkham to have a heart-to-heart with Joker, saying things like, “I don’t want us to kill each other!”, is a completely different Batman than the one who earlier decided to fuck his adoptive daughter. Perhaps if Azzarello were intending to give Batgirl agency, and turn her into something more than just a victim that Joker cripples, he might’ve been on to something. But after the villain shoots Barbara in the spine, she’s out of the story for good. If anything, Azzarello’s script has made Barbara and Batgirl even more of an object: she has sexual urges, and those sexual urges eventually lead to her spine being severed. It’s truly appalling. Is this A Serbian Film, or a comic book movie?
Bruce Timm, one of the driving forces of the fantastic Batman: The Animated Series, serves as a producer here, but none of the stylish, noir-infused art from The Animated Series carries over. Batman: The Killing Joke’s animation is ugly and overlit; there’s no artistry or grace. Characters move in herky-jerky movements, void of humanity, weight or emotion. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, who have been playing Batman and The Joker respectively for over 20 years now, reprise the characters here, to average effect. Hamill’s Joker is always amusing, but Conroy sounds tired and bored with Batman, and who can blame him — these actors can play these characters in their sleep at this point. Maybe it’s time to give someone else a crack.
Batman: The Killing Joke is a massive misfire for DC Animation, and hints that DC is perfectly fine with embracing the type vile, misogynistic Bat-fans who send death threats to female journalists who dare to give Batman-themed material a negative review. The Killing Joke book was an ugly story to begin with, but there was a type of intelligence in the ugliness — a method to the madness, so to speak. Here, it’s all just needless, pointless nastiness, and it’s doing absolutely no one any favors. That’s the catch: there’s nothing wrong with being nasty and cruel in fiction as long as it’s in service to something. That’s not the case here; this film is a boring, poorly-written disaster. Azzarello saddles Batman with howlingly bad lines about how Batgirl has never looked hard into “the abyss.” It’s the type of shitty dialogue that gets laughed out of high school creative writing classes. The makers of this film should be ashamed of what they’ve created here. Lord knows this is the type of material that makes me ashamed to admit I was ever a Bat-fan.