Back in 1988 Alan Moore rocked the comic world (again) with his one-shot graphic novel The Killing Joke. Within the pages of this masterpiece Moore set what many feel is the definitive backstory of the Batman supervillain The Joker. Not only that, but the story would prove as a defining moment for another character, Barbara Gordon (Batgirl). In a vicious assault Joker leaves her paralyzed, something that not only would define her character as much as being the first Batgirl (there have been three others: Bette Kane, Cassandra Cain, and Stephanie Brown) but lead her to becoming a role model to paraplegic individuals when she would later take up the mantle of Oracle. For the last 28 years The Killing Joke has stood as one of the most beloved and twisted Batman tales.
When they announced that WB would be putting out an animated version of the film I was delighted at the news. Many of the animated DC films have been fantastic, from Under the Red Hood, Justice League: Doom, Superman: Unbound, and Wonder Woman, this film was bound to be a perfect addition. With a voice cast that brought back the talents from Batman: The Animated Series that included Tara Strong as Barbara Gordon/Batgirl, Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne/Batman, and Mark Hamill as The Joker, the film felt like returning to a familiar yet somehow darker place.
What follows will contain spoilers.
For those of you that have read the story before you may find it jarring that the film in no way starts how the comic does. However, the movie acknowledges this as Barbara Gordon starts the film saying this is not how we the viewers would think the story would begin. For the first half of the movie is an entirely new story that serves as a prequel of sorts to establish Barbara as Batgirl (something Moore never did in his story). Mostly this first half is very strong, showing a some-what seasoned Batgirl taking on Sal Maroni’s nephew, an original character called Paris Franz. Franz quickly becomes obsessed with Batgirl leading to an explosive confrontation that plays a factor into her ditching the cape and cowl.
However there is another factor that plays into her decision, one that is both jarring and uncomfortable. For those of you who know the characters and the comics what follows is sure to make you cringe. The movie establishes that Barbara is sexually attracted to Bruce. This all leads to a scene where the whole theater groaned and shouted no. After Franz bests Batgirl, Batgirl and Batman get into a heated rooftop argument before coming to fist to cuffs. This, in turn, leads to Batgirl pinning Batman to the ground before kissing him and leading the two to have sex. Yes, you read that right, they had the two engage in sex. This serves little purpose later on than to make her getting shot more impactful for Batman. Writer Brian Azzarello is under some illusion that her using her sexuality empowers her. However, it does little but objectify her and lead her as a tool to push forward male characters.
By in far this change puts a sour taste in viewers mouths that lasts well after the film. There is nothing wrong with this prologue besides this development. Up until then Bruce treats her as, well, as Batman does all his wards. He even brings her coffee after she was drugged in her confrontation with Franz. This was not a flirting gesture either, it was actually a sweet and subtle scene that made him appear more like another parent than… What Azzarello tries to turn them into.
This in no way empowers her but rather downgrades her character into the role of a spurned lover. She only, therefore, exists in this story to up the stakes (stakes that didn’t need to be upped, mind you) between Joker and Batman.
Once you get past this, the movie follows the course of the comic rather faithfully. Joker sets about the elaborate plan to destroy the morality and sanity of James Gordon and Batman. The film integrates the flashback of Joker’s past flawlessly. The voice acting and soundtrack are spot on. The last half captures what it is like to be engulfed in a page-turning story. They even leave the ambiguous ending (does Batman actually kill The Joker) intact, however, because we now have voice to the text, it is left a little less ambiguous.
Seeing a story like this come to life is startling, even in animated form. The story is one that explores the definition of morality and sanity. A repeated line from the comic and film is that Batman and Gordon are just “one bad day” from turning into a reflection of the Joker. The story does a fantastic job of having you wanting Batman to kill and, at the same time, wanting him to stay moral like Gordon.
If you have never read the story, the movie is worth a watch, if you can get past the truly cringeworthy change to comic book canon. I’m sure a fan-edit of the film will find its way online sooner rather than later that cuts out the unneeded sexual romance between Batman and Batgirl. It is this change that bumps this adaptation from an A to a C+/B- film.
For fans, the film will still be a treat, if nothing more than to hear these actors step into the roles again. For those wanting to watch the film still, the movie will hit digital download tomorrow (July 26th).
Stay Geeky Faithful Readers.