(Warning: Contains “The Killing Joke” movie spoilers. Not that anyone is watching it…)
In the Spring of 1988, one of the most iconic characters in the DC universe went from being a madman to a man who went mad.
The shift was subtle, but profound and one of the purest expressions of the genius of Alan Moore that has ever flowed from pen to paper. Moore has an uncanny ability to take what we take for granted in the superhero world and change the way we see it, giving us something revolutionary. Very few writers can pull that off, and those that do are wizards of the trade.
The Killing Joke became one of the most widely-read titles that year, and the story, intended as a standalone exploration into the arch-nemesis relationship between Batman and the Joker, became, at least for a while, canon, despite Alan Moore decrying it as both an experiment and not his best work.
And so, at a time when DC, in the midst of transforming from a comic book publisher to a movie studio developing its own cinematic universe, it was no wonder that they sought to tap into the Killing Joke’s transformational alchemy and work the same magic not on the Joker or Batman – Heath Ledger and Christian Bale had already done that – but rather on Batgirl. And they did, only unlike with the Killing Joke comic book, Batgirl, rather, Barbara Gordon took what seems to me, a turn for the worse.
To understand why, we have to step into the wayback machine to 1992 and the first appearance of Harley Quinn.
Contrary to popular belief, Harley Quinn as a character didn’t exist until Batman: The Animated Series, and comes not from the world of comics, but was the product of dream sequence character played by Arlene Sorkin during her run on daytime soaps. So much so that Arlene originally provided the voice for her animated counterpart.
Harley, who was created solely for the purpose of giving the Clown Price of Crime a romantic interest, later became a canvas on which is dysfunctionality and insanity was painted. While the animated series played their relationship as the kind of bad one that most women in particular could relate to – the “I know he’s awful, but he loves me and I love him and one day I’m sure that will redeem him, so I’ll suffer at his hand until he sees the light”, in the comics, it was terrifyingly abusive.
Using the increasing popularity of DC’s Vertigo line and other titles geared towards a more adult audienc to push the envelope, Joker routinely vacillated between indifference and obsession and from twistedly romantic gestures to nearly killing her simply because the mood struck him. The undercurrent of sexual abuse was far from sublet, becomin more and more pronounced as the various Batman titles went on. Through it all, Harley Quinn gained the dubious honor of being the Joker’s favorite victim, and Joker became DC’s most popular, most celebrated victimizer.
Fast forward to 2016 and the release of animated Killing Joke movie. Rather than take the opportunity to honor the work of Alan Moore by lifting it from the page and onto the screen, DC instead used it construct yet another victimhood framework for the Joker to invoke Barbara-Gordon-Batgirl into.
The first half of the movie, in no way related to the Killing Joke story itself, shows us the series of events that eventually led up to Barbara’s decision to hang up her costume forever. And while the decision was said to be the result of her being unable to go to some edge that Batman tells her exists, the underlying message is that her gender was a hindrance to being an effective crimefighter.
Throughout the narrative, she is continually put in either physical or psychological peril and turmoil by the emotional immaturity of a narcissistic crook obsessed with her and by Batman/Bruce Wayne’s inability to cope with the aftermath of the heated sexual liaison he and Barbara share. Her highly emotional confrontation with her NPD would-be suitor is apparently more than she can handle, causing her to walk away from being Batgirl for good.
In the actual Killing Joke section of the story, two scenes are included that strongly suggest that the Joker, after shooting Barbara, went beyond simply taking pictures of her naked, bleeding form as portrayed in the Killing Joke, to actually raping her. This act not only undid the brilliance of Alan Moore’s perspective shift, but, it bouncing him from being a man who went mad back through madmanhood and all the way to the opposite extreme of depraved psychopath. As a depraved psychopath, of course the desire to commit sexual violence becomes a given and the actual commission of sexual violence a fait accompli.
The true disappointment of the Killing Joke movie was that while the original story ended up elevating and to some small degree humanizing the Joker (and Batman, to some extent), the movie was used to diminish Barbara Gordon/Batgirl by turning her into a victim in a way that Alan Moore’s story never did. She went from being a superhero to a “female superhero”, complete with the sexual assault that so many other strong female characters seem have to overcome in order to be allowed to embrace their power.
There are more sources of adversity in a woman’s life than those caused by men. There are more challenges to overcome that have nothing to do with gender.
Just not in this movie, apparently.
I know I’m not the first person to lament the fact that all superhero women, especially powerful ones, seem to have a sexual assault in their past, and in this respect, what was done to Barbara/Batgirl in the film adaptation of The Killing Joke comes as no surprise. It just seems that with the dearth of truly strong, truly empowered and truly powerful superhero women on both the print and visual landscape, taking one more away from the world so unnecessarily seems like an even harder slap in the face than usual.
Your mileage may vary.