Short Version: The Killing Joke is a mediocre adaptation, despite excellent voice acting, with a pointless and misogynistic prologue.
In The Killing Joke (TKJ), Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s else-world comic from 1980 is adapted into an animated feature with some extra padding.
The padding is the problem.
TKJ didn’t need more content for the story, but it is very short. To stretch the runtime, Director Sam Liu added a thirty-minute prologue about Barbara Gordon as Batgirl before she became Oracle. From the press and interviews leading up to the release, the team behind TJK kept saying how happy they were to see Batgirl kick ass. They intended to give her more story and show her as more than just an emotional foil for Commissioner Gordon and Batman to fight over. After watching TJK, I gotta say, y’all gonna have to show me the receipts.
Instead of what was promised, we must struggle through thirty minutes of a bad 90’s romantic comedy masquerading as a comic book movie. We begin with Batgirl saying what most in the audience are thinking, “I know this is not the story you expected to see” and with that cliché voiceover, I knew already this was not going to go well. Batgirl starts by battling with a mobster who has developed a sexual fascination with her. During Batgirl‘s botched attempt to apprehend him, she manages to lock herself in a vault only to be rescued by Batman, voiced again by Kevin Conroy Next, Batgirl fails in a series of confrontations with the mobster where she is weak, naive, and constantly needing rescue. This Batgirl is not a competent crime fighter. She is however a lovesick girl who allows her emotions to dictate her actions at every turn.
At one point while lamenting about her relationship with Batman to her offensively stereotypical gay BFF, she says, “I’m the best, the best he [Batman] has ever had.” Really? This is just a cheap attempt at double entendre that comes off false. If she’s the best, the standards for caped crime fighters have truly slipped. Things only got worse from there. Soon after, Barbara hears a couple arguing. A bro-type is yelling at his girlfriend outside the library where she works. He tells her to stop being clingy and that he just needs space. Barbara, upon hearing this, grabs the guy, tosses him thirty feet away, and quips, “There, now you have space.” Is this supposed to show her strength? Save the literal definition, the only thing the scene showed was Barbara being a bully. I mean, for all she knew, the girl was a crazy stalker putting bunny rabbits on her boyfriend’s stove. It’s such a ridiculous overreaction that seems so off character and just makes Barbara look insane.
I will say Batman doesn’t come off as too sympathetic either. TKJ is not really a Batman story. It’s a Joker story. Kevin Conroy as Batman doesn’t have a lot to do, and it shows. Conroy great, but you feel like he’s phoning it in. To make matters worse, the added content just turns Batman into Christian Grey with the grappling hook. Throughout the first act, Barbara and Batman battle back and forth between his dictatorial behavior, and her irrational decisions. This culminates in a rooftop fight where – SPOILER ALERT – she pins Batman down and has sex with him to settle the argument. I wish I was making this up.
Barbara, now faced with the reality that sex between them means she can no longer be Batgirl, returns her costume, and she and Batman part with a cold goodbye. It’s just confusing. Batgirl and Batman have always had a Father-Daughter relationship and putting them in this weird sexual tension dynamic is just creepy. After she turns in her uniform, the events of the original storyline from the comic begin.
Please note: Unless you want extra practice groaning and rolling your eyes at the screen, I would advise this is where you start watching the film.
I was so distracted by the intro, I failed to enjoy the good parts. Batgirl sabotaged herself by using sex as a weapon, and the result is her ultimate destruction – she is no longer Batgirl. I could not stop thinking about it. I am all for conflict and consequence in storytelling, but this is just silly. I am baffled how screenwriter Dave Azzarello could with a straight face say that this version of Batgirl is a strong female character. But he did, during the tense SDCC panel last weekend in which he called a fan critical of the sexist Batgirl storyline a “pussy”.
Stay classy, Dave. Stay classy!
After the disastrous start, TKJ goes on to be a serviceable adaptation. We get to see the iconic panels from the graphic novel. Mark Hamil comes through again with a stellar Joker performance. The Joker’s origins as a failed stand-up comic play out in flashbacks that are intercut with the present day Joker’s latest scheme. The Joker shows up at Barbara Gordon’s apartment and shoots her at point-blank range in the stomach, paralyzing her. Commissioner Gordon, who witnesses the brutal attack, is then kidnapped and tortured by the Joker for the rest of the film. I won’t spoil the whole plot because this is the part of the film that is worth watching. After the shooting, Barbara is not part of the narrative, and we focus on the Joker and Batman.
If you liked the graphic novel you will likely enjoy TJK enough to forgive the prologue. The voice acting is excellent and visually, the film is very faithful to the source material. TKJ looks good but for an animated film that was specifically marketed for theaters, it’s not anything spectacular. The animation looks about as cutting edge as Batman: The Animated Series, which was produced over 25 years ago. With all the advancements in animation and the usual caliber of DC Animated Films, I expected a better effort. Overall, I didn’t hate The Killing Joke, but the beginning was so off-putting, I cannot recommend it.
Though I can’t recommend it, TKJ is worth a watch to illustrate the importance of women and POC in the production of comics.
When Riri Williams was announced as the black female science wiz who would be replacing Tony Stark as Iron Man, I was beyond excited but equally cautious. Lest we not forget at the time of their announcement, there were no female Black writers at Marvel. After a little backlash, this has since been remedied. I was concerned about the character and her story and the accurate representation for comic book fans. On the days following the Riri announcement, I can’t tell you how many times I saw people questioning the need for a POC or a female writer at Marvel.
We have a POC main character, isn’t that enough?
Why does there have to be a quota, shouldn’t they just get the best?
What makes you think a white male writer can’t tell her story, isn’t that what makes writers great?
Just stop. Having diversity in the production of comics is important.
Do you need proof?
Exhibit A: The Killing Joke.
I don’t know if having a female writer would have made it a great film. I DO know that hiring the same man who has a track record for misogynistic and sexist storylines wouldn’t be my first choice to tell a Batgirl story.
Stay classy, Dave.
I am pretty sure a female writer would’ve pushed back on sexualizing Barbara for no purpose. Having her debate a crisis in her underwear, for example. And I would like to think a female writer could have found a better way for her to win an argument than by seducing her mentor.
As far as Riri, I don’t take the hardline approach that ONLY black/female writers can tell our stories or the idea of non-black male writers writing about us is offensive. As a writer myself, I would like to think that my experiences, intellect, and talent would allow me to tell any story. However, there is something to be said for having our voices in the room. It did not come as a shock to anyone that the “black people can be racist too” dialogue on OITNB came from an all-white writers room.
The idea of quotas is equally offensive. Viola Davis said it best in her Emmy acceptance speech, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” You don’t feel the need to make quotas so long as you make a conscious effort to find new voices. Finally, I’m done with people making the assumption that just because you open the creative process to be more inclusive that you will somehow lower the bar. The best may not always be right in front of you. Sometimes you have to make an effort to find them.
Still, we keep hearing these same tired arguments. I feel like I’m listening to Damonsplaining on a constant loop.
When TJK came out in 1980, the “maim the dame, feel the pain” trope was still accepted, but now luckily we know better. The cheap tricks they tried to pull in TJK are wearing thin on everyone, not just women and POC. I am severely disappointed by The Killing Joke, but at least it adds to the conversation. However, I am more than ready for the day that I don’t have talk about it anymore.
By: Jacqueline Coley