The Killing Joke

by criticalhit009

Warner Brother Animation’s recent adaptation of Alan Moore classic Batman talk The Killing Joke has received a lot of negative press recently, and for good reason. Aside from the dreadful PR emerging from Comic-Con, the film itself is not too good, an adaptation that fails to adapt the story for the better.

The main flaw of the original The Killing Joke is the Joker’s violent attack on Barbara Gordon (shot in the lower wait, paralyzing her, with subsequent implied rape ) and the Joker later showing Commissioner Gordon photos of Barbara to try and break him psychologically. This was before the term “women in refrigerators” was coined, a criticism of the stock trope of killing/maiming women for the sake of progressing a man’s character growth. Alan Moore has disowned the comic himself because of how Barbara is essentially used to progress the story of the men in her life (Batman, her father), rather than Joker’s attack becoming a plot pointing her own narrative. In the comic, Barbara’s existence is more colourful ornamentation to the story, an attack whose consequences were ignored until rectified by other artists and writers.

The film adaptation tries to rectify this, but ultimately fails. To add more content for Barbara and make it more of her story, the film adds:

  1. Around 30 minutes of prelude, telling the story of Batgirl and her fight against a misogynist villain.
  2. A short post-credits scene showing Barbara becoming Oracle, the expert knowledge broker in the DCU.

The film adds this content as padding, both literally padding the runtime to justify a theatre run, and also padding to soften the blow of sexism inherent in the story itself. The adaptation does not change Joke’s horrific violence to Barbara, in fact, it actually strengthens the implications that Joker also raped Barbara. Batman, in tracking down the Joker after the attack on Barbara, visits sex workers who mention that he hasn’t been around in a while and must have “found a new girl”. The inclusion of such a line makes what was already implied distinctively clear, despite Bruce Timm’s denial that this was never the intention.

These additions also make the story actively worse. The prelude is literally paced like a regular DCU animation episode, and is tenuously connected to the Killing Joke proper. The story is clearly written to try and be feminist, or at least appear to be, but utterly fails. Batgirl’s investigation . Batman is presented as always right, the wise mentor who also loves her. This is a story meant to give Barbara agency to make up for her brutal attack and rape later (a kind of quid pro quo that does not fundamentally work even if the prelude did fit), but instead makes Barbara look incompetent and out of control, with the prelude ending with here retirement from the cape. “SJW” lounge is sprinkled throughout, such as when Batman sternly says “he’s objectified you” to Barbara, something Barbara herself should have identified and noted. Instead, it’s brushed aside in Barbara’s rage against the misogynist villain. Multiple scenes of Batman and Barbara consist of Batman forbidding Barbara from pursuing the case, to her refusing. The scenes are then followed with Batman proving to be right, or Batman and Barbara fucking.

The sexual relationship between Batgirl and Batman blows up what is already a tenuous relationship between both the characters and the prelude to the main story. The prelude is littered with motifs and semi-themes that are meant to connect the prelude to the main story: sexual relationships, the “abyss” that comes with fighting evil, feminism, but fails to make a clear follow through with any of them. The prelude is meant to give agency and presence to a character quickly shafted in The Killing Joke. Instead, the prelude functions primarily to affirm how awesome Batman is, how Barbara is a greenhorn and out of control. Her final fight with the villain is successful, finally proving herself that she can competently fight against enemies, but instead ends with her quiet shame as batman looks negatively at her “excessive” brutalization of the misogynist villain. The whole affair is completely tonally inconsistent.

In adapting the piece, key creatives such as writer Brian Azzarello, co-producer Alan Burnett, and exec producer Bruce Timm opted to bookend a inherently sexist work with material trying to be feminist, but instead buttressing the sexist material already present within The Killing Joke. Moreover, Joker’s attack in the main story not only remains, but is egregiously heightened as the Joker taunts multiple times that Barbara is now disabled due to the shot. It’s material that is baffling and completely unnecessary, as there is a quiet moment in the hospital afterwards where a doctor quietly notes that Barbara “will never walk again”. Joker’s multiple taunts, proud that he just crippled Barbara, are superfluous, and just cruel. It doesn’t even make sense, since in the comic the Joker wasn’t intended to paralyze here, just hurt her bad enough to break her father’s psyche. The wanton cruelty really tips the hand of the creators in what their intentions are.

So too does the inclusion of sideshow henchpeople. These individuals (such as a fat lady, a two-headed person, someone with hirsutism, etc.) are recruited by the Joker to fight Batman and help add some action to the film, none of them, notably, are physically disabled, save for the persons of short stature dressed as pseudo-angels. Historically, people with disabilities do work in sideshow performances, making a spectacle of their bodies to make a living. But as the film adaptation relies on these sideshow people to fight Batman, that history of disability in sideshow is erased, focusing on the able-bodied ( though certainly social outcasts) instead. This association gets even murkier as the elements of freakery are mixed with mental illness, as represented by the Joker. While the hench-people have a relatively minor impact to the story itself, their inclusion have some unfortunate implications as a result.

Excising the sexist material itself is an option to adapt this material, though a very difficult one. The Killing Joke is a very short book, and Joker’s attack is perhaps the most significant action that takes place within it. The attack itself is meant to psychologically break Jim Gordon. Substituting the psychological damage with something other than fridging Barbara would mean losing the parallelism between Joker’s tragic backstory™ and his actions onto the Gordon family. (Joker really knows how to pay it forward.) The story resists any easy substitutions, though that doesn’t mean adapting the story for the better is impossible.

One possibility to ‘fix’ the story is for Gordon’s extended family – his police department – have reliable cops that turn out to be corrupted cops working for the Joker. The Joker’s attack on Gordon’s psyche is not just a personal attack to prove anyone can become him with “one bad day”, but also that conventional ideas of “law and order” is false as well. Gordon faith in law and order would be tested (already present in the story), and this would also tie to Batman’s struggle to do the right thing – kill or not kill? Do it “by the book”, or by something else? Changes like this just requires a deft hand and a willingness to alter what some consider the holy grail of Batman comics.

It’s the failure to adapt – that is, to alter, change, to make better – the key story to a different medium that makes this film failure as a whole.

While the film fails to rectify the story, the film also fails on an animation level as well. Subtle hue changes in the comic that occur in Joker’s past and indicate is psychological state (such as lobsters and other objects slowly becoming a deeper shade of red over time) are absent in the film, a small but meaningful detail purposelessly ignored. In Joker’s final metal break from reality, I noticed a jump cut from a shot of Joker on all fours, to a shot of him on one knee. It’s not necessarily a continuity error, but it helps illustrate the stiffness of the adaptation: slavish to recreating the piece, flaws and all, while also neglecting to fully use the fluidity of animation to its fullest. The film also neglects to make strong match cuts between Joker’s backstory and present, another example of the laziness in direction.

Panels from The Killing Joke

The comic had multiple “match cuts” directly and poetically connecting Joker’s backstory to the present. The film fails to render these.

Aesthetically the animation is in line with DC animation’s house style (think B:TAS or Justice League), and this style is at odds with the original’s minutely detailed artwork. Joker’s face is both longer to match with the original comic, but also has a flatness to it in line with the flatter, bolder DCAU style. This leads to the Joker often seeming “off” at times, and the aesthetic of his face changes from youthful (almost anime-esque),

Joker's anime face in The Killing Joke (2016)

to longer and flatter face,

Joke on vacation in The Killing Joke

and so on.

Joker with a gun in Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)

Obviously lighting and colour changes affects this, but it’s more a consequence of the tension between the DCAU aesthetic and Brian Bolland’s artwork of the original, and the awkward adaptation between them.

Overall, instead of striking at the root of the problem, the adaptation would rather shield the original story with pseudo-feminist language. The form of padding surrounds the theatrical release as well, which includes a message from a head at DC, to a short doc with Mark Hamill (who is wonderful in the film, like everyone else), and a short doc about the music in the film post credits. These bits and pieces both pad the run time, but moreover act to reassure the audience of how the comic (and by extension the film) is a masterpiece in the Batman canon. But really they reveal The Killing Joke as a failure of a film, and that no amount of sanctimonious action can change this. Until one strikes at the root of the sexism inherent in the story, the story’s problems remain the same.