In case you didn’t know, they made an animated movie out of 1988’s The Killing Joke, the seminal work by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. It is viewed as the definitive Joker story in many circles, one that would seem almost impossible to adapt.
To start, it was only one issue, and one issue of a comic book does not exactly lend itself to a full-length film adaptation, and second, it has a troublesome and controversial scene of violence and sexuality directed at Barbara Gordon, a.k.a. Batgirl. Well, they did adapt it, but the fix to the first problem only exacerbated the second.
The scene in question involved the Joker attacking the Gordon’s, Barbara and her police commissioner father James, at home. The Joker shoots Barbara in the abdomen, severing her spine, and leaving her a paraplegic. James is taken away and kept prisoner by the Joker in an abandoned fun house. Gracing the walls of the attraction are photos of Barbara he took after the attack, pictures of her naked and writhing in pain.
People had an issue with one of DC Comics most iconic heroes, Batgirl, not only portrayed as a victim, but also as a hypersexualized victim as well. Future writers of the character would turn her in a positive example of the handicapped, a type of character that is in short supply in comics, but people still were still airing their grievances about it as recently as a last year.
The filmmakers dedicated some new content at the beginning of the film to Batgirl’s story. On paper, this would have been an excellent opportunity to strengthen Barbara’s character and make the assault more tragic and perhaps less exploitative.
Writers Bruce Timm and Brian Azzarello decided to go in a different direction.
We… don't know how to feel pic.twitter.com/QHradWrwTR
— NPOC (@nerdypoc) July 22, 2016
If you have read a comic book website in the last few days, you know what that GIF shows. In the added content of Batman: The Killing Joke, Batgirl and Batman have sex. And the Internet is not happy about it.
There is a lot to unpack about this controversy. It would be easy to write this off as just fanboy entitlement. Lord knows there have been exampled of that in recent years (The Human Torch is BLACK!?! OUTRAGE! Lois Lane has RED HAIR!?!! SCANDAL!), but this goes much deeper than that.
There is no doubt that comic book fans have a deep affection and interest in their favorite characters. Comic companies know this and exploit this as often as possible. It’s how they stay in business. They play on nostalgia and continuity to sell their books. Then they act surprised when they do something diametrically opposed to what the fans have come to expect.
Batgirl has always been portrayed as much younger than Batman. Batman has almost always been portrayed as a mentor and protector of Batgirl. This dynamic is why people are so upset about this sex scene. It’s not hard to imagine that people would see that coupling as being creepy, demeaning and overall shoddy characterization.
And that’s just on the surface. Barbara/Batgirl are portrayed prior to the sex scene as a deluded obsessive focused on Batman. After the act, after Batman gives her the cold shoulder, she acts as a shrewish harpy, shouting at him in a library. These are not typically the best way to depict a strong female character. But don’t worry, that man-trapping Glenn Close wannabe will be getting shot and sexually abused in the second half of the film, so you have that to look forward to.
The film’s R-rating was promoted well advance of the film’s release, almost as much Kevin Conroy returning as Batman and Mark Hamill returning as the Joker. And many a comic writer, which both Timm and Azzarello were at one time or the other, think that adding sex is synonymous with adding maturity. It’s not. I’m not a fan of the torture scene I describe above, but it at least fits in with the narrative. The Joker is trying to drive Commissioner Gordon insane. Seeing his daughter maimed and abused fits in with that objective. The sex scene seems to be added to titillate the audience and really earn that R rating.
Shocking and titillating audiences is nothing new in the world of comics. We are a fan base that has been exposed to Superman dying, Thor becoming a woman and Captain America becoming a Nazi. But we also know that comics are built on the illusion of change. Superman has come back from the dead once already, and surely will again. Thor coming back as a man seems almost preordained and they set up the way to de-Nazify Cap in the very same issue they introduced a Nazi Cap. But this sex scene is an example of a different type of shock, one that they can’t back away from. The upset from the fans in this case cannot be as easily dismissed.
Another point of contention for fans is the sex scene could be just Bruce Timm working out his quirks about the characters. He first introduced the Batman/Batgirl relationship into an episode of Batman Beyond, and animated show Timm co-created. And he admitted his view on the couple during the SDCC panel for the film:
There’s clearly an unstated attraction between the two of the characters from the very beginning and I think it’s there in the comics. If you go back and look at the Adam West show, its’ there in the Adam West show. It’s subtle, but to me it’s always been there.
Yes, in Timm’s mind, if you didn’t think Batman wanted to boink Batgirl, well, that’s all on you. For him, it was all as plain as day, and he was going to explore that, no matter how ham-fisted that might be. And nothing ticks off fans more than the appearance of creators working out their own personal fetishes on the characters the fans’ love.
But blaming Timm is easy. Comic authors, publishers and adapters have used controversy to sell their books and tie-ins for years. For example, I am talking about Batman: The Killing Joke here, right? A miniscule drop of free publicity in the ocean of attention-getting opinion pieces this scene has spawned. And the sad fact is, no matter how many people complain and no matter how loudly, controversial books and movies sell. Either by there only being a vocal minority of protesters or the controversy bring more people in than it chases away or the fact that grumblers might end up still buying the product they complained about, the whole system works. So there is no reason to not offend the fan base. This is a reality we brought on by ourselves. If you want things to change, we should stop complaining and simply stop buying.