So far, DC fans have had an absolute blast at SDCC. The trailer for Wonder Woman was breathtaking, the teaser for Justice League was delightful, and excitement's only building for The Flash and Arrow! Behind the scenes, though, there has been one small controversy. Here, I want to cast my eye to an issue facing DC Animation - namely, The Killing Joke.
What's the Controversy?
DC Animation quickly realized that they had to make some drastic changes to The Killing Joke. Most prominently, the plan was to increase Batgirl's presence - as DC Animation visionary Bruce Timm explained:
"We thought if we were going to expand this to feature length, we didn’t want to just pad out the original story... So we took that opportunity to basically tell a Batgirl story, which we don’t often get a chance to do these days. And it was great, because we could spend more time with her as a character and get to understand what she’s all about and how she’s similar to Batman in some ways, and really different in others. .... The good side of that is we get to spend more time with her and learn that she’s an interesting character. The bad side of that is that we get to like her so much that when The Killing Joke part of the story happens, it’s, like, “Oh, no!”, because we really like her."
It's a solid argument; make the story more about Batgirl than about Batman, so fans care more about the tragedy that unfolds. As a result, the team wrote a whole new 28-minute-segment dedicated to Batgirl, and initially fans were excited. Then some of the footage began to leak on the internet:
This really isn't the kind of relationship most people associate with Batman and Batgirl! In the comics, Batman's always been more of a father-figure to Batgirl, who's secretly the niece / adopted daughter of his old friend Commissioner Gordon. Batgirl has more often been portrayed as a romantic interest for Robin. This scene, of course, does not appear in the original comic.
It's worth noting that there has been one portrayal of the two in a romantic scene; Batman Beyond implied that the two had a past relationship, that quickly fell apart. It's generally viewed as one of the odder elements of Batman Beyond, though, and again seems to be at cross-purposes with the character's design and history.
Why Was This Necessary?
Even Alan Moore - who wrote the original comic - acknowledges that The Killing Joke has serious problems. As he puts it:
"I’ve never really liked my story in The Killing Joke... It was too nasty, it was too physically violent. There were some good things about it, but in terms of my writing, it’s not one of my favorite pieces."
One of the core issues is the way the comic treats Batgirl. The 1988 graphic novel tells the story of how the Joker launches a campaign to destroy Batman by proving that anyone can fall. He does this by torturing Commissioner Gordon, and uses Barbara Gordon - a.k.a. Batgirl - as a weapon against him. The graphic novel saw Barbara Gordon shot in the spine and crippled; in an even more disturbing twist, the Joker took nude photos of her to prove to Commissioner Gordon that he had Barbara completely at his mercy. It's superhero-action-turned-horror.
The twist is all the more disturbing because, behind the scenes, DC had no plans for Batgirl - one of their main female characters. Sure, this plot was redeemed by transforming Batgirl into Oracle, but that hadn't been the original intention. When Moore approached editor Len Wein about his plot for Batgirl, Wein's response was shocking:
"Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch."
For all the issues behind the scenes, The Killing Joke is remembered as ground-breaking. It's not a graphic novel looked at with fondness; it's far too dark and disturbing for that. But - along with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns - it began to redefine Batman for the 1990s. Although the "New 52" reboot wiped out a lot of this continuity, it remains pivotal in terms of the style and tone of Batman comics.
Still, it's no surprise that DC Animation felt they needed to make changes to the script. The graphic novel is too short for an animated movie, and Batgirl is simply a victim.
Has DC Animation's Strategy Worked?
There's one serious problem with adding 28 minutes of plot; how do you tie it in to the main arc? Bruce Timm's comments suggest DC Animation simply didn't try:
"Should we try to fold it into the Killing Joke part of the story more? Should we hint at the Joker in the first part? It's kind of an odd structure for a movie. It isn’t one long complete story. It really is two different stories with a break in the middle. We just decided that would be the best way to go with it."
Many critics are describing The Killing Joke as having an oddly disjointed feel, with the two halves struggling to fit together. When asked about the themes of The Killing Joke, Timm's answer is startling: "Boy, I don’t know. It’s probably going to take me years to figure that out."
The real problem, though, is that The Killing Joke doesn't exactly seem to portray a female character in a better light. If io9 is to be believed, Batgirl's plot structure essentially involves her pining after Batman, having sex with him on a rooftop, and then moping because he won't call her. From there, we launch into the traditional plot of The Killing Joke. Far from making Batgirl less of a 'Woman in Refrigerator' trope, the new content seems to amplify the issue. Batgirl exists purely for her impact on Batman and Commissioner Gordon. Her main role in relation to Batman is as a confusing love-interest.
Incredibly, the film seems to accidentally imply that the Joker's abuse of Barbara Gordon was even worse than originally shown in the comic. We're told that, every time he breaks out of Arkham, the Joker usually heads off to visit some prostitutes. This time round, he hasn't. The prostitutes idly speculate that he's perhaps found another girl - leaving a dark hint that the Joker may well have raped Barbara Gordon. Bruce Timm doesn't seem to have realized what that dialogue could imply:
"I did not think of it as supporting that. If I had, I probably would have changed the line. I never, ever thought that he actually raped her."
I can't help but have the strange sense that The Killing Joke has become dangerously toxic, and has become something DC Animation didn't expect- and not in a good way.
At the SDCC panel, the writers insisted that Batgirl was still a strong character. Bleeding Cool reporter Jeremy Konrad - who's seen the film - reacted with fury. He shouted out: "Yeah, by using sex and then pining for Bruce."
The Killing Joke promises to be dark and very, very controversial. I'm looking forward to watching it, but I have to confess that I'm already suspecting I won't agree with some of the creative decisions behind it. Still, in a brighter move for DC Animation, we finally have confirmation that the next animated movie will be Justice League Dark - followed by two very, very promising productions...
This may be a rare misstep for DC Animation, but I'm confident it won't be fatal.