Since production began, discussion has swirled around the animated film adaptation of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's "The Killing Joke", one of the most famous (and infamous) Batman comics ever written. Controversial since its publication, "The Killing Joke" presents a dark and rather grim story: The Joker seeks to prove that all it takes is one bad day to drive someone insane, and does so by shooting Barbara Gordon (and ultimately paralyzing her), Kidnapping her father Jim, and subjecting him to pain and humiliation. The comic has faced harsh criticism from fans over the years for its brutal treatment of Batgirl, and writer Alan Moore himself has even expressed regret over the decision to paralyze her. With the film release, it's clear the writers and producers were trying to balance Barbara Gordon's harsh treatment by giving her more screen time and even a mini story arc at the beginning of the film. They went too far with it though, and rather than create a better grounding for the character of Batgirl, "The Killing Joke" instead reduces her to little more than a teenage cliche. Barbara's childish behavior, her odd relationship with Batman, and the overall poor pacing of this introduction, made the first thirty minutes of "The Killing Joke" utterly forgettable, and certainly not worthy of repeat viewings.
Bowing to Public Pressure
In the original "The Killing Joke" storyline, Barbara plays a very small role. She shows up for a single scene, is shot by the Joker, and that's that. It's revealed that the wound paralyzes her, but there are no other references to her backstory or possible future. Simply put, "The Killing Joke" was never about Barbara. She was just collateral damage in the Joker's effort to manipulate Jim Gordon into going crazy. This wasn't an acceptable end to Batgirl's career for many fans, and there was plenty of backlash sparked by the events of the comic. These concerns were heard by the film's creators, who responded in kind. Bruce Timm addressed Barbara's expanded role in "The Killing Joke" at San Diego Comic Con:
"We took that screen time to basically give Barbara Gordon her own mini-movie, because she's always been one of our favorite characters, and I've always felt bad about her in the original story," Timm continued. "We just thought it'd be real fun to let the audience... get introduced to the character."
In theory, it's a great idea: provide a bit of detail and history of the character before shattering her spine with a bullet. Unfortunately, the execution left much to be desired, and leaves this viewer wondering if the producers had ever actually read a "Batgirl" comic.
Childish, Girly Drama
When the writers decided to expand more on Barbara's story, it seems they were looking to appeal to the female viewers. What better way to appeal to the women in the audience than to make one of the only female characters in the entire film a laughable cliche? Barbara spends the first thirty minutes of the film mooning over Bruce, complaining about their complicated relationship to her co-worker, and ultimately hooking up with him on a Gotham rooftop. While she's allowed a few moments of unequivocal badass fighting, she spends the bulk of the story focused less on crime-fighting and more on boys. Even the primary bad guy in Barbara's story (laughably nicknamed Paris Franz) has an odd fixation with her, and seemingly distracts her and clouds her judgment by sending her flirtatious messages, for which Bruce openly admonishes her. For a woman who is supposed to be strong and independent, Batgirl is entirely too focused on boys, and winds up coming across as completely immature. At one point Paris even taunts her and asks where her boyfriend is, to which she loudly exclaims, "He's not my boyfriend!". I have numerous problems with this. A) She was in hiding, so she effectively just gave away her position to her attacker. If I realize this, surely one of Batman's protege's would. B) Why does Barbara feel the need to defend herself to this guy? He's a random one-off character that no one cares about. These additional scenes may have been meant to build Barbara up and make the viewer understand her backstory and actually care when she's paralyzed, but ultimately this addition just reduced a strong female superhero to nothing more than a love-struck teenage girl.
Sex Sells, But Not When it's Awkward And Completely Out Of Character
Given that this is DC's first R-rated animated film, it's expected that they would take some liberties with the film to fully earn that rating. What wasn't expected was the completely random and uncharacteristic sex scene between Batman and Batgirl. Let's set the tone: Bruce is criticizing Barbara's skills in the field, they two begin fighting, Barbara pins Bruce, then abruptly kisses him and strips off her shirt before the scene cuts away. Now, even casual fans of the comics will know that this is not a romantic entanglement ever even briefly addressed in the original material. Barbara Gordon would go on to have an on-again, off-again relationship with Dick Grayson (a.k.a. Robin, a.k.a. Nightwing) after her paralysis, but there are certainly no "Batman" or "Batgirl" comics in which the two characters hook up. Not only is it completely incongruous with the original comics, it's also outright awkward. It's a common fact within the "Batman" lore that Bruce is significantly older than Barbara. Had the writers been attempting to lessen the age gap between the pair, this scene may have been more acceptable to viewers. As it stands though, Barbara comments later in the film that when Batman made his first appearance, she was just a kid, and that stories of him gave her nightmares. "The Killing Joke" makes a point of addressing this age difference, and yet the writers still went ahead the scene. When asked about brainstorming its inclusion, they simply responded that they all thought, "Yeah, that's kind of where we need to go". Given that this scene has absolutely no bearing on the events in "The Killing Joke", and at best it only serves as a catalyst for Barbara renouncing her title of Batgirl (an event that doesn't happen in "The Killing Joke" or any other "Batman" comic, for that matter) one can't help but wonder why it was included in the first place. Perhaps the writers felt they should take advantage of the r-rating to throw in a little sex, even though virtually nothing is shown on-screen, or perhaps they merely thought it would generate controversy and discussion, increasing sales and overall discussion. Whatever the reason, this scene felt unnecessary and exploitative, and wound up serving as a distraction to the larger on-screen story.
When Does The Actual Movie Start?
Including additional scenes in the film to help further expand on Barbara's character isn't an inherently bad idea. What was a bad idea was including all of those scenes at the very beginning of the movie. I sat through the first thirty minutes of "The Killing Joke" feeling as though I was watching a poorly made short. I repeatedly found myself being distracted, wondering when "The Killing Joke" would actually start. Therein lies the problem with adapting a comic into a film. Most of your viewers are already familiar with the source material, and know how it actually begins. Everything prior to that feels like unnecessary exposition. Had these scenes been interspersed with the actual adaptation, they still would have been noticeable, but they would have been more tolerable as brief filler used to cushion the main story. The writers would have been far better off had they used an existing "Batgirl" story to provide exposition for the character, and made a self-contained short to air before "The Killing Joke", rather than including this whole portion as part of the main film. The layout felt sloppy, as though the writers thought they could slip in thirty additional minutes of animation without expecting anyone to be anxious for the real story to start. We all paid good money to see "The Killing Joke", and this first portion just felt like a cheap attempt at extending the film, adding nothing to the main story's narrative.
Knocking The Killing Joke Down A Notch
The entire Batgirl-centered beginning of the film was disjointed, messy, and overall unsatisfying. There is little additional sympathy to be felt for Barbara through these scenes, and if anything her character comes across as a petulant, boy-obsessed teen who has no place being a crimefighter in the first place. With this image being so far removed from her character in the comics, it's no surprise that some were unhappy with the end product.
With such a problematic opening act, it's no surprise that "The Killing Joke" has faced mixed reviews from fans. The original comic was controversial enough in its treatment of Barbara; was it really necessary to add these additional scenes which only exacerbated the problem? "The Killing Joke" was far from perfect, but this entire opening portion was an utter mess. From start to finish, the entire first third of the movie was a mashup of tropes that painted Barbara in the worst possible light. "The Killing Joke" may strive to create a more fully realized Batgirl, but ultimately it wound up creating a two-dimensional, cliched character that bears no resemblance to the Barbara Gordon fans have come to love.