At the outset of this piece, I need to make it abundantly clear this isn't a review of Batman: The Killing Joke. That you can find anywhere and, to be totally honest, a work of standard film criticism here would, in my opinion, miss everything both interesting and important about this movie's very existence, creative direction, packaging to fans, and the reception it's gotten upon release. So if your initial interest in clicking on this was limited to just the film itself, then you should probably move along now.
For those of you who elect to stick around, however, I'm gonna ask that you do your best to keep an open mind. I know well that many of you were already either upset with the movie or upset with the backlash to the movie long before ever coming across this — and I totally get that — but it's not going to help you here. So again, if an approach of reasoned analysis for the purpose of hopefully diagnosing just what happened with all this is not your cup of tea at the moment, then you too may want to seek your web-based distraction elsewhere for the time being.
We good? OK then, let's get to it.
Origins of Controversy
The Killing Joke is an iconic, all-time classic comic, and fans have been wanting to see it onscreen for years. This is especially true for those of us Batman: The Animated Series fanatics, who viewed the potential of this seminal Dark Knight tale in the hands of the studio behind our seminal Dark Knight as a match made in nerd heaven. It honestly felt perfect.
But that didn't mean it wouldn't come without its share of challenges, two of which standing front and center. Firstly, the comic on its own is simply not long enough to sustain a feature film, which meant the creative team would have to perform the delicate art of adding more material to the story without wasting our time and/or compromising what was already there (lest we riot).
The second was that, in the almost thirty years since the book was first published, the formerly niche world of comics culture has both grown exponentially and been irrevocably altered by changing times, meaning the variety of those consuming the work was also widely expanded as the amount of consumers increased. So not only would this Killing Joke attract much more of an audience upon arrival, but the way in which that audience would watch/think about it would land on a DRASTICALLY broader spectrum. This meant there'd assuredly be so much more for the creative team to consider with this project, which always brings complications.
Which brings us to Batgirl.
An Old Story in a New Reality
In the vast universe that grew out of the small world of geek culture, the most glaring issue with Killing Joke, by far, is its treatment of Barbara Gordon, also known as the original Batgirl. Basically, in order to psychologically torture Commissioner Gordon for his demented dissertation to Batman on the ultimate fraudulence of struggle and sanity, The Joker cripples her before doing vague yet hauntingly unsettling things to her immobile body.
Now on the one hand, the perverse brutality and emotional horror involved here is crafted intentionally, in accordance with the precise point and purpose of the story. The whole idea is to do something this awful to someone Batman cares about, as both a signal to the audience about the unchartered territory they're entering into here and to elicit the maximum reaction from us for further investment. So it's not gratuitous or flippant, but rather calculated.
But on the other, our society is now much more aware of the abusive victimization of women in real life, as well as the undeniable inequity females — both fictional and actual — face in geek culture. And this awareness can't help but influence how a Killing Joke movie should be approached in 2016. Barbara Gordon's original function as a mere plot device that's just there to tragically facilitate some great philosophical debate between two legendary enemies, especially in such a way where it's what happens to her that sets everything in motion as opposed to something she herself does, is now a major problem for a huge portion of modern audiences (and deservedly so). Which means the creative team would have to find a way to enhance her role, but again without compromising too much of the original story (lest we riot).
The Best Possible Solution
Thus it came to pass that Batgirl would have an expanded presence made possible through the additional content required to make the movie feature-length, coming in the form of a prologue of sorts. Instead of her solely showing up to literally open the door for the launch of The Joker's maniacal magnum opus, audiences would now get to discover who she was and see her do her thing leading up to that moment, presumably so the terrible trauma she suffers would be given an added layer of meaning by getting to be more about her.
It's hard to overstate how brilliant this idea was. Along with providing that additional content for the runtime and addressing the Batgirl problem, they also gave fans who know the book backwards and forwards something new for their trouble, without undermining the existing story in any way; everything from the crippling incident forward would get to stay exactly the same. This covered all bases beautifully, to the point that I was sincerely floored when I learned of it. It honestly felt perfect.
The Worst Possible Implementation
You're sure to know by now it didn't play out that way, however. The Batgirl backstory that came to be was one in which she pretty much just exhibited a not particularly mature romantic interest in Batman — in a way that gave audiences the impression that her being a superhero was, on some level, a byproduct of her crush — and was capped off by her and Batman having sex on top of a roof.
It's hard to overstate how wrongheaded this was. (Note: I don't mean "awful," or "weird", or "creepy," mind you; for the purposes of this piece, I just mean wrongheaded; again, this isn't a review.) Clear your mind for a moment to simply consider the following: If one of your stated goals is to expand and deepen the impact of a female character on a story, and the fans you're appealing to are now FAR MORE comprised of females than ever before, then WHY ON EARTH would you pursue that goal in a manner that primarily features the very stereotypes this ever-growing demographic has made clear — time and time again — they no longer find acceptable? It's a stunning lapse in judgment.
To be clear though, I'm not saying you shouldn't like the film, or should care more about female representation in comic book movies; that's completely up to you; it's no concern of mine. But what I am saying is that selling a substantial percentage of your potential customers on the promise of a product you're well aware they've wanted for years, and then delivering on that promise in a way that shows no regard for or even a basic understanding of that desire at all, is a COLOSSALLY ill-advised move that's almost guaranteed to create an uproar amongst that demographic. (It's basically math at that point.)
Additionally (and PLEASE hear this), simply having a crush on a guy doesn't make a female character more interesting, and the mere act of having sex with the main hero also doesn't make her more important to the story on its own. (How this was never made apparent to the creative team at any point during production is baffling to me. I know twenty women who could've told them this within three seconds of reading that part of the script.) And if your intention is actually to make a version of Killing Joke where Batgirl has a sexual fixation on Batman that he surprisingly ends up reciprocating in a moment of passion before the events of the original story play out, then go right ahead; I wish you well. But for the love of god, DO NOT package the idea as an attempt to make Batgirl a more relevant character. Regardless of intention, it's difficult to put into words just how insulting that comes across.
How the Right Idea Could've Been Done Right
All they would've had to do is introduce Batgirl at the top of her game, so much so that Batman is finally comfortable trusting her fully, both as a teammate and in doing the job by herself (AND THEN you can maybe toss in a hint or two about their relationship evolving to another level, if you really want that). Show the audience she's become his true ally, and a vital strand of Gotham's social fabric in her own right; give us the feeling it's all finally coming together for her. Because then, when The Joker shows up and lays waste to all that in an instant, we get a sense of what everyone loses — her, her father, Batman, and Gotham alike. The moment becomes WAY BIGGER than what it was originally, with multiple layers of significance compounding on top of each other.
And none of this will have come at the expense of what was just built for Batgirl's expanded and more central character, because it doesn't actually happen to Batgirl. It happens to Barbara, at home, with no warning and her guard completely down. The moment she opens the door and sees The Joker standing there with that gun, she's now figuratively naked and made helpless through no fault of her own, since there was no reason for her to ever see it coming, because Joker wasn't after Batgirl at all. Having not a clue who else she was, he was there to cripple and terrorize just another random person, simply because she was the daughter of some guy he needed to psychologically decimate, in order to prove a point to some other guy he's having an extended quarrel with.
Think about how significant that is to the story — to THIS story. The same day she finally completely nails this whole Batgirl thing, one of her enemies randomly destroys her life for reasons that aren't, in any way, linked to her being Batgirl. That world's pointless and arbitrary cruelty — the very thing Joker is trying to make Batman accept and the whole narrative is built around — cannot be any better exemplified than with that.
This is how you expand Barbara Gordon's impact in such a way that brings so much more out of the story than before, and without upsetting and/or alienating anyone: transform what happens to her into her own completely senseless "One Bad Day" tragedy — that is, into the perfect illustration of the very iconic ideas the tale once so famously introduced.
That way Batgirl would've gotten to be in on the joke too, just like the boys.