There’s no easy way to say this: Warner Bros.’ animated adaptation of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s controversial graphic novel “Batman: The Killing Joke” completely botched its interpretation of Batgirl. That isn’t to say, of course, that it was for lack of trying; writers Bruce Timm and Brian Azzarello and director Sam Liu have gone on record saying that they hoped to bolster Batgirl’s role by giving her more backstory in the film, considering her small and controversial role in the source material — but there’s a saying about good intentions for a reason. The film certainly does expand Batgirl’s role, but, in doing so, manages to create a new story utterly and only about the men in her life, further removing her autonomy. But what could it have done to avoid objectifying Batgirl in all-new ways?
First, we need to take a look at the ways her story went wrong, but — thanks to the fact that her story revolves around the male characters — that’s pretty easy to break down. They’ve even got names: Paris Franz, Batman and the Joker.
Let’s start with Mr. Franz. Paris was created for the movie, as part of Batgirl’s invented backstory. That, in and of itself, is a completely inoffensive move; in concept, it’s actually a pretty solid idea, as he had the potential to serve as a personal foil to her character. Instead, he turns out to be a narcissist with a Batgirl fetish. Immediately following his first encounter with her, he becomes enamored, professing himself to be in love with her. He obsessively targets her in his crimes by leaving her cutesy messages with clues for her to figure out. In one scene, he even hires a prostitute to wear a mask like hers. His entire involvement with her is sexually charged, based solely around his attraction to her. She clearly proves herself to be much more than a sex object when she beats him to a bloody pulp, but he continues to see her that way regardless, proclaiming his enduring love even as he’s dragged to prison.
What’s more, Batgirl falls for Franz’s bait at almost every turn. In their first encounter, he manages to slip out of her hands, though that’s pretty understandable given the fact she was fighting a truck with her bare hands. Subsequently, however, she plays right into his hands. She loses to him in hand-to-hand combat when he uses a chemical to knock her out; she outwits him by locking herself in a vault so that he can’t get at her, but it allows him time to escape. He baits her into discovering the body of his mob boss uncle, just in time for said uncle’s henchmen to discover her in his office. And sure, she gets the upper hand in their final confrontation, but that’s only because she’s motivated by her concern for Batman, who was injured severely in an earlier fight. The combined effect makes Barbara seem more incompetent than it makes Franz look formidable. To sum up, then, Barbara faces the embodiment of sexual harassment in Paris Franz — and only manages to overcome him when her lover’s life is on the line.
That brings us to Batman. The rumors you’ve heard are true: Batgirl does, indeed, have sex with Batman in this animated film. This isn’t an entirely new concept; after all, Barbara had romantic ties to Batman for an indeterminate length of time in “Batman Beyond,” another of Bruce Timm’s co-created works. However, Barbara’s romantic inclinations toward Batman completely consume her added storyline in “Batman: The Killing Joke.” When she’s not in the costume, she spends her time pining over him or growing increasingly frustrated about the way he treats her, as seen in conversations with her gay stereotype of a co-worker, whose sole purpose is to also obsess over her love life. As Batgirl, she constantly spars with him over his overprotectiveness and acts out against him like a teenager would: by defying his orders and pursuing Franz on her own (only to fall into the mobster’s traps time and again, thus proving Batman right).
Between Barbara’s youthful naivete and her role as Batman’s protege, the sex scene takes on an added level of creepiness. Batman isn’t simply her mentor by name; he acts like one, constantly instructing her and berating her as she works and even putting his foot down to tell her she’s off the case. According to him, “We are [partners], but we’re not equals. Not even close.” (Even if that belief alone doesn’t prevent him from sleeping with her.) Though clearly an adult with a career, Barbara never acts in kind, consistently rejecting his advice with a pout and her arms crossed; while Batgirl certainly has a point about his overprotectiveness, her actions pay her no favors and she fails against Franz time and again, just like Batman tells her she would; regardless of whether or not Barbara is in the right, the movie frames her as being in the wrong. She clearly takes on a childlike kind of pupil role here, despite the fact that she is meant to be older. In doing so, the film reinforces the idea of Batman as mentor and Batgirl as protege — that is, their kind of father-daughter relationship — shortly before Batgirl consummates her romantic feelings for him.
What’s worse, this ill-fated hookup with Batman leads to Batgirl’s decision to step down as a vigilante. After lecturing Barbara about gazing into “the abyss,” he refuses to take his own advice and goes it alone in the final fight against Franz rather than confront Barbara about their rooftop tryst. This backfires spectacularly; he’s ambushed by Franz’s men and severely injured. Fortunately for him, Batgirl arrives on the scene pretty quickly and — upon seeing Batman’s injury and Franz’s attempt to kill him — flies into a rage, beating Franz to within an inch of his life. Because of her feelings for Batman, she gazes into “the abyss” he warned her about, proving him right for what appears to be the final time. In yet another rooftop scene, she acquiesces, reaffirming his belief that she saw her mantle as a game and a thrill; between her close encounter with “the abyss” — that dark edge you can’t walk away from — and his refusal to talk about what happened between them, she gives up being Batgirl. Sure, a big part of her decision was due to her brush with extreme violence, but it was also influenced by Batman and played into exactly what Batman said all along. Once again, her motivations are completely tied to a man in her life; this was not a decision she arrived at entirely on her own.
Then there is, of course, the Joker. Those who have read the book will no doubt be familiar with what happens here, as the film adapts the scene pretty faithfully. Like the graphic novel, the Joker shoots Barbara in the stomach and knocks her back into a glass table, paralyzing her. Immediately after, he strips her naked, and the camera pans slowly down Barbara’s body as he unbuttons her shirt. The scene cuts before anything can truly by seen, though the results appear later on, when Commissioner Gordon is sent through the Joker’s mad house, which is decked out with photos of Gordon’s naked and injured daughter. The photos are less revealing than those in the original story, framed just so they don’t show anything immodest. However, the act in and of itself is incontestably sexual assault. Again, the source of her trauma — and, subsequently, the total change in her way of life — can be chalked up to a man’s actions.
Between the added backstory and source material, then, poor Batgirl — the only woman to appear on screen besides Joker’s fridged wife and a few prostitutes — just can’t win in this animated adaptation of “Batman: The Killing Joke.” What’s more, the additional material — which was intended to give her a larger and more prominent role — does her no favors. Of course, Barbara’s fate in the source material will always be controversial — but how, then, could any new story alleviate that?
Well, for one, Barbara’s new backstory would have gone over better if it had shifted away from sex and men. Indeed, there was no reason her new villain, Paris Franz, had to be a man at all. Instead of a younger man with a Batgirl fetish, Barbara could have faced off against a woman who viewed her as an equal instead of a sex object; the new villain could easily have challenged Barbara to a game of wits with a riddle or dare too intriguing for her to turn down. Those aren’t, of course, attributes restricted to a female villain and could just as easily be applied to a not-quite-so-lustful man. However, there are already so few female Batman villains that a new one would have stood out, particularly in comparison to the rather forgettable Franz.
Alternatively, they could have forgone the new villain altogether. Rather than give Batgirl a story that feels disconnected from the rest of the film, they could have incorporated the Joker, which would have made Batgirl’s prologue feel a little more cohesive with the rest of the film. For example, Barbara could have followed a trail of crimes to the Joker before even Batman realizes that he’s escaped; because Batman doesn’t view her as an equal and refuses to believe her when she says the Joker has escaped, she tries to face him alone, only to be severely injured in the process — when he discovers, to his delight, that she is in fact the Commissioner’s daughter and uses that to his advantage. In the very least, a scenario like that or something similar would restore Batgirl’s sense of autonomy in the situation, while deeply affecting Commissioner Gordon and heaping a load of new guilt on Batman.
What’s more, the film laid down the seeds of a good idea that it never fully explored. Violence — and her inability to tear herself away from it in the face of evil — is one of the reasons Barbara decided to step down from being Batgirl. However, this idea appears suddenly and at the tail end of her prologue; what’s more, it is entirely motivated by her feelings for Batman. Instead of basing that concept on Batman, the film could have explored Batgirl’s relationship with violence and Batman’s idea of “the abyss” as she descends deeper and deeper into it during her nights on patrol. Rather than a love affair with Batman, the film could have given her a love affair with extreme violence — which the film, with its R rating, could have explored in gory detail. The final confrontation with Franz (or, as mentioned above, any other villain) could have been the final straw that factored into her decision to quit.
“Batman: The Killing Joke” ends with Barbara becoming Oracle in a quick mid-credits scene, but the revelation is far too little and far too late. There is nothing redemptive about Batgirl’s invented story arc in “The Killing Joke.” Though the film could have easily avoided the traps of its controversial source material, it goes all-in instead, centering Barbara Gordon’s existence and motivations around the men in her life. If you’re looking for the Batgirl fans know and love, turn to seminal runs like her solo series and “Birds of Prey,” because you certainly won’t find her here.
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