by Michael B. Hock
Out of all the villains in comics, my favorite has always been The Joker. Most other villains have agendas. Lex Luthor may want to destroy Superman, but that’s because he believes the alien to be a threat. Sinestro wants order, Magneto wants to avoid another Holocaust, and even Doomsday has revenge built into his DNA for Kryptonians repeatedly leaving him to die.
But then there’s The Joker.
The Joker is a force of nature. The thing about The Joker is that he’s more than just crazy… he’s crazy enough to know that he’s crazy. That makes him dangerous, working out long elaborate plans to take down whatever system he feels like taking down today.
One of my favorite (Not-Killing Joke) Joker stories is from the Batman Animated Series that was out in 1992. It’s an episode called “Joker’s Favor.” (This is also notable for being the first episode with Harley Quinn.) A simple man named Charlie is having a bad day, and curses out the Joker. He doesn’t hit him, he doesn’t hurt him, he just curses out the Joker for some bad driving. (Not realizing it’s him) And The Joker doesn’t take offense, he just asks him for a favor – to hold the door open during a robbery, two years later. Of course, in Joker fashion, traps Charlie and tries to kill him, because he’s the Joker. It’s a small episode, but to me that’s what it boils down to… he’s sane enough to take his time.
That’s why I’ve always loved Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. It’s attempts to tell an origin story for the Joker – that he was a failed stand up comedian who had one “bad day” – and equate him with Batman, who also one day had a very bad day. Moore was hardly the first to draw the conclusion that Batman and the Joker are pretty much two sides of the same coin… both affected by personal tragedies, both trying to strike fear into people in various ways … but I always felt he was the most effective, balancing out that terror with some kind of sympathy. Had we simply seen Batman’s origin through the same lens of the Joker’s would we have that sense of sympathy?
Then I found out there was going to be an animated movie. I was skeptical. The Killing Joke is dark. I don’t mean dark like we like to call things dark nowadays, where Walter White kidnaps a baby, we all say “Thank God he returned the baby.” The Killing Joke is “kill the baby” dark. The Joker presented here is on a mission, one to prove that we are all the Joker. That Batman himself is the Joker, and that it just takes one bad day to become what we fear in him, and in ourselves. How could they make it an animated movie?
Then Bruce Timm came on board. He’s the one responsible for Batman: The Animated Series, so we know he gets Batman. Then Kevin Conroy came on board, THE voice for Batman. So did Mark Hamill, the definitive voice for the Joker. Everyone worth seeing was on board. This group gets Batman. They get what makes him tick.
Unfortunately, I don’t think they get what makes the Joker tick.
Part of the appeal of The Killing Joke is that it tells us the Joker’s story in a unique way (also in a way that may or may not be true… we just don’t know). We see the Joker’s story through the newly disturbed Batman, who feels he has gone too far, and genuinely doesn’t want the Joker/Batman feud to end in either of their deaths. Because the Joker represents the path Batman could easily still go down: someone driven to the edge and forced to bring about order in the deadliest way possible.
The story of the Killing Joke is that the Joker has escaped, and wishes to give Commissioner Gordon “One Bad Day” to get him to become like The Joker. He does this by torturing him: shooting Barbara Gordon point blank so she will never walk; stripping her naked and showing the pictures to him; stripping him naked and getting him to admit that that Batman and the Joker are the same… eventually, Batman saves Gordon. The ending is debated, but some reads it that Batman finally kills the Joker in this one. (The description above also would apply to Barbara Gordon’s “one bad day” but we’re going to get to that in a second.)
The movie adds an opening and a closing that focuses on Barbara Gordon. In this new opening, she’s pursuing a dangerous criminal that is obsessed with her, and dealing with her own feelings for Batman. Eventually, the two end up having sex on a rooftop, before she almost goes over the edge. She quits herself.
The new closing shows her in the role of Oracle, an identity she’ll take on in the DC Universe following this book.
The thing is, if I was judging it just on the section that’s based on the Killing Joke, this would be six stars, must see, go see immediately. Like I said, the actors and producer know the characters. There’s a desperation in the Joker’s voice when he confronts Batman. He needs him to understand. Batman has a similar desperation, because he does not want to become the Joker. All of this is present in the movie. It’s a near-perfect adaptation.
But we can’t ignore this beginning section. It changes the dynamic of the story.
In the original, the shooting of Barbara Gordon is a deeply disturbing moment. She’s robbed of a lot of agency, but it also reveals the Joker’s ability to calculate… he deliberately shoots her in a way in which she survives, but will be forever changed. The Joker reduces her to a part of Jim Gordon’s story, but a very valuable one. By not flat out killing her, he leaves her as a reminder that Gordon was unable to protect her. There have been a ton of readings on this part, I could go into a lot. But the bottom line is, she is meant to be part of Gordon’s “bad day”. It’s also important to remember that he wasn’t targeting Batgirl… he was targeting Barbara Gordon.
(Quick note: There’s also some debate on this, on whether he knew. I haven’t looked closely enough to speculate. In the movie, they slightly imply this. However, this does not change the original, intended meaning of her shooting: to drive her father to commit murder and become just like the Joker.)
Her relationship to Batman at this point is also a working one, but it’s interesting to see where it comes. This book came out shortly after “A Death in the Family” where the Joker murders the second Robin, Jason Todd. (Until, like so many other comic book heroes, he gets better.) The injury of Batgirl is tragic enough, it’s enough for him to question why he keeps The Joker alive.
The addition of the sex scene changes their relationship from a mentor/mentee relationship to a sexual one. It’s more than the usual complaint of “that’s not in the comics.” I can handle that. They make book to movie changes all the time. But this is a big one, as a major relationship is changed. The worst part of any change: it’s unneeded. Batman doesn’t go off on a question to save his injured lover. He’s still trying to take down the Joker and stop his master plan of creating someone like them. Both Batman and The Joker.
I guess I don’t understand why they needed to include this extra scene. Hey, I’m all for more Batgirl stories. She an interesting character: the daughter of the commissioner who starts out on her own. But this was unnecessary. It changes too much about the original. It introduces a more disturbing element to the story, one where Batgirl is simply objectified by a gangster, then responds by having sex with Batman in one of the most out of character moments.
If they wanted to add more content, it should have been more Joker content. The Killing Joke works because it is not a Batman story… it’s a Joker story. One that doesn’t apologize for him, but draws that Batman/Joker comparison in a unique way.
I’d watch it again. I still think other than the opening, the rest of the movie itself is flawless. It keeps full sequences taken directly from the comic book art, which is always a plus. Even the ambiguous ending… does Batman finally kill the Joker… is kept in. I’ve always read it that he does. This is the definitive Joker story, it’s best to read it that he’s defined as one who doesn’t just need chaos, but needs justification for his chaos, even if it’s a moment of weakness for both characters. Batman finally ends him. (Maybe that was the reason for the sex? To show moments of weakness? Still… very out of place.)
And I even have to admit I like the end reveal of Barbara as Oracle, as it introduces the idea of her overcoming her “bad day” to not fall victim to the Joker, but to rise above it.