glitter_n_gore: (jean gray)
[personal profile] glitter_n_gore
Earlier this year, there was a special theatrical release of the animated adaptation of the classic Alan Moore graphic novel. It’s a short, controversial volume that includes the closest thing we’ve ever gotten to a Joker origin story. It also codified some of the nastier tropes associated with comics--sexualized violence, fridging, all those awful things we’re trying to get away from by bringing in more diverse writers and content creators instead of leaving the industry as a Boys Club. This is the story in which Barbara Gordon, formerly Batgirl in this particular timeline, gets brutalized and paralyzed from the waist down--all in service of the Joker trying to prove a point. And the way the Joker does this is utterly revolting.

So I’m aware that my feminist street cred will likely plummet when I tell you: it is one of my favorite graphic novels of all time. And this movie is the most perfect version of it we’ll ever see. Let’s talk about why.

Book cover of The Killing Joke; links to GoodReads page

Did you know there’s a Batman Day?

It was this weekend, Saturday the 17th. No idea what that day signifies to make it Batty, but okay. So I binge watched the entire Dark Knight trilogy and The Killing Joke, which just came in on the holds list at the library. I didn’t realize it was on DVD already until I saw it in our bin, and was surprised by how fiercely I wanted to watch it.

Yes, I did just say it’s one of my favorite graphic novels ever, and I meant it, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see a cinematic version of it. There’s something more immediate about watching moving images with their own pace and sound. When you’re the one reading the story, you’re an active participant. You have to decide to turn the page and keep going. Sure, you can always press pause and step away from a movie or TV show, but it’s not quite the same. In my case anyway, I sometimes freeze up when a movie is in the process of traumatizing me, and can’t quite make myself turn it off before it’s too late. So depending on how the adaptive script writers and animators decided to handle this, it could get real ugly real fast.

But then I saw the DVD cover, and everything I loved about the comic came rushing back. I needed to hear Mark Hamill perform the “One Bad Day” monologue. I needed to see that derelict carnival come grinding to life. I needed to watch Batman and The Joker cackling together in the last frame. No matter how brutal, I knew I’d regret it if I missed that. So I checked it out.

Firstly, I was forewarned by other reviewers about the pointless, inexcusable prologue that adds nothing and deserves to be skipped. So when I say it’s a “perfect” adaptation, I mean once the actual adaptation starts. I decided to view the movie overall as two episodes of a TV show, only one of which is worth watching. Someone just really wanted Batman and Batgirl to have sex one time apparently. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it until it stops being true: leave the angsty, romantic subplots to the fanficcers. We’re better at it. Jesus. (Go to the 28 minute mark and thank me later.)

Secondly, this is one of the stories heavily referenced by the Dark Knight trilogy, not structurally but thematically. That moment in Batman Begins when Christian Bale’s Batman is aggressively interrogating one of Gotham’s petty criminals, who says, “I don’t know anything, I swear to God!” and Batman responds with, “Swear to ME!”--that’s from The Killing Joke. The second movie’s recurring motif (running gag?) of Heath Ledger’s Joker having a “multiple choice” past that keeps changing every time he tells the scar story--also from The Killing Joke. The truck in the big car chase scene with the words “(S)laughter is the Best Medicine” along with the silhouette of a carnival--that’s a nod to the comic’s key setting. The Joker’s belief that deep down the only thing separating the civilized from the criminals is one bad day--that’s an ongoing theme in both the movie and the graphic novel. And in both cases, Batman proves him wrong.

The Joker’s target in the comic isn’t Harvey Dent but Commissioner Gordon. And by extension, Batman. His theory is that everyone is a potential mass-murderer waiting for their moment to crack, and his mission is to drive Gordon over the edge to prove it. Here’s just a piece of the One Bad Day speech:

”All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That's how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day. You had a bad day once. Am I right? I know I am. I can tell. You had a bad day and everything changed.

The scariest thing about the Joker isn’t that he’s cruel, or sadistic, or always ten steps ahead of the good guys. I mean, he is, but that doesn’t set him apart as a villain--they’re all like that. No, what’s scary is that he’s right. Not about the world in general maybe, but about Batman. Bruce Wayne’s whole purpose in becoming Gotham’s masked vigilante is hinged on one bad day: the day he lost his parents. The closest equivalent to this scene in the movies is the interrogation room scene in The Dark Knight:

It’s not quite the same wording obviously, but it’s revelatory and memorable for the same reasons. The Joker reveals two of his driving beliefs here: 1) Deep down, everyone is as sadistic and hungry for anarchy as he is; 2) Batman, to him, is a kindred spirit and, because of that, The Joker has a sort of twisted empathy for him.

The other thing The Dark Knight shares with The Killing Joke is the fact that its fictional universe embraces it as canon, but it’s rarely mentioned outside of that one episode. When Heath Ledger died in 2008, he took this character with him, and any possibility for director Christopher Nolan to use him again in his version of the story. We never find out what happened to The Joker after Batman left him hanging from the side of a building. Did he get sent to Arkham? Was he one of the criminals broken out of Blackgate Prison in The Dark Knight Rises? Did he get sent somewhere else, or escape? It’s never resolved. But his actions ripple throughout the final installment of the trilogy, mostly in the form of Harvey Dent’s death and the pile-up of lies and cover ups that create so many problems for Commissioner Gordon. Plus, it took Bruce a whole eight years to recover from the ordeal.

The Killing Joke is mostly considered a canon story in the DC universe, but the actual flashback including The Joker’s backstory is always up in the air. There’s always another character who thinks they know what really happened when he fell into that vat of chemicals that turned his skin white and his hair green. And what happened when Batman caught him at the carnival? Did he escort him back to Arkham? Or did he let him go? Still, the results of what he did to Barbara echo throughout the rest of the comics, when she’s paralyzed but becomes a hyper-competent computer genius known as The Oracle.

Let’s talk about Barbara for a minute actually, because she’s the sticking point that makes this episode an immediate “Nope!” for some in the fanbase. What happens is she gets shot at point-blank range, which damages her spine so that she no longer walk. Then The Joker strips her naked and takes pictures that he blows up and plasters on the walls of the gruesome carnival ride he’s designing for Commissioner Gordon, the better to break his mind. Look: I’m not gonna attempt to justify this. It’s brutal, it’s graphic, and if it makes it impossible for you to read/watch this story, I won’t hold that against you. I think there’s a tendency in criticism, both by and for fans, to either embrace all of a given work and deny that it has faults, or to single out a fault and use it as a reason to dismiss the work entirely. I’m somewhere in the middle. And honestly I think that’s the case for most comic fans. This thing that was done to Barbara is only marginally bearable because of a later writing team’s decision to turn her into a hero in her own right. In the context of this one book/movie, it is quite awful and something I cringe through and have to endure to get to the good stuff. No one should have to endure this kind of thing in order to enjoy a decent story that’s become important to the comic universe--that’s the main argument, and I understand it completely. But I choose to endure it because I feel like there is good stuff here.

The underlying brilliance in both this story and in The Dark Knight lies in its quieter moments. In the philosophical conversations between our main hero and his greatest foil. Yes, there are a lot of big, explode-y, memorable action scenes, and yes there are a lot of other characters who have their own arcs and struggles, but really this is a small, personal exercise in self-examination for both hero and villain. Batman and The Joker come across like God and the Devil debating the true nature of humanity. The question is: which side is stronger, good or evil? What does it take to push someone over the edge? When you force someone to look at the ugly side of the world, will they fall or will they rise higher? The answer is: it depends. And that people, no matter what the world throws at them, can always surprise you. That’s a message worth hearing, I think. And it’s worth hearing in Mark Hamill’s and Kevin Conroy’s iconic vocal performances.

So skip the first 28 minutes, compartmentalize the creepy sexual assault stuff if you need to, or give the movie a pass if you can’t. Bottom line: If you liked the comic, you’ll like this adaptation. This is the first of the DC animated features I’ve watched the whole way through, and I’m glad I did.


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