In the animated adaptation of the graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, there's a scene in which Barbara Gordon attempts to justify the emotionally manipulative, romantic relationship that she and Batman have somehow fallen into.
"Let me understand," her stereotypically gay friend Reese says, confused. "You're seeing a guy, but not really dating. In a 'yoga class.' He's like the instructor? And he's making demands? But there's no sex?"
Barbara tells him that her instructor has always been controlling and that she's usually fine with it and that no, of course there's no sex. Except of course there's sex, because in this telling of The Killing Joke Batman isn't just Batgirl's mentor, he's her brooding father figure and lover who decides when she isn't fit to fight crime along his side. None of this is from the comic books.
When Warner Brothers and DC announced that The Killing Joke was in production, fans of the Batman franchise were divided. The diehards argued that it was one of the most iconic storylines in Batman history, exploring the Joker's origin and giving Batgirl a chance to mature as a character. Concerned readers felt as if the arc was a toxic fetishization of sexualized violence against women that served no purpose other than to shock and titillate male readers.
In the months leading up to The Killing Joke's release, the film's actors and director assured fans that the adaptation would be mostly faithful and an improvement on the source material. Now that the movie's out, however, that doesn't exactly seem to be the case. While the feature does share narrative beats with its comic book counterpart, a number of changes have drawn swift critiques from people who've followed Batgirl's adventures for years.
In the original Killing Joke, the Joker "teaches" Batman that every sane person is theoretically "one bad day" away from becoming an unhinged madman like himself. In order to convey his lesson, the Joker attacks an off-duty Batgirl at her home, shooting her in the stomach, and permanently paralyzing her in hopes of driving Batman insane.
In an interview with Vulture, executive producer Bruce Timm explained that Batman and Batgirl's traditionally father-daughter relationship was changed to a sexual one in an effort to give her more to do during the film and to make her motivations more human.
"It was really important to us to show that both of the characters make some pretty big mistakes. I mean, his 'parental skills' aren't that great," Timm said. "And then she makes some mistakes and then he kind of overreacts to her mistakes and then she overreacts to his overreaction. So it's very human; it's a very understandable story."
The "mistake" Batgirl makes in the film is following up on the trail of a thief who expresses a degree of romantic interest in her after a botched robbery. The thief gets away and leaves a video message behind taunting Batgirl to follow him. Batman warns Batgirl that the criminal is dangerous, while she reasons that she's perfectly capable of handling herself.
"He doesn't know you, he's objectified you," Batman cautions his younger partner. "When a criminal gets personal like that, it's bad news."
A few scenes later, after Batman's warning turns out to be correct, he ends up saving Batgirl from a trap and giving her a stern lecture about why she was wrong to disobey him. The two then have a brief fight on a rooftop that culminates in them having sex. Because of course it ends up with them having sex.
While it's objectively better that Batgirl spends a significantly larger amount of her time in this telling of The Killing Joke in costume and kicking ass, the fact that she and her mentor are sexually involved with one another infuses the movie with more than a bit of paternalistic sexism.
The Killing Joke leans into its unsettling subtext even harder later in the film by heavily implying that the Joker raped Batgirl after shooting her. This idea was much less explicit in the comic. Batman tracks down some prostitutes who the Joker is known to have sex with after committing crimes. When asked if they've seen the villain recently, the women say no, musing that he might have "found himself another girl."
According to Timm, this scene doesn't imply rape or any type of sexual assault because, in his mind, that was never in the original comic's subtext. "I never, ever thought that he actually raped her. Even in my first read of the comic, I never thought that," Timm told Vulture. "It just seemed like he shot her and then took her clothes off and took pictures of her to freak out her dad."
The decision to revive The Killing Joke comes at a particularly odd time in Batgirl's publishing history. In 2011, DC reset the character's timeline to take place three years after The Killing Joke, making the story official canon.
Rather than wallowing in the horror of her shooting, this Batgirl was a vibrant woman in her young 20s living in the Brooklyn of Gotham City, newly rehabilitated and gradually dealing with her post-traumatic stress disorder. This version of Barbara was very much a survivor carving out a life for herself and inviting new readers to DC Comics in the process.
To resurrect The Killing Joke and introduce a new generation of readers (and movie-goers) to the story is to drag Batgirl back to a time when comic books didn't think twice when a prominent female character was violated sexually in service of a male character's emotional drive. She deserves so much better.