The upcoming animated adaptation of DC's The Killing Joke is already causing controversy ahead of its release. Based on the 1988 graphic novel by Alan Moore, the original story is deemed a classic by fans but widely derided for its depiction of violence against women. During the panel for the movie at San Diego Comic-Con, the creators of the movie sought to depict the film in a positive light. However, the decisions they made with the film — specifically with Batgirl — seem to have made things worse, causing controversy where there could have been celebration.
'The Killing Joke' is widely derided for its depiction of violence against women
The Killing Joke is iconic mainly for outlining the origin story of the Joker. However, in fleshing out his character, the book also depicts the brutal sexual assault and paralyzation of Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl. Ever since its original publication, it has generated a fair amount of controversy over how the comic book industry depicts gendered violence — especially since that aspect of her character went on to become canon — and Moore has acknowledged that he regretted the story.
The incentive for making the film was always clear. The novel never went out of print, and sales rocketed after DC announced its plans for an adaptation with premiere voice talent Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. However, the movie was supposed to fix some of book's problems by providing more background for Batgirl. A new prologue would focus on the character, turning her into more than just a victim. Early reviews seem to indicate that that’s backfired. The prologue that’s been added to the story show essentially depicts Barbara Gordon as someone who’s sexually fixated on Batman, culminating in a sex scene between the two characters before the attack that cripples her.
This isn’t exactly new: writer Bruce Timm had the two start a doomed relationship in the DC Animated Universe in the years before Batman Beyond. But Barbara is empowered in that storyline, eventually becoming Gotham's police commissioner. Here, she essentially becomes a spurned love interest. During the panel for the film, the filmmakers managed to double down the direction of the story, and when questioned about it, screenwriter Brian Azzarello insulted the reporter asking the question.
Batgirl was supposed to be empowered in the film
The whole incident is a shame, because it seems to completely ignore the real strength of the character by reducing her to a plot element designed to make Batman's overall plight and relationship with the Joker more complicated. Overcoming the source material was already a tall order, and it seems as though DC has fallen far shorter than expected.