Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's Batman: The Killing Joke has been the subject of controversy since its 1988 debut and not surprisingly, its animated counterpart has exacerbated the issue by adding new layers to the story. Before and after the debut screening of the film at San Diego Comic-Con fans reacted and writer Brian Azzarello, director Sam Liu, and producer Bruce Timm addressed the concerns.
Fans of the classic story were excited to see it adapted, especially because the R-rated animated feature reunited the voice talents of actors Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as Joker, but even some of them were shocked to see the additions to the tale. Spoilers to follow for The Killing Joke animated film (and the graphic novel of course).
I've yet to see the new film but according to reports, a prologue was added to give Barbara Gordon's Batgirl more story. Batgirl voice actor Tara Strong previously said of the film, “It's completely dark and she does stuff that she's never done on any series I've ever worked on. She's strong and she's older and wiser but dark. It's really really a cool place for her to be.”
As it turns out, that includes Barbara having a sexual relationship with Bruce Wayne/Batman. In the graphic novel Batgirl is used mainly as a prop to show harm done to both Batman and Commissioner Gordon when she's assaulted by the Joker. The film seemingly attempts to make sure Batman regrets what happens to her even more, as if their mentor/mentee or familial bond previously established in all continuities wasn't enough. It should be noted Timm has inserted a romantic relationship between the two characters into his previous animated television series.
BleedingCool reporter Jeremy Konrad was at the Comic-Con panel that followed the premiere and relayed some of the experience:
I was getting more and more frustrated, thinking that nobody was going to bring up what I think was a troubling portrayal of Barbara Gordon in the prequel film. I was getting more and more frustrated. The very last question posed to the panel addressed this. The question was asked by a person cosplaying as the Joker: Batgirl, Barbara Gordon is such a strong female character. Why was this more about the males in her life? The crowd applauded the question. As they fumbled with the question,saying they do feel like she is portrayed as a very strong female character, I lost control of my emotions and, invigorated by someone asking the question I wanted to hear, I shouted from the audience with frustrated sarcasm,
“Yeah, by using sex and then pining for Bruce.”
The panel understandably asked what was that. I repeated myself, but the crowd was both booing and clapping at what was said. Clearly they had heard me the second time, because instead of responding the second time it was said, Azzarello yelled from the stage
“Wanna say that again? Pu–y?”
As if it had been shouted and then someone had decided not to keep the discussion going after making an accusation. I then repeated it again, and both Azzarello and Timm went into a long answer.
While there's yet to be video posted of the panel, Azzarello took to Twitter to confirm that is indeed what he said to the audience.
No, I called someone a pussy when they unintelligibly yelled from the back of the room, then wouldn't repeat it https://t.co/15GNyna64F
– Brian Azzarello (@brianazzarello) July 23, 2016
The Hollywood Reporter also covered this portion of the panel:
Screenwriter Brian Azzarello responded by calling Barbara “stronger than the men in her life in this story.”
“She controls the men in her life in this story,” he said. The fan shouted, she was strong by “using sex” as he walked away from the mic, sparking a minutes-long discussion about the scene. When said he Azzarello couldn't hear what the fan said, others chimed in, saying they added sex and Batgirl “pining over Bruce” to the film.
“I don't think she's pining over Bruce at all,” said Azzarello. “She's pining over the violence.” Executive Bruce Timm acknowledged “it's complicated.”
“I actually like that in that opening story both Batman and Batgirl make a series of mistakes and then it kind of escalates, because Batman kind of overreacts and then she overreacts to her overreaction,” said Timm. That's a very human thing.” Timm went on to say Batman was more at fault in the first part of the movie. (He overreacts by taking Barbara off the case, and then doesn't communicate with her after their sexual encounter.) “There's clearly an unstated attraction between the two of the characters from the very beginning and I think it's there in the comics. If you go back and look at the Adam West show, its' there in the Adam West show,” said Timm. “It's subtle, but to me it's always been there.”
Comic Book Resources says Liu chimed into the discussion somewhere there with, “They both make mistakes, but she's the one who decides, 'I have to stop. There's a problem here, and I need to step away from this.' I think that comes from an emotional strength. I think she makes the decisions that strong people make.”
I could probably go on for hours about this but let's break it down into two issues. First is of course treatment of female characters in fiction. How their pain is too often used as an impetus for male character action or their own. There's often a disconnect between what male writers think of as “strong” and what female readers consider strong with the former relying heavily on sexuality. I'm sure Donna Dickens and I will go into this more in depth on a future installment of She Said/She Said.
Second is how this particular situation with Azzarello adds to the already emotional landscape that is fans and creators online. The film was always going to have critics and more and more creators are responding to them directly and not always with decorum. Of course this interaction happened in person which isn't the norm these days but it's very similar to what we've seen in the last year with fans reacting to a story and creators responding. Both sides tend to get heated which leaves those of us asking respectfully for a response get lost in the shuffle.
For his part, Azzarello later tweeted:
Y'know, there's enough name calling in the world, so goddamn me for adding to it. I'm going back in my cave now, to chew on a bone.
– Brian Azzarello (@brianazzarello) July 23, 2016
I'm sure we'll be hearing much more about this and the film itself as it gets to a wider audience.