“We were aware that it’s a little risky. There’s definitely some stuff in that first part of the movie that’s going to be controversial. Here’s where we came down on that specific issue: 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. Maybe never having had any kids of his own, he doesn’t realize that if you tell a kid to not do something, they’re going to want to do it even more. 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. It’s tricky because it’s messy, because relationships are sometimes messy. But to me, [co-producer] Alan [Burnett], [and screenwriter] Brian [Azzarello], it was all very fascinating to us to explore that angle.”
– Batman: The Killing Joke producer and DC animation vet Bruce Timm
No, no, no. A thousand, thousand times no.
I’m aware that I’m opening myself up to calls of puritanism, of being an old crank, of wanting everything in superhero stories to stay static, never acknowledge adult realities or — heaven forbid — always be “kid-friendly.”
I will happily cop to the “old crank” part. If only because every time I dip into what the modern comics are putting out, more often that not I walk away disgusted by what passes for writing these days.
(“Oh, look, Cap’s now a HYDRA agent and always has been, and Marvel is insisting this is the real deal. Sure, why not.”)
(“Huh, I didn’t think it was possible, but they found a way to make Starfire appear even more naked in public.”)
(“Wait, who’s a cannibal now…?”)
And for the most part I’m okay with this stuff. Really. I don’t own these superheroes, I’m not overly emotionally invested in the lives of fictional beings, and it’s not as if some “edgy” writer turning one of them into a pedophile or pyromaniac for a few issues somehow erases all the great stories I’ve known and loved over the years. Outrage is not an infinite resource; you’ve got to be careful how you deploy it.
But this. This goddamned movie. This goddamned misguided misfire of a mistake parading itself as “a very understandable story” about “messy” relationships.
No, Mr. Timm. Just… no!
A story in which Jimmy joins Clark and Lois in a threesome… or Daredevil takes to wearing his enemies’ severed ears on a necklace… or the Thing starts making lewd gestures and jokes about “getting his rocks off” in front of New York’s finest street walkers… I would have an easier time accepting any of those scenarios in a comic story than Bruce Wayne and Barbara Gordon bumping uglies on a rooftop.
Why? Well, because:
1. Their sexual encounter adds nothing to the story.
Very briefly: Batman: The Killing Joke is an adaptation of the 1988 comic by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. For the most part, it’s a faithful adaptation of the original story in which Joker shoots Barbara and kidnaps her father to prove a point. Perhaps realizing a film adaptation would run a little short to be considered a feature-length film (the final version runs 77 minutes), Warner Bros. Animation brought in Brian Azzarello to create extra material that appears at the start of the film. In this new material, we see Batgirl work with Batman to take down mob leader Paris Franz, a sociopath who develops an obsession with Batgirl and sends her taunting clues. Concerned that she’s giving in to her rage and might do something she’ll regret, Batman orders her off the case; an emotional argument ends with them having sex under the gaze of one of Gotham’s gargoyles. Later, when Batgirl nearly beats Franz to death, she realizes Batman was right about her losing control and she retires from crimefighting… and then we cut to one week later, when the adaptation of the Killing Joke comic finally begins.
Here’s the strange part: you can start the film at the 29-minute mark and it won’t matter a damn bit to the story. Absolutely nothing in all the scenes you just skipped over will have any impact whatsoever on the rest of the film. “Tacked on” doesn’t even begin to explain how completely unnecessary the entire extended prologue is to the rest of the film, which brings into question why someone felt any of it was even needed in the first place.
But let’s assume the goal here was to give Barbara a bigger role than the shooting victim she plays in the original story. Through that lens, I can see how the creators wanted to showcase her character before her big Killing Joke scene, and the idea of Batgirl retiring from superheroing because she recognizes the emotional and mental toll it can take on someone sounds intriguing. But assuming that was the purpose of this extra material, her sex scene with Batman still has no reason to exist other than pure titillation. Everything that happens — chasing the bad guy, confronting Batman, having an emotional argument that turns into a fight, her deciding to give up being Batgirl — none of it needs the sex scene to hold together. Aside from pure titillation, what was the point of going there?
2. Just to be clear, we’re talking about the daughter of Jim Gordon’s daughter. You know, the man Batman considers his best friend.
Their relationship has gone through all kinds of changes over the years, but one thing that has never changed is the mutual respect Batman and Commissioner Gordon have for each other. Gordon may not always like the fact he has to rely on a masked vigilante to keep order in his city, and Batman may occasionally have reason to gripe about how the GCPD get in his way, but I cannot find one canonical story in which either of the two men have nothing less than complete respect for each other. So what does it say about Batman that he would so casually fuck his best friend’s daughter — a woman many years his junior — and then say or do nothing about it after the fact?
Put it another way: I’m at an age (early 40s) where a lot of my friends and colleagues have children in their late teens and early 20s. Assuming I were single and unattached, there is no way I could have one-night stand with one of those young adults and not be seen as (a) a complete perv for taking advantage of my quasi-uncle relationship with the child and (b) a complete asshole to that child’s parents for betraying their trust. These are just two of the reasons why I can’t even conceive thinking of those young adults as potential sexual partners. So unless the point of this erotic escapade is to make us, the audience, see Batman as a perv and an asshole, then why does this happen?
3. Batman’s super-power is his self-discipline. It takes two to tango. These two statements together do not compute.
“Ah, but that’s just it,” I hear someone say. “People make mistakes all the time. This just shows he’s human and makes mistakes. Relationships are messy, like that Timm guy said.” Perhaps. Except… if there’s one thing that many recent depictions of Batman have focused on (often to the detriment of other aspects of his character), it’s his intense dedication to his crusade. This is not a guy who dresses up and whales on drug dealers because he considers it a hobby; if anything, Bruce Wayne is the mask that Batman wears when it suits his purposes. It’s also well established that — along with all his fighting moves and detective skills — Batman has mastered many techniques that permit him greater-than-normal control over his body: slowing his breathing and heart rate to last longer underwater, training himself to get by on less sleep than the average person, that sort of thing.
It’s precisely because he’s a mere mortal (albeit a rich one) in a world full of aliens, Atlanteans and Amazons that Batman has to rely on his superhuman focus and self-discipline to keep him alive. And that need for control can be seen in every other aspect of his life, too: he’s often depicted as the ultimate contingency planner, something with backup plans for his backup plans before he charges into a situation. In short, he’s the last person you would ever expect to get swept up in his emotions, or to give in to a momentary urge without first considering all the ramifications.
Given all that… sure, maybe Batman is capable of making a mistake, in that he doesn’t realize that the same training techniques he used on Nightwing and Robin might not work as well on Batgirl. Or (by virtue of being a man and someone who has never raised a daughter) he fails to see how the situation looks from Batgirl’s point of view. That’s plausible. Not so plausible is the idea he would abandon all that self-discipline and forethought for a quick roll on a rooftop — especially with someone who’s acting out of anger or frustration, and will obviously regret her actions the next day.
4. In trying to make her role in the story more complex, the script turns her character into a cliché.
From IndieWire’s Ben Travers:
On the one hand, it’s easy to imagine why screenwriter Brian Azzarello and director Sam Liu would make this choice [to add new material], even beyond the practical demand of extending “The Killing Joke” to feature length. Barbara isn’t much more than a prop in the original graphic novel; a prop that gets sexually exploited and thus becomes a motivating factor for her father, who becomes a means to justify whatever Batman decides to do in a brilliantly ambiguous ending. Filling out her role could have created a direct attachment between Barbara and Batman, but instead of humanizing her, it turns Barbara/Batgirl into a comic book cliché: The female character that feigns complexity, but, when given an expanded role, is only viewed through a sexual lens.
And that’s it right there. While the intention may have been noble (i.e., to make her more than just an object of abuse at the hands of the Joker), she’s presented in the first part of the film as… the object of abuse. And as someone who’s pining after Batman. When she isn’t being objectified or toyed with by the bad guy they’re chasing, she’s talking with her designated Gay Best Friend about her relationship with her “yoga teacher” and how it’s complicated between them. In short, everything with her is all about Batman; she’s presented in the script as having no purpose beyond trying to please Batman or prove to Batman she’s worthy of his approval. And when the argument over how Batman is not treating her with the respect she feels she’s owed turns into sex, it completely diminishes her point because she’s doing exactly what Batman said she was doing: allowing her emotions about a man to take control of her actions. See also: the complete opposite of character depth.
5. It diminishes Batman’s motives for going after the Joker.
Everyone who read The Killing Joke knows how the story goes: Joker escapes. Joker shoots Barbara. Joker kidnaps Gordon. Batman chases Joker. They fight. Ambiguous ending. Joker does all this to prove that all it takes is one bad day for anyone to descend into madness. He has no reason to know about the relationship Batman has with Barbara and Jim Gordons, other than the fact Gordon and Batman both represent order in Gotham. So it’s not as if Joker is specifically targeting Batman by attacking his “family” — like the man said, he’s out to prove a point. Batman pursues and confronts the Joker because that is what the Batman does. At one point in the story, he says he doesn’t want to fight the Joker because it’s only going to end with one or both of them killed; even after the grievous harm Joker inflicts on people who are close to him, Batman reaches out to the Joker and offers to help him come back from the abyss. This is what a hero does. It doesn’t matter what Joker does; Batman will not give up trying to bring him back from the chaos (though the ending leaves it ambiguous what Batman ultimately does, the adoption of Barbara’s paralysis into official continuity suggests Batman lets him live).
In this “improved” story, though, Batman’s motives for confronting the Joker are made less honorable by the act of him having sex with Barbara shortly before the Joker shoots her. In much the same way a “bro” will go after the person who scratched his car, Batman is beating heads all over Gotham demanding information about the Joker, a.k.a. the man who just put a bullet hole in Batman’s latest conquest. Is he motivated to get the Joker because his friend’s life is in danger? Because there’s no telling how many deaths Joker will cause before he’s caught? Because no one hurts one of Batman’s women and gets away with it? Because an attack on his “property” is a sign of disrespect that Batman will not abide? I’m not suggesting Batman hunts down the Joker just because he once had sex with Barbara, or because he sees her as his property. But the fact I even have to consider that as one of his potential motives for going after the Joker makes me angry. Because that is something no one should ever have to think.
6. There’s a power imbalance in every mentor/protegé relationship that always makes sex a very bad idea.
But let’s assume there is no “family” dynamic at play here, and there’s no ethical issue with Batman doing the daughter of his best friend. Let’s also assume he’s only human and makes mistakes like the rest of us, and this romp with Batgirl was something he didn’t mean to happen but couldn’t stop once it was happening. He’s totally not a lecherous douchebag if that’s the case, right?
Actually… yeah, he still is. Because even if someone can make a compelling argument that their relationship doesn’t have any familial undertones, that still doesn’t answer the question of what kind of relationship they do have. But there’s no real mystery here; regardless of what other bonds they may or may not have, theirs is clearly a master/student relationship, with Batman training Batgirl to become a masked crimefighter. From that perspective, issues of age or consent are irrelevant; there’s a power imbalance at work here that can’t be overlooked. Think of the relationship between a professor and a graduate student, or a senior corporate manager and a young protegé — there have been dozens of HR manuals written about the reasons why any kind of sexual relationship between someone in a position of power over someone else is completely and ethically wrong.
7. “Oh, hi, Dick. Wait, you two are going out now? Well, this is awkward…”
Dick: “Hey, Bruce, I just wanted you to know I’m dating Barbara now.”
Bruce: “Good to hear. Good choice, too. She’ll treat you right. Trust me, I know. Want a tip? Do that little thing with her earlobe that she love, it will drive her crazy the next time you do it.”
Dick: “Wait… what?”
Okay, that conversation never happened. Not as far as I know, anyway. But try to imagine how any conversation between Bruce and Dick would go, if Dick were ever to visit Wayne Manor and tell his adoptive dad about his new relationship with Barbara. Even if we pretend Batman never had a friendship with Gordon that stood in the way of him shtupping the man’s daughter, it’s hard to see how Batman stays classy having sex with a woman his own youthful ward has been friends with/dated/been in a relationship with (depending on your source material). A crossover between Batman and The Jerry Springer Show is something no Bat-fan should ever be forced to imagine.