Thursday, April 13, 2017
THE KILLING JOKE (2016)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Given that the DVD adaptation of Miller's DARK KNIGHT RETURNS was a somewhat mixed bag, I didn't expect much of the animated feature THE KILLING JOKE-- particularly I'm in the minority that doesn't care much for the original graphic novel.
Before seeing the film, I couldn't quite avoid hearing about some of the controversy surrounding the adaptation, though I withheld myself from reading any detailed commentary. So I knew going in that, whereas the GN only shows Barbara "Batgirl II" Gordon in her civilian identity, the DVD-script by Mike Azzarello adds a prologue in which she partners with Batman in breaking up a criminal gang. Not having read any publicity-statements by the people who made the video, I assume that one reason for this addition springs from the fact that most films have a stand-alone structure. When Alan Moore wrote KILLING JOKE, he knew that he was writing primarily to DC comics-readers who were accustomed to thinking of Barbara Gordon as a kickass heroine, one who just happened to get surprised by the Joker one bad night. But a movie-version of the same story-- one which played in some U.S. theaters-- could not assume that all audiences shared the same knowledge. Moreover, since the original GN was criticized for belonging to "Women in Refrigerators" trope-- whose basic philosophy comes down to "It is always wrong to show any woman being abused or put-upon"-- a movie that followed Moore's exact plot would have reaped the same accusation as the GN.
Frankly, writer Azzarello and director Sam Liu translate the Moore script with a fastidious faithfulness. I don't know if they were motivated by genuine admiration for the GN or by an understanding that they'd be critically roasted for not following nearly every beat of Moore's alleged-by-some-critics masterpiece. But such faithfulness gives the creators little room to breathe, The parts of the story adapted from Moore are accurate but unremarkable, and come close to validating Moore's famous belief that "Comics don't work as films." Only once do Liu and Azzarello exceed the bounds of their adaptation-task. In the last panels of the GN, Moore and artist Brian Bolland create a non-canonical suggestion that the story may end with Batman finally killing the Joker off-panel. The DVD does manage to put across the same suggestion in a manner that no comic book could imitate, which is at least a clever twist on the basic storytelling.
So, on to the original content: the Batgirl-prologue. I knew ahead of time that it portrayed a very non-canonical relationship between the heroine and her mentor. (For any readers not in the know, Barbara Gordon-in-the-comics never evinces any romantic feelings toward Batman, only toward his ward Robin-- who significantly, does not appear in the DVD story). Azzarello depicts a situation in which Batgirl has been crime-fighting under Batman's tutelage for some time, to the extent that she's become reasonably experienced in her vigilante adventures. However, Batman is a hard taskmaster, and explicitly does not view her as an equal partner. The two of them become involved in trying to stop a psychotic criminal with the wry name of "Parris Franz," and Franz makes things more complicated by pursuing, or pretending to pursue, Batgirl as a sexual object. Batman accurately assesses Batgirl's reaction: that Franz's objectification has thrown her off her game, and so he forbids her to continue on the case. Insulted, she argues with her mentor, assaults him, and then initiates sex with him on a rooftop-- an offer, to be sure, that the Caped Crusader does not turn down. Some time later, Franz almost manages to kill Batman. Batgirl saves his life but almost beats Franz to death. Thus, by the time that the Moore continuity begins, she's all but given up her role as Batgirl-- at which point the Joker surprises and almost kills her.
As I said, I can appreciate the basic need to give Barbara Gordon some psychological reason for having been Batgirl in the first place. Azzarello's version clearly follows the model of the "daughter-with-daddy-issues." This take is not entirely unsupported by the original comics. The character was conceived as the offspring of Commissioner Gordon, who had for unspecified reasons chosen the quiet life of a librarian rather imitating her cop-father's profession. Comics-Gordon's encounter with Batman clearly sparks in her a fascination with a life of danger, and this in turn may be viewed as an imitation of her Cop-Daddy, albeit through a masked surrogate. About forty years later, DC dropped the notion that Batgirl had become a crimefighter through her own resources and promoted the idea that Batman had tutored her much as he did Robin-- although in these adventures too, the idea of sexual attraction between master and student remained, to the best of my knowledge, off limits.
Is Azzarello's overall take on Batgirl a brilliant psychological insight? No, but it's also not mere "objectification," as the more asinine critics have claimed. The one strong aspect of Azzarello's conception is that, by giving her an "Electra complex," he has departed from the fannish tendency to depict Batgirl II as a representative of the eternally innocent "Silver Age of Comics." I grew up in those days, but they're gone. In today's market it's hard to believe in heroes who run out to risk their lives in battle without also believing that they may be a little messed-up at times. Azzarello's version of Barbara Gordon shows her as rightfully despising a slimy, murdering gangster who tries to play sexual games with her head. At the same time, her rage, however justified, has an unclean quality about it. When she pounds on Franz, crying, "You ruined everything," it's to show that she has demons she has not yet mastered-- not, as I'm sure some ultraliberal idiot will have said by now, because "everything in a woman's life has to be defined by a man."
Azzarello probably will never reach the heights Alan Moore has at his most creative. However, the original material for KILLING JOKE matches one of Moore's own professed ideals: to tell the stories that the artist wants to tell, not those that his audience necessarily wants.