Firstly, let me start off by saying that The Killing Joke is one of the best-animated movies ever produced. In true Alan Moore fashion, the imagery is disturbing and the story is haunting. The voice talents are superb in this film, with Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy effortlessly bringing the Joker and Batman to life, respectively, while Tara Strong graces Batgirl with gravitas. But the movie does not only shine on the surface. The story is layered with character-driven themes, with the twisted relationship between Batman and the Joker and Barbara Gordon’s internal motivation enjoying particular attention.
Surprisingly, The Killing Joke is currently sitting at 50% on the review aggregator, Rotten Tomatoes. But it is not only the critic’s opinions that are divided, as a large portion of audiences ended up disagreeing with some of the creative choices that writer Brian Azzarello made regarding the plot. Even though the story closely resembles that of the universally acclaimed graphic novel on which it is based, there are two elements in particular that left audiences surprised and confused: Barbara Gordon having sex with Batman and the film’s abrupt ending. If these two elements are the reason for the movie receiving mixed reviews, consider me dumbstruck. Why? Because it’s two of the best things in the movie.
[pullquote]…having sex with Bruce does not mean that it is her last attempt to gain control over the male-driven world she inhabits.[/pullquote]
Yes, Batgirl has sex with Batman. Many fans are unhappy with the decision to complicate the relationship between Barbara and Bruce. The problem is, it was never Brian Azzarello’s intention to have them sleep together for the sake of complicating Batman’s relationship with his trusted subordinate. Instead, this was a clever way of correcting what was initially a problematic element in the original comic book. The Killing Joke graphic novel was heavily criticized by feminists for its portrayal of Barbara Gordon, who falls victim to the Joker’s psychotic plan to break Commissioner Gordon. This involves her being stripped, tortured and paralyzed. Although the movie makes no effort to relieve the trauma that she endures, it does spend a considerable amount of time establishing her as a strong female character who is capable of an independent recovery following the events of the film.
Already being traumatized by the twisted obsession that Paris Franz develops for her, having sex with Bruce does not mean that it is her last attempt to gain control over the male-driven world she inhabits. It rather shows her willingness to do what she wants to and deal with the consequences herself. Her having to tell Bruce that it was just sex and nothing has to be different proves that she is in control of the situation, whereas Bruce is having a hard time dealing with his emotions. Beating up the guy who was fighting with his girlfriend the next morning further paints her in a strong female light. By the end of the film, the audience knows that Barbara is comfortable with her sexuality, and falling under Joker’s knife would not and should not mean that she is the victim here. She is the survivor.
This is strong female writing. You know what, scratch that. This is strong character writing. She is defined by her individualism, which deserves praise. Not scrutiny.
[pullquote]The primary objective of Joker has always been to break the Batman.[/pullquote]
As important as Batgirl’s arc is, it is never as engrossing as the central conflict between Batman and Joker. Once these two share a screen, nothing else matters. The final scene with the two of them, laughing at what is essentially the killing joke, has left many people with unanswered questions, which is surprising seeing as Alan Moore ends his graphic novel in the exact same way and there are already a ton of explanations out there with regards to the meaning of it all. But film has a way of reaching further. New and wider audiences are demanding answers, and here it is: The ending is thematically beautiful. As Batman says to Joker: “Perhaps you’ll kill me. Perhaps I’ll kill you. Perhaps sooner. Perhaps Later… Our relationship is fatal.”
These two need each other. They are complete opposites and equals. Not in strength, but in mind. This film deals with the fact that they both know that it has to end sometime. The nature of their relationship is destructive, a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. When that happens, neither one can survive. If one dies, the other will be left tormented. This is what happens at the end of The Killing Joke. The primary objective of Joker has always been to break the Batman. To lead him into breaking his one rule: never kill. Although Joker is primarily targeting Commissioner Gordon, trying to break him, Batman is still the one who has to deal with all the suffering his counterpart is causing.
This is Joker’s play. Gordon, Barbara, they are all pawns. Batman is his audience, and one has to be crazy to sit through the entire show. This is what Joker wants to prove.
[pullquote]“All it takes is one bad day.”[/pullquote]
The Killing Joke tells the story of how The Joker came to be and in the present day, he knows that something similar had to happen to Bruce to lead him to becoming Batman. They are two sides of the same coin. They are the same kind of insane. Joker knows his one bad day had cracked him, and he wants to show Batman that he is also only one bad day away from cracking as well. One bad day away from becoming the Joker himself. When Batman tells him “Maybe ordinary people don’t crack, maybe it’s just you!” he establishes himself as the better side of the coin, as the ordinary one. Or he thinks that he is. That’s what we want to believe he is.
This is what makes the ending great: it remains ambiguous as to which one is the cracked one. Did Batman crack? Is Joker the only one weak enough to crack? As the camera pans down and the credits start rolling, the laughter abruptly stops. This might give us a clue as to what the true ending is: Batman breaks Joker’s neck, killing him. This will prove Joker’s theory that he and Batman share the same kind of insanity. He finally laughed at the madness of it all, and broke his one rule. Thus, the killing joke.
This movie deserves critical acclaim.