"All it takes is one bad day."
Those are the words of The Joker to Batman, his perennial arch-enemy, in Alan Moore's classic graphic novel The Killing Joke. It's also the lesson learned by DC after their weekend Comic-Con panel saw the upcoming Killing Joke animated movie become embroiled in a storm of controversy over its brutal depiction of Batgirl.
If you need a quick recap, here's what happened: A gif from a new scene added to Moore's original text leaked online, in which Batman is seen having sex with Batgirl on a Gotham rooftop.
To understand why this might not go down well, it's worth first considering that Barbara Gordon is traditionally linked romantically with Dick Grayson's Robin, and is essentially half Bruce's age. Bruce usually takes on the role of a mentor to Batgirl, so their sudden decision to do the nasty together feels a little out of the blue.
Still, while that's icky, it's the other new material stuffed into the movie's first half that really ignited a storm of controversy — like the fact that, in the prologue of all-new material added by producer Bruce Timm and his creative team, Barbara becomes Batgirl purely because she wants a sexual relationship with Batman. She claims to have "a man in her life", which is a wild manipulation of the truth, and is literally seen waiting by the phone after Bruce has sex with her. He doesn't call, obviously. Presumably cell service is weak in Gotham...
Check out the new footage for yourself.
Yep, there's a lot to digest in this new adaptation of what is often considered the greatest Joker story ever written. Bruce Timm told Empire Magazine that the Batgirl prologue was designed to flesh out her character, so that her shooting (and implied sexual abuse) at the hand of the Joker has maximum emotional impact:
"We took that opportunity to basically tell a Batgirl story ... It was great, because we could spend more time with her as a character and get to understand what she’s all about and how she’s similar to Batman in some ways, and really different in others ... We get to spend more time with her and learn that she’s an interesting character [but] when 'The Killing Joke' part of the story happens, it’s like “Oh, no!”, because we really like her."
You can't fault the idea that Batgirl should be fleshed out (Moore's story, although a classic, borders on torture porn in the way it treats Barbara), but it's hard to imagine that anybody in 2016 could sit down, brainstorm ways in which to give a female character more agency, and decide to have her chase after a man who drops her like hot coals the second they've had sex.
A Second Chance
Still, plenty has been said about that already. The animated movie is done and, short of taking it all apart in the editing studio, DC has no choice but to put The Killing Joke out there as a flawed work and let the audience makes its own judgment.
But that doesn't need to be the end of it. The DCEU is already building the Joker's twisted relationship with Batman in Suicide Squad, which means they have an opportunity to give The Killing Joke a live-action adaptation sometime in the near future.
And they should take it, because no other Batman story does a better job of fleshing out the tragedy of the Joker. In Moore's novel, we see a different side to the Clown Prince — a sense that, without Batman, he has nothing. When a truce is offered, he declines, because Batman is both the bane of his existence and the very thing keeping him going. Whatever his origin story, whatever the truth of his "multiple choice" past, he can't allow himself to be rehabilitated, because a future without the intoxication of his cat-and-mouse games with Batman is no kind of future at all.
Tinged with tragedy, that hero-villain dynamic is unlike any other in the world of comics, and it's ripe for exploration in the DCEU. A Suicide Squad spoiler discovered at Comic-Con suggests the Joker will impersonate the Dark Knight — whether to frame him for a crime or simply to get under Bruce's skin, that feels like an excellent starting point for the long and fucked-up journey these two characters will inevitably take together.
With Ben Affleck in the director's seat for his solo Batman adventure, DC now has an opportunity to craft a new, definitive take on The Killing Joke. Certain elements, like Barbara Gordon's attack and paralysis, should be removed altogether. The text works better as a straight-up exploration of the broken psychologies of two men whose lives have become intrinsically linked, and Affleck is the man to do justice to this darkest of Shakespearean tragedies.
Will it happen, realistically? After the fallout from this weekend, you wouldn't bet on it. But if this situation is a joke, we could really use a punchline sooner or later. The Killing Joke is released on DVD and Blu-ray August 2. Suicide Squad hits theaters August 5.