Some housekeeping before we start… I am happy to announce that, starting next week, my OpinionatedDavid columns will be becoming a weekly feature, allowing me to drain my reserves of topical pissing and moaning with twice the efficiency! it’s always been my ambition to increase my schedule and I’m more than pleased to see that there is increasing demand for my opinions to match my eagerness to supply them.
With that in mind, I’m sure nobody is going to object to my eviscerating the internet’s favourite superhero this week, are they?
If you’re unsure what I am referring to, DC (Detective Comics)and Warner Brothers recently released their latest animated feature. Ever since Batman: The Animated Series launched all the way back in 1992, the cartoon arm of DC/WB’s superhero efforts have consistently been held in high regard by critics and fans alike. This time around, they chose to adapt one of the most famous, hyped and retroactively complicated standalone stories in the Batman mythos, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke.
For the most part, this version of The Killing Joke is a ‘warts and all’ accurate as possible transition of its source material, which means that there’s still a fair amount to like about it. Yes, it’s true that many people, even Moore himself, have since expressed distaste about many aspects of the story, such as the level of ‘shock value’ violence and a portrayal of Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl. That said, I maintain that the reason this book has achieved such classic status in the mind of many fans is more than just the controversy-factor. It offers without doubt the best character study and best backstory for Batman’s arch-nemesis ever written.
So how then, have Warner and DC managed to screw up the pedigree they were dealing with so badly this time? Well, in what I can only assume was originally conceived as a good natured but horribly misguided attempt to solve the major criticism of the source material (i.e. giving its only prominent female character nothing to do except serve as a victim and a plot device) the animated feature decides to incorporate several flashbacks to Batgirl’s crime-fighting career. These scenes almost entirely consist of Batman treating Batgirl like trash for not being edgier-than-thou enough (because this adaptation’s approach to Bruce Wayne’s misery is beyond parody), with Batgirl growing more and more furious with his lack of approval, until the growing tension between them boils over when the pair have spontaneous, angry sex on a Gotham rooftop.
Spoiler alert, by the way.
I’m sure everyone with prior understanding of these characters (and also a soul) will be too busy projectile vomiting to continue reading for a bit. For everyone else, allow me to attempt to summarise why David is not happy with this particular creative diversion.
Let’s start with the regular, common-or-garden misogyny at play here: This ‘backstory’ explaining why Barbara Gordon never gets to be Batgirl in The Killing Joke does nothing to fix any of the problems with the source material. She still doesn’t get to do very much beyond be a punching bag for Batman’s complete lack of interpersonal skills; and no, giving her a standard ‘Angry Young Sidekick Desperate to Prove Themselves to Disapproving Mentor’ arc does not a strong, independent, or even interesting heroine make. Throw the sex into the mix, and the story is playing on a tired and sexist trope that young women cannot work under older male figures without manifesting daddy issues so fast their heads will spin.
Now for the really awful connotations of this scene: Batman is called Bat-Man. Batgirl is called Bat-Girl. They belong to the Bat-Family. This is not an accident! I don’t really care how old Barbara Gordon is at this point. She’s shown to be in college, but that’s not really the point. The power dynamic between them is still a far older patriarch taking sexual advantage of a young girl. I should not have to explain why that is disgusting and makes it impossible to root for the alleged hero of this story. Even if you don’t buy the paraphilic overtones, Barbara Gordon is still the daughter of Commissioner Gordon, Batman’s closest working ally and the only person Bruce Wayne’s alter ego can call a ‘friend’ with any regularity.
Yep! In this scene, Batman is screwing his best friend’s daughter. What a guy!
To top it all off, the scene in question is really badly done. It comes out of nowhere, Batman spends the whole time doing a wet-fish impression wearing a completely unchanged expression from his usual detached frown (It’s alright Bruce, just lie back and think of Justice); and just in time for the bra to come off, the camera does a ‘tasteful’ pan up to a gargoyle leering down at their liaison, which I guess is supposed to symbolise… something?
In summary, to anyone who likes the sound of this addition, I don’t respectfully disagree. I very disrespectfully disagree, and if there was ever a way DC could completely ruin everything good about the source material, this was it. I’m starting to worry, however, that this might just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Truth be told, I’ve grown colder to most modern interpretations of the Caped Crusader, and I wonder if what ails him isn’t chronic.
Most of us have probably heard the increasing criticisms of Batman in recent years. He’s too grim, too violent, and takes himself far too seriously. For what it’s worth, I only half-agree with these assessments. Yes, it can be easy to poke fun at a grown man in a cape and pointy ears with absolutely no sense of humour about himself, and parodies such as Will Arnett’s turn as Lego Batman do so with aplomb. However, we are working with comic-book logic here, and I don’t mean that derisively. Simply put, if you’re not ‘up’ for stories about ridiculous characters being taken at 100% face value, you’re probably the wrong audience for the material. Also, the idea of Batman as a ‘dark’ hero makes sense, especially when you consider his nemesis commits psychotic acts of violence under the guise of a clown.
There are more serious criticisms though, which cut deeper. As our understanding of crime and its causes have evolved from Batman’s Great Depression roots, and as he has been made to appeal to more adult audiences, thus answering to more nuanced ways of thinking, Batman as a figure of ‘justice’ looks increasingly hollow. Does a billionaire who apparently cares more about developing new toys to beat up petty criminals and the mentally ill than he does about solving the apparent corruption and inequalities of his city really embody a brand of justice we should aspire to? I’m sure some people are still happy to shrug and say “comic-book logic” again, but this is more fundamental than visual design or the practicalities of the Batmobile. With the finances Bruce Wayne requires to be Batman, he could run for Mayor in Gotham City, win, and actually clean up the place properly. How am I supposed to root for a character who’s intentions may be noble, but who’s methods increasingly just seem wrong?
Now again, the more philosophically conscious Batman stories have attempted to address these ideas, asking if Bruce Wayne needs Batman at heart more than Gotham does, and if his quest for justice is not just a convenient excuse to take out his childhood trauma on people less well off than he is. All of these, however, come across to me as more than a little half-hearted, paying lip-service to these accusations only to absolve their subject from them. Besides, none of them really address that if Bruce Wayne ever got what he wanted, he’d have to stop being Batman, and the popularity of Batman as a character can never allow that to happen.
It’s a meta-narrative issue. I’m not suggesting for a moment that Bruce Wayne is deliberately manipulating events to justify himself, but it is increasingly clear that in order for Batman to make any kind of sense, even comic-book sense, Gotham must stay permanently trapped in the Great Depression. Its streets and alleys must always be foreboding, crime must always be rampant, and the local authorities (bar a small handful of individuals) must stay mired in corruption and incompetence. Perhaps most damning of all, Arkham Asylum must always be modelled as a hellish place, designed around 1930’s approaches to psychiatric patients, where nobody Batman sends there stands a chance of actually recovering. For Batman to stand as ‘the hero Gotham needs’, Gotham itself must always be a place you struggle to imagine anybody actually wanting to live. Now, you might say “but David, ALL superheroes have this problem, existing to uphold their own status quo. It’s just a quirk of the genre!” to which I say “Yes, but for most superheroes, that status quo is a good thing!”
Take Superman, for example. Superman’s power-level often necessitates inhuman threats, as opposed to the muggers and mobsters Batman deals with. Whether it be superweapons built by mad scientists, alien invaders, or natural disasters, the enemies of Superman are unlikely to become more sympathetic over time. Simply put, Superman stops suspension bridges from collapsing, and stopping bridges from collapsing is never going out of fashion. By contrast, I worry that the very core philosophy of Batman, whether you take him seriously or not, is out of date, and I wish I didn’t think that. I wish I could end this article on a note of how I’d do things differently, the kind of story I’d tell to make sense of Batman in a truly modern setting, but I can’t. I’ve thought about it, and I can’t arrive at a solution to the problems I see…
And if I can’t even be justly angry at this most recent interpretation of the character, with no idea how I’d improve upon the source material rather than simply avoid making it worse, then what reason do I have to care at all? If you can still be a Batman fan, overlooking everything I can’t, then don’t let me spoil your fun. However, it might be time for me to admit that it’s just not for me anymore.
…That’s this week’s OpinionatedDavid article!!! Check back on Monday for a new BearSleuth Opinion Piece!!!