I’ve written before about the fact that Warner Bros. is producing an animated adaptation of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s seminal Jim Gordon story, “The Killing Joke.” I have some misgivings about this movie, primarily because one of the core features of the story is the use of Barbara Gordon as a plot device to try to break Jim Gordon in the same way the Joker was hypothetically broken by the loss of his own family. It’s an artifact of a trend in storytelling where women frequently suffer in order to provide interest to a male character’s story arc, and in this very particular case it resulted in Barbara Gordon’s paralysis and long term retirement from being Batgirl, all in a story that wasn’t really about her at all.
Anyway, the most recent news about the production is that it’s going to get an R-rating for “added scenes of intense violence.” I’m trying to grok what that could possibly mean, considering that the Assault on Arkham movie from a couple years ago (nominally a Batman feature, but really a Suicide Squad vehicle) features several scenes where people have their heads explode on screen and it was still rated PG-13. Just how intense is the violence going to be in this movie, and more importantly, what’s the context for these scenes?
It’s been quite a few years since I read “The Killing Joke,” but my recollection is that much of the violence is implied to happen off-panel with the exception of Joker’s shooting Barbara Gordon. In his flashback, the Joker recounts his family’s death as something he heard about after the fact rather than something he witnessed, and Jim Gordon’s own torture at the Joker’s hand is mostly psychological with exposure to photographs of Barbara naked, bleeding, and beaten. There’s very little in the text of the original story that would seem to call for graphic depictions of “intense violence” which makes the justification for the R-rating all the more puzzling.
From the original story at Entertainment Weekly is this quote by Sam Register, the president of Warner Bros.’ animated division:
“From the start of production, we encouraged producer Bruce Timm and our team at Warner Bros. Animation to remain faithful to the original story — regardless of the eventual MPAA rating,
The Killing Joke is revered by the fans, particularly for its blunt, often-shocking adult themes and situations. We felt it was our responsibility to present our core audience — the comics-loving community — with an animated film that authentically represented the tale they know all too well.”
I can understand feeling the need to adapt a famous story faithfully, but this explanation rubs me the wrong way. If you set aside the misogynist elements of the story (and I’m not), you have to recognize that the amount of graphic violence depicted isn’t any greater than what’s typically shown in other recent DC animated Batman movies (exploding heads). “The Killing Joke” is a psychological horror story, and graphic violence is rarely necessary for something in that subgenre (implied violence, on the other hand…), so I think the filmmakers are missing something in trying to create a faithful adaptation. Beyond that, I’m extremely irritated that Register would characterize the slice of the audience that wants an unaltered adaptation of “The Killing Joke,” complete with misogynist overtones, as “the comics-loving community.” I happen to love comics myself, but I’m not averse to the idea of making changes to the adaptation of a problematic story in order to try to make it less problematic.
I suppose we’ll just have to wait for the summer and see what this all means when the movie premieres.