The Killing Joke – Rated R for What Reason Exactly?

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.


So I Just Saw Justice League: War

After I watched The Flashpoint Paradox a few weeks ago, I was really looking forward to checking out the other two DC Animated movies that are currently on Netflix.  I watched Son of Batman first, and it was alright, but it didn’t leave a particularly strong impression on me (I kept getting distracted by the absurdity of Talia Al Ghul’s wardrobe, which consists of an unzipped catsuit at all times, even when she’s hanging out with the League of Assassins where everyone else is dressed up like a ninja; it really threw me out of the story).  Then I got to Justice League: War, and I was much more satisfied with this movie.

In light of all the recent discussion about Batman v Superman, I always find it interesting that there’s so much focus on the live action side of DC superhero adaptations when Warner Bros. has had a phenomenal series of animated adaptations for over two decades, first with their various animated series of major properties and then in the last ten years their steady production of self-contained movie adaptations of famous comics stories (I was at my local video store the other day, and on a lark I went to check out their animated section to see if they had any other DC movies; Warner Bros. has produced over twenty animated films in the last ten years).  In the last couple they’ve moved towards adapting recent significant comic arcs, which is where Justice League: War comes in.

Justice League: War is a retelling of the Justice League’s origin story in DC’s recently retired New 52 continuity.  It features Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Cyborg, Shazam, and the Flash at the beginning of their careers when no one yet really knows what to make of superheroes.  Because of an invasion plan being carried out by Darkseid, these heroes, despite not being inclined towards teamwork, are thrown together in order to foil Darkseid’s plans.  Because this is a team-up story, no time is spent on origins for the cast except Cyborg, whose injury and rebuilding occurs as a matter of course in the movie’s first act; everyone else only gives bits of background information in passing.

The visual style of this movie is really engaging on top of everything else. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

What I find most interesting about this story is the way the heroes are characterized.  Going back to Batman v Superman, I’ve seen a lot of discussion of the way the two central characters are represented in ways that are so inconsistent with their previous popular depictions.  Batman’s supposed to be so steeped in paranoia that he resorts to using tactics that are far more brutal than what’s seen in other versions of the character; Superman’s apparently a rather selfish figure who’s spectacularly failing to connect on a human level with the people he’s supposed to be protecting.  I don’t particularly care for cynical representations of these characters (even Batman at his most fascistic is still supposed to be a principled hero), but I can see why someone might want to explore them in a scenario where they have real failings connected to the circumstances surrounding their extraordinary power.  In Justice League: War, you don’t get any of that.  Batman comes off as a little insular when he first encounters Green Lantern, but it quickly becomes apparent that Batman’s the only member of the nascent Justice League who understands that they need to cooperate in order to stop Darkseid (late in the movie he gives Green Lantern a pep talk explaining that they’re just a couple of regular guys who have gotten caught up with actual superhumans, and working together is going to be imperative to saving the world, then he hops a ride to Darkseid’s homeworld in order to rescue Superman by himself; Batman is a ball of contradictions, but he’s a likable one here).  Superman, in contrast, is kind of a jerk.  He’s arrogant when Batman and Green Lantern first meet him (perhaps justifiable since Green Lantern immediately attacks him instead of trying to talk, like Batman suggests, and they’re clearly not a match for him), and he continues to be a showoff throughout the rest of the movie (he and Wonder Woman have a clear mutual admiration society going on in a nod to their eventual romance in the New 52).  Superman’s characterization here doesn’t have any concern with his usual significance as a symbolic figure; he’s the team’s big gun, and that’s the extent of his value here.

The rest of the team’s characterizations are interesting, though I’m not nearly as well versed in their histories to be able to comment extensively.  Hal Jordan and Barry Allen’s depictions are pretty consistent with what’s seen elsewhere; Hal has a level of confidence that’s not fully backed by his proficiency with his power ring, and Barry’s just a nice guy who thinks it’s cool that he gets to hang out with superheroes.  Diana is written in that mode that’s common to her origin stories where it’s assumed that she’s completely unfamiliar with modern Western society; I find this a little irksome, because some naivete is okay (a scene where she tries ice cream for the first time is charming), but when it translates into her not having a basic understanding of diplomacy (she bails on a meeting with the US president because she gets tired of waiting even though she’s explicitly in America to meet with the president) it feels like the writers are equating coming from a culture with a substantially different technological level and social structure with being an idiot.  Shazam acts just like most of the teenagers I know; he’s exactly as annoying as he should be (my complaint about him stems mostly from the fact that he’s not treated as being on the same level as Superman; I’ve always understood that DC’s Captain Marvel was supposed to be a peer of Superman, but with a magical bent to his powers rather than a sci-fi one; perhaps there was some readjustment in the New 52 and the character’s renaming that puts him on a lower tier that I don’t know about).  Cyborg has the most fleshed out character arc, since this is also his origin story, and it hits those beats perfectly well.  The whole time I was watching though, I kept thinking back to this essay about the problematic nature of Cyborg’s character in context of the DC universe and how this retelling of his origin fails to correct any of those issues.

Setting aside characterization, both the good and the bad, this movie’s remarkably satisfying in other ways.  The animation’s excellent, and the battle scenes are choreographed in a way that keeps them engaging (and unlike certain live action adaptations, the writers don’t forget that regular people are endangered by all the chaos the supers are causing).  If you’re interested in seeing a Justice League origin movie, you really could do a lot worse than this one.

So I Just Saw Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox

There was a period a few years back where Warner Bros. had a deal worked out with Netflix that involved the streaming service getting access to a pretty big variety of DC animated movies.  Now, I’m generally more of a Marvel fan, but even I have to admit that when it comes to animated features, DC’s films are the far and away superior product.  I think I watched every DC animated movie that was available on Netflix back then, and I was admittedly sad when the contract expired and they all went away.

If I have any complaints about the visuals, it’s that all the characters have the same body type. I understand superheroes being fit, but after watching the live action Flash television show, I never want to see a version of the character who isn’t built like a sprinter. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

Cut to this month, when I’m perusing the Netflix library for things that my students might enjoy watching during lunch time (we eat lunch in our classrooms every day, and sometimes the kids get antsy once they’re done with their meal).  Lo and behold, I spied three new DC animated movies that I’ve not seen before.  I was ecstatic!  I was overjoyed!  I was met with indifference from my students even though several of them love the Flash and Batman.

Needless to say, my students have not seen these movies yet, though I’m sure the time will come in the near future when they’ll be intrigued enough to check them out.  In the mean time, I decided to watch one of them on my own at home.  I figured I’d go in order of release date, just on the off chance there might be some minor continuity nods between films (DC’s animated library has become more self contained over the years, with each movie doing very little to reference plot lines of other movies, but I still figured better to be safe).  With that metric, I settled on The Flashpoint Paradox, the 2013 adaptation of DC’s major comic event Flashpoint that launched their recently ended New 52 continuity (DC continuity’s a complete mess).

Now, I feel like it’s important for me to emphasize here that I am not a continuity nerd for DC the way I am for Marvel (and even that’s only for Marvel heroes that I really like), so I don’t have any real opinions regarding the plot of Flashpoint and its impact on the DC universe.  My interest in The Flashpoint Paradox is purely as a consumer of superhero stories and animated film.

On those metrics, I like it.

The interesting character bits here revolve around Barry Allen, the most prominent of the three major characters who have held the mantle of the Flash.  After saving Central City from an attack by the Rogues (an assortment of Flash villains who like to team up against him) with the help of the Justice League, Barry goes for a run that leads him back in time to the point where his mother was murdered when he was a child, and he saves her, altering the timeline in the process.  Now, apparently the Speed Force, which is the source of all speedsters’ powers in the DC Universe, is also the source of all do-whatever-you-want-with-the-plot devices as well, as Barry’s interference in one event has a retroactive effect on the timeline that totally alters the history of all the members of the Justice League.  Superman’s captured by the government when his rocket crash lands in the middle of Metropolis, Cyborg’s the chief national security adviser for the United States, Hal Jordan wasn’t there to inherit his Green Lantern power ring from Abin Sur, Aquaman and Wonder Woman have destroyed Europe in the course of an ongoing war between their respective nations, and Batman is actually Thomas Wayne who saw his son fatally shot on the night when he and his family were mugged (Martha Wayne also survived and apparently became the Joker, though we don’t get to see her in action).  Oh, and Barry doesn’t have his powers anymore.

This whole set up is clearly playing on the idea of dark alternate timelines and the unforeseen consequences of our actions.  If you’re even vaguely familiar with the core members of the Justice League, the differences are pretty stark (and thankfully, the movie begins with an extended sequence that shows the Justice League as they are in Barry’s regular timeline just in case you aren’t).  I’m generally inclined to quibble about Barry’s decision to save his mother being the nexus from which all other major events in the history of the Justice League’s members collapse (I just have a hard time buying that it’s this tragedy that holds cosmic significance).  The problem that I have with all of this though is that Barry’s unaware that he’s done anything wrong for most of the movie’s run time.  When he wakes up in the new timeline, he doesn’t even remember going back to save his mother in the first place, and the late revelation that the whole thing was orchestrated by the Flash’s arch nemesis the Reverse Flash (I think it’s pretty silly too, but just go with it) really strikes me as a major missed opportunity.  Barry’s decision to save his mother from her murderer should have carry some significant ethical consequences, but structuring everything so that Barry can’t remember that he did it in the first place (let alone knowing he was going to change the entire timeline both before and after that point) lets him off the hook.  Naturally, he’s a superhero and he decides to undo this mistake as soon as he’s capable again (there’s an extended sequence where Barry has Batman help him get struck by lightning–twice–to reacquire his powers; I can’t for the life of me figure out why the movie bothers to have the first attempt be a failure other than for the sake of fidelity to the original comics story, which I’m guessing had the initial failure as an end-of-issue cliffhanger), which isn’t particularly interesting.  Being fully informed of the consequences, of course Barry makes the right choice; I wanted to see the conflict of him making the initial decision when he didn’t fully know the ramifications.

In the way of animation, Flashpoint Paradox is a remarkably beautiful movie.  It has multiple high quality action sequences, and they’re all animated with excellent fluidity.  Really, it’s the visuals that are the movie’s strongest point, and the thing that I ultimately enjoyed the most.  While the plot’s solid enough, and competently structured, it doesn’t quite have the emotional punch that this kind of story should.

So I Just Saw Batman… Again

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Tim Burton’s Batman.  Around the time Batman Forever came out on video, my parents gave me a box set with the three Batman movies that had been released at the time.  I want to say that back then I preferred the flashy camp aesthetic of Batman Forever (though I wasn’t aware that was what Joel Schumacher was specifically going for), but I did have a bit of love for the two Tim Burton Batman movies as well, which I thought of as much darker and more serious than what came after (or before, if we want to talk about 1966’s Batman: The Movie).

I’ve never seen the poster before (I don’t even know if it’s an official one or was made by a fan), but I think it’s a far sight better than the boring old emblem poster. Also, I had forgotten that Jack Nicholson got first billing on this movie, which for some reason amazes me since he played the villain. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

Then I saw Batman again as an adult, and, being more cognizant of Burton’s particular aesthetic, I realized that his films are just as goofy as every other pre-Christopher Nolan live action adaptation; he just hides the goofiness behind a patina of gothic sensibility.  You see a distinctly greater willingness to display the grotesque aspects of Batman villains as truly horrific in the Burton movies (Joker’s disfigurement inside Axis Chemical is one of the more disturbing parts of the move, while Two Face’s scars in Batman Forever are designed using a garish color palette that keeps the effect thoroughly grounded in a traditional comic book visual style).  Beyond that, Burton does a great job of presenting the world of Gotham City as a brooding place that’s perpetually caught between 1989 and the 1940s.  All the proceedings of the plot feel like they should have more of a noir quality about them simply because Burton’s visual language is so adept at conveying that message.

It’s a useful trick, especially when you break down the details and see where the film comes up short as an action movie.  While part of Batman’s appeal, when he’s in his grim mode, is that he’s a hero that’s supposed to be a little bit more cerebral than the punchy-punchy that Superman does (there’s a reason one of the longest running Superman books is still called Action Comics and one of the longest running Batman books is Detective Comics), the Burton movie had the unenviable task of translating the character to a format built on visually exciting conflict while still hewing close to what makes Batman who he is.  Burton’s movie popularized the black cape and cowl over black bodysuit look and established a visual signature that easily communicated broodiness, but also had the drawback of being poorly designed for action scenes.  It’s a pretty famous running joke that none of the Batman costumes of the ’90s were ever designed so that the actor could turn his head, and this problem persisted into the Nolan trilogy when Bruce Wayne complains to Lucius Fox about this very problem.  In Burton’s film, Batman plods through the shot no matter what his objective for the scene is.  If he’s fighting a mugger, he plods; if he’s sneaking through the chemical plant, he plods; if he’s pursuing the Joker after he’s kidnapped Vicki Vale, he plods.  Batman is unable to move dynamically in any of the movie’s action scenes, which conveys two contradictory messages about the character: first, he’s pretty confident in his ability to handle a situation since he maintains the same outward coolness no matter what challenge he’s facing, and second, if not for the dark lighting, he simply wouldn’t be a particularly imposing adversary.  Given the significant emphasis put on the physical training that Bruce Wayne undergoes to be Batman, it feels like a flaw in the adaptation that the costume always makes him appear less than threatening.

Of course, that’s not to say that Burton’s version of Batman isn’t a threat.  To make up for the lack of physicality in portraying the character, there’s a lot of emphasis in the movie on Batman’s toolbox of gadgets, and for the most part these are pretty fun and believable within the world of the film.  Batman doesn’t need to be able to chase you down, because he has a grappling gun that he can fire to trip you up, or a remote controlled car that will back him up if he’s stuck in a corner.  Of course, that back up might come in the form of a particularly lethal gadget, which is epitomized by the loadout on this version of the Batmobile.

There’s been a lot written recently about Arkham Knight maintaining the premise that Batman always uses nonlethal force despite the ridiculous violence of the game’s Batmobile segments, and I think it’s important to keep in mind here that this game is not the first time that Batman has had a deadly arsenal installed on his car.  Burton’s Batman features a Batmobile with mounted miniguns and high power explosives which Batman employs against the Joker’s henchmen with no qualms (the Batmobile’s big action scene in the movie revolves around Batman sending it into Axis Chemical under heavy enemy fire and having it drop a bomb that destroys the entire plant along with all the guys who were inside it).  This may simply be an artifact of the time when Batman was made, but in this story the hero doesn’t worry about killing criminals (he even explicitly says that he’s going to kill the Joker when he realizes that it was the Joker who murdered his parents, and then he follows through with it), and it’s not remarked upon as a particular moral failing (that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a moral failing, but it’s at least not hypocritical like the Arkham series).  The juxtaposition between the two adaptations, with Burton’s sense of grim whimsy (grimsy?) and Arkham‘s grittiness, makes the fact that the earlier, less serious story, doesn’t worry about making a point that Batman doesn’t kill particularly notable, and leaves me wondering exactly how recently popular culture decided that not killing was an immutable part of Batman’s character.

Beyond those quibbles and observations, Batman is still an incredibly enjoyable movie in its own right.  It’s certainly a little dated, and it’s much harder to treat it like a really heavy Batman story twenty-five years later, but for what it is, it’s really fun.

“The Killing Joke” As a Movie? Okay…

Given my policy surrounding hype (in brief: I’m not interested in it beyond finding out what’s being done in the media that I enjoy following), I’ve spent the last weekend generally just skimming the headlines about what was announced at San Diego Comic-Con.  News about TV shows generally won’t be relevant to me because I’m almost perpetually a full season behind whatever’s current, and most movies don’t even rate a rental until they’re either on Netflix or available for a dollar at my local video store.  Essentially, SDCC is a weekend event that’s full of hype for things that won’t register as worth my time for at least a year.


I wanted to find an image of Barbara from the comic that doesn’t involve her being subject to violence, but the best I could come up with is the first two panels where she appears, which still involve the very explicit threat of imminent violence. That’s how little she matters as a character to this story. (Image credit: IGN)

Nonetheless, one thing that did catch my eye was the announcement that Bruce Timm (who’s the creative lead on DC’s animated movie division since he developed such a good reputation from his work on the animated cartoon series of the ’90s and early ’00s) would be working on an animated adaptation of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman story “The Killing Joke.”  This is big news because “The Killing Joke” is a seminal Joker story, and also the story which introduced to continuity the event that paralyzed Barbara Gordon from the waste down, ending her career as Batgirl.  It’s a story that especially resonated with me (it was one of the first Batman comics that I ever read), and I still remember it fondly as a particularly good story, though I’ve always felt it presents Jim Gordon as more of a hero than Batman, whose portrayal seems to place him on even psychological footing with the Joker (the joke about the two inmates trying to escape prison on the beam of a flashlight has stuck with me as an image of two people trapped in their own insanity).

Of course, this comes with a caveat.  A few months back I was talking with Rachael about the Joker (it was around the time the first cast photo of Jared Leto in the role came out) and I brought up “The Killing Joke” because it’s such a memorable story about the multiplicity of interpretations of the character, even in-universe, and Rachael challenged me on a comment about the story being a really great one.  “That’s the one where Batgirl gets raped and maimed by the Joker, right?”  I couldn’t deny that; “The Killing Joke” treats Barbara Gordon horribly and then discards her because the story’s more about its three male characters.  Barbara’s essentially a prop that gets abused in order to instill feelings in Gordon and Batman, and that’s a seriously poor treatment of a character.  It fails to treat Barbara’s rape as a central story issue, or even focus on Barbara’s struggles in the aftermath of the event.  In a recent article I saw that discusses the way Doggett’s rapes are handled in Season 3 of Orange Is The New Black, there’s a pretty good checklist of questions that should be considered in deciding whether rape is an experience that should be explored in a given story.  Here’s the relevant part for anyone who doesn’t want to click through:

My hope is that going forward we can have a Pennsatucky Test for rape scenes much like the Bechdel Test. Is the victim’s point-of-view shown? Does the scene have a purpose for existing for character, rather than plot, advancement? Is the emotional aftermath explored? As long as sexual assault continues to be a scourge of our society, TV shows ought to mine the subject; it’s important we keep the conversation going. Just take care of your characters. Don’t rape ’em and leave ’em. They deserve to have their trauma acknowledged. They deserve to have their stories told.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that “The Killing Joke” fails to do any of those things.  My memory of the story is a little fuzzy (I’ve not read it in years), but I seem to recall that aside from the initial shooting, all of the torture happens off screen and we only learn about it after the fact through a series of photographs that the Joker shows to Gordon.  We don’t get Barbara’s perspective, we don’t get to see how she handles the fallout, and it’s pretty obvious that this happens because of plot reasons.

Okay, so at this point you have to ask, why am I bringing all of this up in relation to an adaptation of the story?  Well, it’s like this: DC’s decided that this, one of their most famous Batman stories, is good source material for an animated feature (and it needs to be noted that DC doesn’t shy away from taking on less child-friendly stories in their animated movies), and that source material also happens to be nearly thirty years old.  Though we should have recognized the problems then, we do see them more easily in the mainstream now, and that means that this adaptation presents an opportunity to adjust the structure of the story.  Alan Moore’s already disowned it (of course, he’s disowned much of his superhero work), so I don’t see why the studio should feel any obligation to faithfully recreate the source material, inclusive of all the problematic parts.  This is still, at its core, a story about Jim Gordon, Batman, and the Joker, and I don’t think that Barbara Gordon needs to be involved in order to still explore the themes that the story is primarily about.  The alternative to excising her would be expanding her role and giving more weight to her experience in the story, though considering how that intersects with the arcs of the other three characters, I worry that an expansion would at best come off as unnecessary, and at worst even more insensitive.

Of course, considering that Barbara’s trauma is something DC is still milking for drama in its other Batman properties (it happens in Arkham Knight too, because of course it does), I doubt this adaptation will be any better.

That One Time Batman Dealt With Killing the Joker In A Good Way

Alright, so we’ve established already that it’s more than a little absurd to insist that the moral event horizon for Batman is killing, but everything up to that is perfectly acceptable behavior, right?  Good.

So in thinking over all the stuff that was swirling in my head about that last Batman post, I was reminded of the story that actually made me a real Batman fan; up until college, I had never really been into Batman.  The movies we’re fun because they were about a superhero, not because they were about Batman, and if I’m honest, I thought The Animated Series was a snooze fest most of the time (eight year old me did not have the patience for hardboiled detective fiction in my superhero action show).  When I was a little older, I got into the spinoff series Batman Beyond, which was set in the future when Bruce Wayne is an old man who’s retired from vigilantism and has taken on a protege named Terry McGinnis to carry on the Batman legacy (I absolutely watched Saturday morning cartoons when I was in high school, and I’m not ashamed of it).  It wasn’t my most favorite show, but I thought it was a good one that I remembered pretty fondly.

So anyway, when I was a senior in college, I discovered Wikipedia (this is around 2006, mind you, so Wikipedia was still really novel), and more specifically I discovered that Wikipedia has an insanely detailed database of entries on superheroes.  I’m not sure why I decided to start educating myself about superheroes with Batman, but I did, and in my reading I learned about a direct to video movie (called Return of the Joker) that connects the Animated Series and Beyond eras of the character in a larger story about the Joker, who’s the one major Batman villain who never gets a callback in Beyond (the gangs of kids who dress up like clowns and call themselves Jokerz is cute, but it’s not the same as the arc that, say, Mr. Freeze gets in the cartoon).

Now at this point, you have to understand that this was my very first in-depth look at any comic book character.  I didn’t have the wealth of knowledge that I’ve amassed over the last decade as a superhero lore hobbyist (I should make that a line on my resume), so all I knew about the Joker was that he’s a crazy guy with a clown face who sometimes murders people in “funny” ways.

Return of the Joker actually goes out of its way to make it clear that all of the violence Batman, and his proteges by extension, is involved with is truly horrific stuff. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

What I did not know is that nestled among the many variations of the Joker that exist is the one in the DC Animated Universe who kidnapped, tortured, and mutilated a child.

The setup goes like this: when Bruce Wayne was on his third (or second; it’s not really clear if Jason Todd exists in the DCAU) Robin, Tim Drake, they were pursuing Joker following one of his capers, and due to some bad luck, Tim was captured.  The Joker disappeared with Tim, and spent weeks torturing him into giving up all of Batman’s secrets, and then on top of that brainwashing him into being a child version of the Joker, complete with purple suit and painted face.  Once the job was done, the Joker lured Batman into a trap and took him by surprise with what he had done to Tim, getting the upper hand before tossing Tim a popgun and telling him to kill Batman.  Laughing maniacally, Tim aimed the gun at the Joker and pulled the trigger, killing him.

That’s some disturbing stuff, right?

Now here’s the thing that gets me about this particular story.  It takes the consequences of this whole episode super seriously.  Tim Drake’s traumatized to the point that he stops being Robin and spends years in therapy to try to deal with what was done to him.  Barbara Gordon, who was Batgirl in this universe, has a falling out with Bruce over the fact that Tim was put in harm’s way.  Essentially, everyone who was an ally of Batman turns their back on him because what he allowed to happen is horrible, and shatters the illusion that crimefighting is something fun or admirable.  The Bruce Wayne that we see in Batman Beyond is an extremely damaged man, and he suffers a lot of misgivings over putting another kid in the line of danger for the sake of his mission.

The fact that Batman didn’t even kill the Joker in this story (Terry believes that he did, but Bruce won’t give him a straight answer) is irrelevant because Bruce did something much more deplorable than just breaking his no-kill rule.  There’s a higher moral standard at work here, and all too often that standard gets ignored in other depictions of the character.  I’m not super well read in Batman stories, so there may be other examples that are just as good, but this one really stands out to me as one of the more mature approaches to the problems of the character.  Violence erupts in a variety of ways in this story that break down the usual action cartoon tropes, and the characters react with the horror that they should.

For anyone interested, here’s the full scene of the Joker’s confrontation with Batman and his subsequent death; it’s really rough stuff, but I think it’s worth paying attention to for how differently it approaches violence in comparison to other gritty Batman works like Arkham Knight.

Morality and Lack of Object Permanency as Typified by Batman

I’m writing this while huddling in my darkened living room after a visit to the optometrist that involved getting my pupils dilated so that even mild light is somewhat irritating, which means that I honestly don’t want to be looking at any kind of screen at all, but I had a thought that wanted expressing, so here we are.

The first item is this: an article from Polygon discussing the odd ways that fans of Batman cling to the idea that he doesn’t kill people, especially in light of the absurd levels of violence possible in the most recent game in the Arkham series.  By all accounts Arkham Knight is a very fun sandbox game, and the fact that you can summon the Batmobile pretty much anywhere and drive around the city is an extremely popular feature.  Unfortunately, the combination of a sandbox style world and vehicular hijinks means that Batman’s going to do some crazy stuff that looks a lot like what people do for fun in Grand Theft Auto.  The big difference between those two series is that GTA is all about letting the player be whatever kind of criminal they want to be, including a homicidal maniac who mows down pedestrians on the sidewalk in a fancy sports car; this kind of gameplay is highly antithetical to the popular version of Batman who’s careful to avoid harming innocents, and who sticks to nonlethal means of subduing criminals.  It’s a trend of escalating violence that’s been pretty prevalent in the Arkham series from the very first installment, which allowed Batman to engage in some pretty brutal hand-to-hand combat that undoubtedly would leave his opponents with broken bones and concussions.

“You’ll be eating through a straw for a month, but it’s okay because I didn’t kill you.” (Image credit: Tech Times)

The whole series is intended to be a blend of the dark, gritty Batman of the Christopher Nolan movies with the flashy, cartoonish comic book sensibility that’s found in traditional media.  What that boils down to is a hyper-violent world that revels in the grotesque nature of its inhabitants.  In this kind of universe, it makes sense for Batman to be equally violent, and as many recent stories about the kinds of silliness players can get up to in Arkham Knight observe, the maintenance of some kind of in-world justification that Batman is not a killer becomes absurd.

The best question that the Polygon article asks is why we as fans think it’s so important that this one rule about the Batman mythos remain ironclad across all representations.  Everyone knows that the hero didn’t begin with any particular moral qualms about offing criminals or using firearms, but somehow his trip through the strangeness of the Silver Age and the censorship of the Comics Code imparted this idea about how a man whose psychological scars lead him to dress up like a bat and fight crime must also disdain killing.  It’s really an odd juxtaposition, especially from the ’70s onward when writers began reclaiming Batman’s noirish origins and developing him into the tortured figure that fans love today.

The fact is that there are two distinct versions of Batman in the popular consciousness: the zany, camp Batman that emerged in the ’60s with the television show and continued in the Burton and Schumacher films (for anyone who wants to argue, Burton certainly has a dark vision of Batman, but his films are full of absurdities that better fit the lighthearted version of the character; I mean, penguins with rockets mounted on their backs) and the grimdark Batman that gets typified in Nolan’s trilogy and Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s animated universe (I don’t care what you say, The Animated Series is noir as hell; more on that later though).  Both versions are okay, and I actually like them in pretty equal parts (I wish there were more quality writing with campy Batman, just because I don’t have the palette for Silver Age stories), but there’s a weird undercurrent in Batman fandom that wants to resolve the discrepancies between the two so that we can have some kind of ur-Batman (for an example, take a look at Grant Morrison’s run on the comic series from a few years ago; I only ever read one arc, but the way Morrison incorporated elements of Silver Age Batman in a contemporary, gritty context was bonkers).  I think the most pure expression of this desire to resolve the characters is clinging to this core idea that Batman doesn’t kill people.

And the ultimate effect of insisting that no matter how dark a Batman story gets, He Can Never Kill, is one of a kind of moral dilution.  We want Batman to be a hero who stands for something (I recall someone once describing DC’s Trinity as embodying the values of Hope, Justice, and Truth where Batman represents Justice), but we want it to be something we can get behind.  Characters who are unrepentantly violent, like the Punisher, are hard to rally around as embodying a higher ideal, and since Batman is one of the pop culture icons of superheroes, he has to be better than that.  So he has a code which forbids him from killing his enemies, even when specific cases, like that of the Joker, offer a multitude of compelling reasons for invoking the death penalty.  So Batman doesn’t kill.  He can threaten, torture, and maim criminals, but as long as they’re still breathing when he’s done with them, he’s free to be as gritty as we want him to be.

Aside from the fact that that’s a ridiculously low moral bar (my favorite superhero’s a paranoid fascist who tortures people, but at least he’s not a killer!), it also reminds me of a concept in neurological development called object permanence.  The concept’s pretty simple: as our brains develop when we’re infants, we reach a point where we can recognize that things still exist even when we don’t see them; before that point it really is a case of out of sight, out of mind (this is why peek-a-boo is such a fun game for a six-month-old).  In Batman’s case, the lack of object permanency relates to how we maintain this fantasy that the character isn’t a killer, regardless of how violent his depiction, because the worst effects of his violence are kept off screen.  Arkham Knight‘s claim is that you never see anyone die directly because of Batman’s actions, so no one does.  It’s kind of the reverse logic of children’s shows that insist on always showing that characters are okay following a bit of violence as a reassurance that, no, they did not die in that fiery explosion.

There’s more to this concept that I want to explore, but I’ll save that for another post.  All this talk about the way Batman operates in relation to violence has reminded me of one of my favorite stories about the character, and I think that’s worth a more in-depth look.