“Change of Scenery” is a series in which Nathan and Jordan watch something that neither of them has seen before, and write their reactions to it. This week’s subject is Batman: The Killing Joke. Check out Nathan’s thoughts here.
The Killing Joke is DC’s newest animated feature-length Batman movie, and the first to receive an R-rating. There’s a lot to love about this movie. Mark Hamill is fantastic as the Joker, the artwork is atmospheric and moody without being too dark, the score is appropriately intense, and the story is interesting and affecting, but I walked out with one major question: Who is this movie actually about?
Some movies manage multiple protagonists very well. The Avengers movies come to mind, or the films of Robert Altman. But The Killing Joke tries to rotate different characters into the role of protagonist (check out TV Tropes’ definition if you need a refresher) throughout the film, and the structure, the story, and the ending all suffer because of it.
The initial main character is Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl. She narrates the opening section of the film, introducing us to the world of Gotham and confiding in us her struggle to protect it as Batgirl. Throughout the first 30 minutes, she balances vigilante work and her daily life, she chases and apprehends a dangerous criminal who develops an obsession with her, she works out her romantic feelings towards Batman, and she eventually decides that the life of a nocturnal crime fighter is too much for her after she nearly kills a man in a brutal fight.
Then she gets shot in the stomach and disappears from the movie.
There are a lot of arguments about exactly how misogynist this film’s portrayal of Batgirl truly is. My personal opinion is that her storyline could have been the beginning of a really interesting and original sort of hero story, but it gets cut short. Barbara never gets a chance to truly have an emotional resolution, because the story leaves her in a hospital bed and moves on without her. That’s a terrible way to treat your narrator and main character.
I’m still mad about that, but let’s move on. The second (and most obvious) choice for the main character is Batman himself. This is where I might lose some of you…
I am not a fan of this film’s portrayal of Batman. At all. In the first half of the film, he is condescending and withholding towards Batgirl. And in the second half (where he takes on the traditional protagonist role of ‘stopping the bad guy’), he appears disengaged and uninterested in the events happening around him. Whether this is due to the animation style, his lack of dialogue, or my own unfamiliarity with the character, I found him utterly unconvincing as a main character. A traditional protagonist is psychologically accessible to the audience and is emotionally engaged in the plot. Batman was neither of those things.
The Joker, on the other hand, blows into the story like a hurricane. He escapes Arkham Asylum, shoots Barbara, kidnaps Commissioner Gordon, and lures Batman to a confrontation at (where else?) an abandoned theme park. His backstory, doled out in bits throughout the movie, gives us a picture of a desperate man who was broken by the worst day of his life. After losing his wife, his hopes and dreams, his reputation, and his face (!) in a 24 hour period, he simply cannot take life seriously anymore, because it would hurt too much. So he embraces insanity, treats life as a grand joke, and becomes The Joker, chaotic menace.
The Joker’s “evil plan” (in quotes because it is another piece of this story that I am underwhelmed by) is to shoot Barbara Gordon, then capture her father and drive him insane by making him ride a nightmare monorail where he is forced to look at pictures of his daughter’s naked body bleeding out on the floor where she was shot. Then, once Batman shows up, the Joker will confront him with Gordon’s newfound insanity, and attempt to drive him insane with, as he puts it “one bad day.”
It’s not a terrible evil plan, if it worked. The problem is, Barbara does not die, Gordon does not go mad, and The Joker’s plan to drive Batman to the brink only serves to piss him off.
This might seem minor, but it was one of my major problems with this movie. A good story has real stakes, or something that the main character is in danger of losing if they don’t succeed. Batman never really has anything at stake in this movie. By the time the final confrontation rolls around, everyone who was once threatened by the Joker is not in any further danger from him. Batman is certainly not in danger of succumbing to the pull of insanity and giving up his mission of protecting Gotham. So what’s happening in the final confrontation? What is there to be excited about, or interested in? Who has something at stake? No one really, except for the Joker.
And that is why I think the Joker is the real protagonist of this movie. His journey is the one we’re supposed to engage with. His struggles are supposed to move us. And he is the one with something real at stake.
The Joker needs Batman to go insane, in order to justify his own madness. If Batman can look at the same darkness and hopelessness that drove the Joker mad, and stay sane, then the Joker would have to confront the fact that it might not have been “one bad day” that drove him insane. It might actually have been a choice that he made, that he keeps on making, to be evil and uncaring. He is really the only one with anything to lose or gain in that final confrontation, and I think that is why his climactic words to Batman are so powerful. In a fit of rage, the Joker has Batman backed into a corner, and is beating him mercilessly, but what he really wants to know is “Why aren’t you laughing?”
It’s a desperate cry from a broken man, one that the movie has taken great pains to make sure we understand. We understand what the Joker has at stake. We know his pain. And while we don’t necessarily sympathize with him or even pity him, this is his story.