[Note: This article contains major plot details from the animated film version of Batman: The Killing Joke.]
Batman: The Killing Joke has always been a tricky property for DC Comics. Simultaneously the Joker origin story—as written by comicdom’s wild-haired genius grandpa, Alan Moore—it’s also rife with sexual violence and female characters being tortured and maimed merely for the effect it has on their male loved ones. To quote legendary animator Bruce Timm, producer on an R-rated film adaptation of the 1988 comic that debuted last night at Comic-Con, “I’ve always been ambivalent about this particular story. It’s not my favorite Alan Moore comic.”
That comes as part of a longer interview Timm gave to Vulture after the debut, addressing reactions to some of the changes that he, fellow producer Alan Burnett, and writer Brian Azzarello made to Moore’s story to adapt it for feature length. (The movie’s director, Sam Liu, wasn’t mentioned as part of these decisions.) Most of those changes were sexual in nature, like references to The Joker’s penchant for prostitutes and the addition of a sexual relationship between Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon—the subject of the Joker’s brutal attack—and Bruce Wayne’s Batman.
Reactions to the change began developing on the internet yesterday, even before the movie’s release, with a leaked scene from the film showing the two crimefighters having sex on a Gotham rooftop. According to Timm, the change—which occurs in a long, Batgirl-focused prologue to the action of the comic, intended to flesh out her character from her token role in Moore’s original work—was meant to humanize both characters. “It was really important to us to show that both of the characters make some pretty big mistakes,” he said, adding, “I don’t remember who initially came up with the idea, but we all kind of jumped on it all at the same time and said, Yeah, that’s kind of where we need to go.” In their haste, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the film’s creative team that those all-important mistakes could have involved something other than putting Batgirl into bed (or on a rooftop) with Batman.
Reactions to the reveal have been swift, with fans at the movie’s Comic-Con Q&A loudly questioning the choice. (Although it’s worth noting that others apparently applauded the moment during the screening.) Meanwhile, DC writer Gail Simone—who’s spent years writing the Barbara Gordon character on comics like Birds Of Prey, and who’s been an outspoken critic of Moore’s comic—registered her displeasure with the change on Twitter:
Timm—who seems to be doing everything in his power to distance himself from the movie he helped make in the Vulture interview—was also quick to deny that a line inserted into the script about the Joker’s sexual appetites implied an act of rape. But, when asked whether he’d ever considered removing all of the sexual aspects from the story, he said he’d never do that:
It has always disturbed me and I made a real concrete effort going into this project: I’m not going to try to put my own “spin” on it. I’m not going to make it a Bruce Timm movie. Warts and all, the story is what it is. It’s kind of a classic. And as uncomfortable as some of this stuff is, it’s not my story. I’m just the guy who’s putting it on the screen, so I didn’t want to change it and make it more palatable to my own sense of taste.
“But,” he added afterward. “I think it’s not as extreme as it could’ve been.”