I’m not going to review The Killing Joke, Warner Bros. Animation’s newest theatrical release. If you guys really want me to, feel free to request it down in the comments below and I’ll try my best to make it happen. Today, we’re going to talk about probably one of my favorite superheros, Batgirl. However, since I’m not acquainted with the comics–nor am I particularly interested in that medium as a whole–I rarely get to see her on the screen in any form. Batgirl has undoubtedly received the most exposure in The Adventures of Batman and Robin animated TV series.
Although Batgirl would make more frequent appearances in this series compared to her appearances in the preceding TV show, the more famous Batman: The Animated Series, it is ultimately the first series that fleshes out the origins of her character. Both Barbara Gordan and Batgirl make their debut in the 57th episode, a two-part episode called Shadow of the Bat that had Commissioner Gordan framed for crimes and under arrest. From my understanding of the character, or at least in this reincarnation of the character, Barbara has always been a “daddy’s girl,” a central aspect of her character, inheriting his strong sense of justice in the form of Batgirl. In this episode, she dawns the suit in order to fake Batman’s appearance at a rally that would help her dad out. Robin catches her during a chase sequence and scolds her for her dangerous behavior.
With little time put into the origins of her training, she always felt like a weak superhero to me even though she was voiced with enough personality through Melissa Gilbert as a stubborn, good-willed vigilante. She usually seemed like a liability to Batman and Robin rather than a vital asset to the team. I guess this is what made her less of a compelling character for me personally in the Batman: The Animated Series TV show. I never felt she was particularly empowered to fight crime on her own and carry out her intentions on to Gotham’s criminal underworld.
This issue was largely addressed in the following TV series, The Adventures of Batman and Robin. With a sleek new suit and a new voice actor in Tara Strong, this iteration of Batgirl often fought alongside Batman as a valued member of the team with legitimate combat skills. I always thought her personality contrasted well to Robin’s childlike energy, Nightwing’s rebel tendencies, and Batman’s boding seriousness as a more lively and sarcastic–more teenage–presence in the group. Once again, her character is largely rooted in her role as Jim Gordan’s daughter, as an entire episode called Over the Edge is dedicated in establishing Barbara’s commitment to her father and their loving relationship together.
Over the course of these two television series, the exploration of Barbara’s love life is far and few between, although–once again–her character isn’t really a focus quite too often. When she was on screen, she was found to be dating Dick Grayson in some episodes, a relationship that is more contingent to the comics. As far as her feelings for Bruce/Batman goes, the closest thing I could find was a clip of Bruce and Barbara having a conversation over the phone which indicated that there might have been some romantic or sexual tension between them. There is also a dream sequence where Barbara kisses Batman as Batgirl, but nothing tangible arises beyond this.
Now we enter the heated conservation surrounding the Batman: The Killing Joke controversy. Is this portrayal of Barbara/Batgirl misogynistic? Does the romance between Batman and Batgirl play into this portrayal in any way?
I… actually… kind of… liked this… scene.
So it’s difficult for me to say that this aspect of the plot undermines Barbara’s character as a whole but I genuinely enjoyed the first half of this movie involving their romance, probably more than I enjoyed the second half which becomes a strictly loyal adaptation of the comic it’s based on. While the second half felt creatively bound to the source material, the first half felt unshackled by the weight of any previous storylines. Taking this route to the character, which hasn’t been done before except in Batman Beyond I hear, was risky. Even then, I don’t think a sex scene was depicted like this before. I like it when films take creative risks of any kind and if the execution is there, I will be the first person to try to reward the film for it.
Although one could point to my fandom of Batgirl as a source for bias, I think my appreciation of this moment in the film lies deeper than this. In a genre that is so devoid of good romances, I’ve always felt the inclusion of superheroines would be one particular route for Hollywood to take to try to remedy this problem (or to exclude it all together). And that is exactly what we have: a romance between two capable superheros which is done pretty well I must say. With exception of Barbara’s gay friend who spells out what’s going on in the plot in case it wasn’t obvious by subtext, I was made genuinely invested in what would happen between Batgirl and Batman. I didn’t know who was exactly in the right or wrong and the way the whole scene went down was fairly plausible to me–an act of transgression that leads to heated and spontaneous sex. And with the liberties of its R-rating, it left little to the imagination beyond actual cartoon nudity.
I don’t feel like I am dodging the question by explaining why I feel the first half was superior to the second half. I felt Barbara’s character, if compromised in any way from the comics, was in service to the story. In a film that admittedly feels fractured by its two halves, it is difficult to exactly critique whether turning Batgirl’s crime-fighting motivations into romantic ones was worth the trouble but I did feel it made for some good entertainment in the short-term. It made for some solid drama between its characters.
I think the REAL reason why people are unsatisfied with this depiction of Batgirl is the fact that there was little fueling the whole frisky encounter between Batgirl and Batman. In a film that framed its narrative around Barbara’s viewpoint for the first half, it’s not hard to imagine a film where Barbara is the main character throughout. In other words, this is probably the closest we’ve been to a full feature-length Batgirl film and I loved the prospect of it. Imagine what the filmmakers could have done with more screentime to focus on the relationship between Batgirl and Batman.
I think in order for this film to be considered less misogynistic towards Batgirl, it needed to give deeper consideration as to why Batman would engage in sex with her. Batman is the more established character and it seems strange that Batman would give in to lust without understanding the repercussions of his action. Perhaps some back story to their “three years” crime-fighting would have shed more light on Batman’s growing interest in Batgirl, leading to overprotective behavior and his irrational decision to jeopardize their work together by a single action.
Still, I agree that Barbara should have kept crime-fighting as an interest after giving up her bat suit. Perhaps her father gets tangled with the Joker which leads her back into crime-fighting, and when given a chance to work with Batman again after she saves her father, Barbara declines opting for a quieter life. Now something like that, is the type of Batgirl film we need to see.