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Entertainment Geekly: Is the Dark Knight lightening up?

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August 02, 2016 at 12:00 PM EDT

No one should be surprised that The Killing Joke movie is terrible. The original Alan Moore-Brian Bolland story is the least essential of the Essential Dark Age graphic novels. The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Born Again, Miracleman, Swamp Thing: That is the Moore-Miller-Batman pantheon of mature-content superhero stories, the stuff that reshaped comic books across the ’80s, and Killing Joke is the runt of the litter.

Which doesn’t mean it’s bad — just flimsy. Less a short story than a prose poem, the original Killing Joke drew much of its power from the idea that it was still possible for Batman to be shocked by the Joker, and still possible for a superhero story to shock the reader, with violence and sexuality and Stuff That Wasn’t Kid Stuff. Thirteen pages into The Killing Joke, Barbara Gordon opens a door, sees the Joker on the other side, and gets shot through the spine. Then the Joker undresses her and takes pictures of her naked body; all possible god-knows-what-elses are left to the reader to imagine. “He’s taking it to the limit this time!” Barbara tells Batman four pages later — in the hospital, tears in her eyes, legs useless.

That’s the last time you see Barbara in The Killing Joke. The fact that she has been secret-identity crimefighting as Batgirl — for 21 years in real-world time! — doesn’t even come up in the story. She’s an incidental figure in the story that paralyzes her. Actually, the stakes of Killing Joke are purely philosophical. The Joker’s big “plan” is to drive Commissioner Gordon crazy — a mission which would, in turn, serve as a moral defeat of everything Batman represents.

So Barbara Gordon is collateral damage in a three-way battle between the men in her life. This is a frustrating story point, and it’s partly why Killing Joke has a bad reputation. And that rep tends to obscure the heart of the story. Because, if you care to drill past the busted spine, the blood-splattered headshots, the sight of a naked, manacled Commissioner Gordon cry-screaming at pictures of his naked daughter in a freakishly hyperbolized recreation of George C. Scott discovering his daughter’s adult-film work in Hardcore — if you want to look past that, Killing Joke is basically an earnest, sad, even sensitive story about Batman’s worst enemy. Moore’s Joker is a maniac with a sob-story origin story — failed career, dead pregnant wife, played for a patsy by the real bad guys — but Moore’s point was that even the Joker could’ve been a normal guy.

It’s become conventional wisdom to say that Batman is the most aspirational and possible superhero. He’s got no superpowers; anybody could be Batman; you could be Batman. Of course, Batman was born ultra-rich — which, given current trends in economic stratification, is only a bit more likely than getting a radioactive spider-bite or being the last son of a dying planet. We’re decades deep into the hot idea that Batman and the Joker are two sides of the same coin. But Moore, a working-class kid from Northampton, imagines the Joker in flashback as a sad-sack striver in a crap apartment with exposed piping. Here’s a novel idea: If anyone could be the Batman, maybe anyone could be the Joker. Most of us aren’t raised in mansions; maybe most of us wouldn’t be Batman at all.

Anyhow, best not to dig too deep into the socioeconomic ramifications; even the Joker doesn’t think his origin story really happened. Moore has pretty well disowned Killing Joke, even more stridently than he usually disowns things, although he has nothing but high praise for Bolland’s artwork. Bolland’s work is gorgeous, with drippy detail that splits the difference between surreal, creepy, realistic, and hilarious. My favorite image in The Killing Joke comes during the Joker’s climactic monologue. “When I saw what a black, awful joke the world was, I went crazy as a coot!” he declares. “Why can’t you see the funny side?” he asks Batman/the reader. “Why aren’t you laughing?”

The look on his face isn’t funny at all. It’s sad, and yearning, wide-eyed, childlike; it is the most human moment in an inhuman story, proof that it’s possible to have sympathy for the devil.

My second-favorite image in Killing Joke comes in the final hero-villain fight. Joker has just pulled Batman’s mask down over his face, and while the Caped Crusader wrestles with his own cowl, his nemesis breaks a two-by-four over his head. “HHUT” says the Dark Knight.

A question without an answer: How many images have been created of Batman in the last 30 years? Counting comic books and animation cels, counting individual frames of movies and tie-in advertisements for Turkish Airlines, counting magazine covers and pictures of Batman Beyond cosplayers at WonderCon? Like, ballpark: Thirty billion? Ten trillion? There is no number you can come up with that sounds unlikely; if the world ended tomorrow, the ruins of our global culture would convince alien archeologists that Batman was one of our three most popular gods.

And even given all of that, I think you could make the case that that illustration of Batman is the single least awesome, most purposefully deflating image of Batman in the last three decades, maybe ever. He looks like what a man in a bat-suit should look like. He looks like a goof. HHUT!!!!

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Killing Joke took it to the limit. The whole central notion of the story is that the Joker doesn’t usually do stuff like this; that “casual paralysis of beloved characters” is something new in this world. Like much of Alan Moore’s great superhero work, it’s a self-aware text. Right before his daughter gets shot, Jim Gordon is looking at a newspaper clipping of the Batman’s first meeting with the Joker. It’s a recreation of the cover of Detective Comics #27; the Bob Kane artwork is a signpost of an innocence that will imminently be lost. “I remember you describing the white face and the green hair to me when I was a kid,” says Barbara, about to open the last door she’ll ever walk to. “Scared the hell out of me.”

Moore was enough of a scholar of Bat-history to know that Batman was never just for kids. In his early adventures, the Caped Crusader killed people and fired guns, but that all got scrubbed — first from censorship, then from the kid-friendly concerns of the Batman TV show. That series was hugely popular, and lighthearted, and campy. So DC Comics, capitalizing on the popularity, made the Batman comic books lighthearted and campy. Moore was writing Killing Joke 20 years after the Adam West show went off the air, and there’s a clear-cut anxiety of opposite influence, a willingness to do the exact opposite of what the TV show was doing.

We are now much further in time from Killing Joke than Killing Joke was from Adam West. We’ve seen Batman stories that take it to the limit; in one of the year’s most popular movies, Batman kills people without thinking about it, without even acknowledging that “killing people” is something unusual for Batman to do.

And so part of the problem with the Killing Joke movie is that it cannot recapture that same feeling of transgression. That would require a take on Batman as diametrically 180-degrees-away from Moore’s Batman as Moore’s Batman was from Adam West’s.

But the Killing Joke movie does have one good idea, albeit an idea that is halfhearted in conception and utterly lacking in execution. Batgirl is barely in the original Killing Joke; what if she were the main character of the movie? In the right hands, this could bring a cockeyed and lateral view to problematic material. One thinks of Mary Harron, whose movie adaptation of American Psycho felt more like a critique of American Psycho. Or, closer to home, one thinks of Gotham Central, the brilliant Greg Rucka-Ed Brubaker comic, which imagined the ground-level horror and high-body-count turnover of being poor plainclothes police in a city full of madmen.

But the Batgirl stuff in Killing Joke doesn’t actually have anything to do with Killing Joke. The movie adds in a lengthy prologue about a completely separate adventure, with Batgirl and Batman partnering on a mission to stop a cheeky mobster who vibes like a leering fratboy. He has crush on Batgirl; at one point, he surprises her with sleeping gas; his name, kid you not, is “Paris Franz.” Batgirl, meanwhile, is crushing on Batman, although when she’s describing the romance to her central-casting gay best friend, she describes the Caped Crusader as her “yoga teacher.”

RELATED: ‘Killing Joke’ cast teases potential nude scene

This would all be problematic even if it wasn’t boring; Jeff Jensen and I talk more about Killing Joke on this week’s episode of the Entertainment Geekly podcast. Suffice it to say that the Killing Joke movie wants to graft Batgirl onto the original adaptation, so it coughs up a scene where Batman mansplains gritty darkness to Batgirl. “You’re not in it like I am,” he says. “It’s still a game for you. It’s still a thrill. You haven’t been taken to the edge yet…the abyss. The place where you don’t care anymore. Where all hope dies.”

Then they have sex. Then Batman ghosts her — doesn’t answer her phone calls, doesn’t acknowledge that their physical intimacy has changed their relationship. Turns out Bruce Wayne is the kind of mournful self-serious emo-dude who lets his baggage self-justify acting like a douchebag cad. This would be an intriguing new idea, but The LEGO Movie got there two years ago.

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Killing Joke was in just a few theaters for just a few days, and it grossed $3.7 million — not bad for a 75-minute barely-animated cartoon. Batman’s other movie this year grossed $872.7 million, which is technically considered a disappointment, because the world really is an awful joke. After much hand-wringing and thinkpiecing and hot-taking and corporate course-correcting, the consensus is that the problem with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is that it was too self-serious, too dark, too unfun, too not whatever-Marvel’s-doing. This feels like a simplification; the core problem with Batman v Superman was that it was unwatchable.

Still, attention must be paid to this curious cultural moment. For the first time in decades — maybe for the first time ever — the straw-man consensus from fans and from creators is that Batman should be less dark, and less gritty. That’s a radical shift; ever since Frank Miller published The Dark Knight Returns, the general trend has been towards realism, or anyhow a brutal-bloody spectacle shaded with toughness and freshman philosophy.

Miller’s vision is still with us, of course. Batman v Superman was draped in Miller’s imagery. (Zack Snyder is the Miller obsessive who also directed 300.) This year also saw the release of Dark Knight III: The Master Race, a continuation of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns legend. There was also Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade, a “prequel” to Miller’s original story. The Last Crusade achieves a remarkable double play; it manages to dry-hump both The Dark Knight Returns AND “A Death in the Family,” the 1988 saga that saw the Joker brutally murder a Robin named Jason Todd. Two grimdark ’80s Batman stories mashed together: What could possibly be less fun?

But the Change is coming. Next year sees two wide-release Batman movies. And although it’s a sin to judge a movie by its trailer, it’s notable that the messaging on both The LEGO Batman Movie and Justice League feels focused on a lightening-up of the Caped Crusader’s image. You would expect that from the LEGO film, of course. More surprising is how the Comic-Con trailer for Justice League aims to get so much mileage out of Batman doing un-Batman-like things. He starts out giving the Flash a hard-sell growly pitch on joining the team, and then does a double-take when the ecstatic Flash stops him mid-sentence, no pitch required. Here is a Batman who banters with Wonder Woman. Here is a Batman who jokes around with Aquaman. “I hear you can talk to fish,” Bruce Wayne tells Arthur Curry. The smile on Ben Affleck’s face, the way he tilts his head, the lighthearted smarm: When was the last time a movie let Batman have any fun?

The comic books got there first, of course. A few years back, Grant Morrison had a run on Batman that let him reintroduce all the goofy canon that Miller acolytes and Nolan obsessives phased out of existence. That led into what has been, for myself and lot of people, the best extended run on the character in decades. Writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo didn’t explicitly offer some flashy re-examination of the Caped Crusader mythos; they just told one rip-roaring adventure story after another. The culmination was “Zero Year,” which took a lateral view of Batman’s origin story and boldly argued that Bruce Wayne only became Batman after frequently, and constantly, screwing up.

Batman is supposed to be a human, but in the past 30 years, the myth of his total awesomeness has actually made him seem more remote than some superpowered characters. That trend culminated in the Christopher Nolan movies, which dug deep into big ideas about the symbolic nature of heroes. That plus Heath Ledger made The Dark Knight a masterpiece, but it also made Bruce Wayne a remote figure, less a person than a righteous frown. (Meanwhile, Christian Bale brought all his pent-up accent-y energy to his non-Batman performances; he won an Oscar, and earned two nominations, just for proving he had a pulse.) So the fun of the Snyder/Capullo Batman was all the fun they let Bruce Wayne have. Color returned to the Dark Knight’s world; he fought the Riddler again.

Their run ended with a new official Batman costume. And analyzing Batman’s outfits is a bit like analyzing network late night shows: You either focus on tiny details, or you admit that nothing has really changed in 50 years. I prefer to get micro; the new Batman uniform features a yellow outline around the bat-symbol on the chest, a quietly radical retro shift backwards from the gray-black monotone canonized by the Nolan movies. The first time Batman wore this new uniform, he had just been more-or-less resurrected for the second time this decade. Last time, he got resurrected by time travel; this time, it was a drug called Dionysium, shut up don’t ask questions. The Dionysium had fountain-of-youth effects on the Caped Crusader. “You’re the fastest and strongest Batman since, well, ever,” Alfred says. All of his scars have been healed; Batman’s back is smooth as a baby’s bottom.

The idea of a scar-free Batman is kind of stunning, really. Just last year, the wildly popular Arkham videogame franchise coughed up yet another Last Batman Story, a subgenre that depends on moody finality and the weight of crimefighting years finally piling down on the Caped Crusader. But rebirth is in the air. Actually, the whole DC universe is undergoing a weird megasaga called “Rebirth,” which kicked off at the start of this summer with DC Universe Rebirth #1. At the beginning of the issue, a disembodied voice seems to move across the whole universe before arriving in the Batcave, and staring down at Batman. “I start with Bruce,” the voice says. “Every mystery the universe has ever faced — from the streets of Gotham to the solar pits of Apokolips — he’s solved them.” How important is Batman? “He might be my only chance at this.”

It turns out the voice belongs to a Flash named Wally West, who suddenly blasts out of the speed force and offers Batman some vague warnings about the future. This almost-exact scene also happened in Batman v Superman, with a different Flash and a different Batcave. Batman should theoretically be fighting criminals on the street, but because the character is so popular, the movie universe and the comic universe need him to be involved in the most cosmic events imaginable. Maybe that explains the move away from gritty-realism in the Bat-universe; you can’t mudwrestle with Darkseid.

It’s obviously impossible to graft some single interpretation on the State of Batman across all of popular culture. I went to my neighborhood comic book store yesterday aiming to pick up every single current-month issue of any monthly DC comic book featuring Batman. But some of them were sold out, and there seemed to be at least three Robin-centric monthlies and two Harley Quinn monthlies, and also there’s some alternate-universe Batman or other on the cover of something called Earth 2: Society, which still isn’t as dumb-sounding as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

I haven’t even mentioned Gotham, the lifeless yet unkillable TV show, currently embracing its destiny as the Once Upon a Time of Batman canon. I tried watching Gotham before I decided to just be happy, but I have considerable respect for what the series represents. It feels like someone told an underfunded community theater in Norway to retell the history of Batman using only Finnish translations of plot summaries from the 10 worst episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. The show’s melodramatic seriousness represents its own brand of lighthearted self-awareness; if soap operas were still popular, Gotham would be a daily delight.

On the mainstream level, the superhero genre is changing. X-Men couldn’t compete with Deadpool; now it seems Batman v Superman might lose out to Suicide Squad. Plenty of people seem to be grooving onto the punk-y bad-guy antics of Deadpool and the Suicide Squad. To me, that all feels about as transgressive as Hot Topic, which is a roundabout way of saying I’m too old to care what teenagers care about.

Batman could go pop-punk, I guess. (He appears in Suicide Squad, because when you’re the company mascot, you get to be in the hits and the misses.) If LEGO Batman and Justice League both fail, maybe the big new idea would be pushing Batman into puckish self-awareness… or maybe they take the yellow off of his uniform and make him darker than ever. There are rumblings in every corner of the Bat-verse, though, of the possibility of something like whimsy, the idea of a smile crossing Batman’s face. Right now, our primary choices for mainstream superhero narratives are douchebag anti-heroes who work for nobody and toolbox company men who work for S.H.I.E.L.D.. For decades, Batman represented “maturity” in the sense of darkness, sadness, bullets through spinal cords. What if now, Batman represents another side of maturity: Wry intelligence, optimism amidst cynicism, good humor in the face of apocalyptic global terror?

We should support this new Batman. He might be our only chance.

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Want more Killing Joke? Listen to this week’s Entertainment Geekly podcast below, or subscribe on iTunes.

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