Killing Story Structure with the Killing Joke

The Killing Joke

Warner Bros. Animation released Batman: The Killing Joke for two days in theaters prior to it hitting home video, scoring $3.8 million in that limited release. This is the first animated Batman film since Batman: Mask of the Phantasm in 1993 to hit the big screen, but it wasn’t without controversy. It made history by being the first R-rated Batman film ever, in any medium. Then it made headlines when it debuted at San Diego Comic-Con and outraged some fans with its treatment of Barbara Gordon (AKA Batgirl)—mainly that she spent most of her screen time as a lovesick librarian and inept crime fighter who ends up having sex with Bruce Wayne before being shot by Joker and subsequently sexually assaulted. In Batman’s own terminology, she was “objectified”, but by the filmmakers.

That valid criticism aside, the film has another major flaw that cripples it much like Barbara ends up being, and that’s the story’s structure. Based on a famed graphic novel written by Alan Moore, the film is extremely faithful to the source material—eventually. But screenwriter Brian Azzarello rightfully concluded that the original story was too slim to fit into a feature length film so he fleshed out Barbara’s back story. The graphic novel has her shot when she’s first introduced, so the reader must bring knowledge of her upon reading it, which is easy to do given the decades of Batman lore. But in a self-contained movie, you have to do things differently, and inflicting a devastating injury to a character with whom the audience of this particular film has no emotional bond would not have the necessary impact. Building up to that pivotal moment by developing her as a character is a smart choice; however the film handles it in the wrong manner.

A good chunk of the movie—approximately the first third of its 76 minute running time—is devoted to Barbara’s story. In it, she and Batman investigate a mob boss’s murderous and conniving nephew named Paris, who has plans to take over the family business in the most ruthless manner possible. Paris becomes obsessed with Batgirl, who seems to fall victim to him once too often and ultimately hangs up her cowl. After this, the story has a time jump and the actual adaptation begins, which has Joker shooting Barbara and then kidnapping and proceeding to torture her father, Commissioner Gordon, while Batman must track him down. During this time, the audience is treated to many flashbacks that explain how Joker came to be. The problem is that what is essentially Act One of the film has nothing to do with the rest of the story. Paris is completely forgotten, and the focus shifts to Joker.

Moore’s original story is self-contained and has an episodic feel, with the obvious exception being the major turning point in the life of one of the principal characters and the reveal of the mysterious origins of another—not to mention the overall brutality that’s generally missing in most adventures of the Dark Knight. There’s also the ambiguous ending, which has people divided as to what Batman actually did to Joker—preserved in this film with the addition of an epilogue that features Barbara’s fate. The graphic novel is one of the most popular Batman stories ever, so it’s understandable that the screenwriter did not want to deviate away from that; however, the extended prologue is confounding as it essentially gave the audience two distinctive stories spliced together.

Basic screenwriting posits that you introduce your protagonist, antagonist, setting, and conflict in Act One. There’s a turning point at the end of Act One where the protagonist has a problem to solve that is then carried through the various plot twists in Act Two and is finally resolved in Act Three. By focusing so heavily on Barbara in Act One, this establishes her as the protagonist. But her story effectively ends when she quits being Batgirl. That whole segment is a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end—she owns the problem and brings it to a natural conclusion, misogyny notwithstanding.

The shift in tone and story is jarring. Joker arrives with hardly an introduction nearly half-way through the film and does his dastardly deed. From that point, Barbara is barely seen other than being used as a plot point. But suddenly the audience is asked to care about his origin story as well as the fate of Barbara’s father, who also lacked screen time earlier. Who is the protagonist now? Certainly not Barbara. The obvious choice is Batman, who must rescue Gordon and stop Joker—yet his role in the story is relatively diminished. Despite his name in the title, he feels like a secondary character, or even the antagonist given that he’s trying to stop Joker from carrying out his goal. In this regard, Joker would be the protagonist, especially considering how well they develop his character. Acts Two and Three are about Joker, plain and simple, while Batman’s quest to catch him is almost obligatory. Yes, a villain can be a protagonist, but the problem is that in this particular film, that delineation is muddled because of how the plot(s) unfold on screen.

The movie would have been better served by starting with Joker instead of creating an unrelated situation involving Paris, who had nothing to do with Joker and whose conflict was resolved by the end of Act One. Introduce a scheme that Joker tries to pull, which Batman and Batgirl prevent him from carrying out. In the process, set up the conflict between Joker and Batman as well as between Joker and Batgirl. During this portion of the film, establish the dynamic between Batman and Batgirl—and dare I say it, if it’s necessary (and many would argue that it’s not) to include the romantic dalliances between those two, then so be it. But lay down all the elements here that will be played out later and give Joker the motivation to do what he does. Then the events as dramatized originally by Moore would have more resonance, such as how Batman feels upon nearly losing Barbara.

Also, develop Commissioner Gordon during this portion of the story as well, so that when he is traumatized, the audience feels something for him rather than just watching it happen to a character who barely had any screen time before he is captured. Again, the film must be treated as a self-contained entity because that’s the way it’s presented instead as one episode of an ongoing series where the audience already has a connection to these characters.

During this revised version of Act One, the mystery of who precisely Joker is can be introduced. Then when the flashbacks begin in Act Two, the seeds would have already been planted in the minds of the audience to wonder about his history. Set up then pay off, rather than have that element come out of nowhere. Also during Act Two, add scenes that would continue to develop Barbara. Granted, the “real” time played on screen is very limited and she’s in the hospital at this point, but there are still plenty of opportunity to cut to her and what she’s going through. Yes, this deviates from Moore’s original story, but less so than adding a completely disconnected story for her because this would be building upon the framework already in place and would giving the audience more to think about and feel regarding her. This would also allow the story to clearly delineate who the protagonist is by giving him or her the overarching problem to solve as well as a singular character perspective for the audience to identify with.

This would also solve thematic problems the current movie has. The main issue people have with the film is the treatment of Barbara’s character, as she is portrayed as a stereotypical woman who is defined by the men in her lives, in particular her love interest, rather than by her own accomplishments. Even if this characterization remained the same (though it would be far better to change it), what would the film try to say? Could we see how she changes and grows into something more than a caricature? The best stories have deeper meaning, and surely the filmmakers could embellish the great material provided to them and find ideas within it that would resonate with the audience instead of making them feel uncomfortable—which is what both sexualized scenes ended up doing despite the fact that most was left to the imagination regardless of the R rating. This issue with theme would directly correspond with a revised structure that contains the plot within one continuous story as it would be introduced in Act One, fleshed out as needed with additional scenes in Act Two, and then brought to a conclusion in Act Three just like—and in fact reflected by—the plot.

Ultimately, it feels as if Azzarello wanted to write an original story even while being confined to a strict adaptation of the graphic novel. But it can’t be both ways—either make a faithful adaptation or twist it in a unique way much like Marvel does with its familiar titles when adapting to screen. Since fans would be very upset if the beloved story from print was altered beyond recognition, and tacking on a completely irrelevant and unconnected episode before the actual story was awkward if not downright sloppy and lazy, the best situation for everyone would have been to use Moore’s story as the skeleton of the film and then build up parts of it as necessary—the relationships of the characters, the reason why events transpired, how the plot points effected the characters, and what the filmmakers were trying to say within the context of the story. The audience then would have had a cohesive film that would have respected the source material while simultaneously making it a richer film-going experience by giving fans the story they love as well as providing something new and entertaining.

And if Azzarello still wanted to tell the story of Batgirl chasing Paris, that could be done in a different movie.