This story does not need to make Batman and Batgirl a couple, and potentially making Batgirl an object to be defended, as a cliche “fridged” motivation for Batman to get off his bat-butt and go stop the Joker.
I don’t write this as condemnation of a film before seeing it; I do write this to identify potential problems that seem to contradict how the film was marketed.
As previously announced, The Killing Joke will include a fifteen-minute prologue that was not included in the comic book. We’ll get to see Barbara Gordon in her Batgirl costume, something that doesn’t happen in the original source material. This adaptation of the story is fleshing out Gordon’s arc, and will make her more of an integral part of the story instead of an afterthought. Many believe Barbara is only included in the original comic book to help further the storyline of the two men at its center, The Joker and Bruce Wayne.
As confirmed by Hitfix, the new, never-before-seen 15 minute prologue will be Batgirl’s story, and hers alone.
How is the story “hers alone” if it includes Batman and her engaging in a relationship that thereby makes his vengeance against the Joker no longer one to defend an ally but a romantic or sexual partner? Isn’t that the very definition of the Fridge trope, or the Lost Lenore trope? Batman’s motivation to stop the Joker was clear enough already: this villain harmed his teammate, so he is going to enact justice. You don’t have to make him sexually involved with her to get that point across.
As well, if you are making Gordon involved sexually with Batman as part of giving her character development, then you opted for one of the laziest, most cliche approaches.
Granted, the quotation above likely refers to a fight sequence involving Batgirl, rather than any scenes about her romantic or sexual relationship with Batman. The fight is supposed to develop Batgirl as a fighter all her own, and I think to make it hurt more when the Joker’s injury potentially disables her and changes how she contributes as a crime-fighter. There are difficulties with this story, especially with regard to representations of disability, ones the comics have struggled to address: does Barbara Gordon remain disabled in the comics, or does Batgirl return without visually obvious physical disabilities? It’s a similar problem for how Captain America: Civil War ends with James Rhodes shown to be walking again after hints he would be unable to move his legs again, or how peers and I have discussed representations of disability with non-powered superheroes in My Hero Academia.
In this film adaptation of The Killing Joke, the problem that emerges is that, if spoilers are accurate, the way the film decides to develop Batgirl, Barbara Gordon, is by making the Joker’s attack upon her no longer against only Batman’s ally but now someone who is the equivalent to his girlfriend. It is like the film took the problem of fridging a character and, rather than minimizing it, augmented it: the “Stuffed in the Fridge” problem started as harming female characters only to give motivation to male characters to take action out of vengeance, which becomes not only a cliche storytelling structure but also constrains female characters to a limited set of roles with minimal agency. It turns Batman’s fight now into one not for Gordon herself but for himself: it is now him defending someone he is involved with sexually.
I’m not invested in that kind of a story because it is a cliche at this point. I wrote before how something like The Avengers was more engaging to analyze because how it gender-flipped such narratives, including rape-revenge stories, by having it be Coulson and Barton who serve as the people to be avenged.
And this is not to suggest a relationship between Batman and Batgirl cannot work. That debate has persisted online long before this film. The Killing Joke, produced by animator Bruce Timm, seems to be drawing upon a Batman x Batgirl plotline that persisted in Timm’s previous adaptations of Batman, from Batman: The Animated Series to Batman: Gotham Knights to Batman Beyond to Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman. A writer at The World’s Finest, under the pseudonym the Old Maid, tackled the successes and failures of this plotline earlier.
It’s a cliche phrase among online fans of certain relationships (“shippers”) that most ‘ships are valid: let people ship what they. I don’t mind a Batman x Batgirl relationship, if written well, and without ignoring numerous potential problems inherent to that relationship, including differences in age, gender, and positions of power (the veteran superhero guiding his sidekick into a sexual relationship).
What bothers me far more, however, is the potential for forcing this romantic/sexual plotline into a story not to develop that relationship but to give Batman an unneeded motivation to stop the Joker–because the facts that it is the Joker, who just harmed both Barbara Gordon and Jim Gordon, should be enough motivation for Batman to get off his bat-butt and do something.
There is a challenge in adapting The Killing Joke from its previous context to a current audience. Having Batgirl fighting solo for an action scene would show she is a crimefighter and ally to Batman, and would raise uncomfortable but necessary questions about how we respond to disability in our entertainment: are we looking at the Joker’s attack on her as one that has ended her crime-fighting pursuits, and is Batman’s fight against the Joker one of justice or one out of personal vengeance?
But adding a romantic or sexual relationship between Batman and Batgirl adds nothing: it doesn’t increase Batman’s determination to stop the Joker, because that determination should already be there without having to say, “Well, he wants to avenge his girlfriend.” And it distracts from Gordon’s experience by making the fight seem only personal for Batman.