The Lurid Celebration over THE KILLING JOKE’s ‘R’ Rating

This is something to get excited about?


About a year ago, I wrote a piece about how DC’s biggest mistake was publishing The Killing Joke about 30 years ago. (Click here.)

My point was — and remains — that the story, while artfully told by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, revolves around the sexual humiliation of Barbara Gordon.

I didn’t like it then. I don’t like it now.

Readers, shall we say, freaked out, accusing me of being a censor (untrue), a bleeding heart (untrue), a social-justice warrior (untrue), a guy who wants all my Batman stories to be peppy and bright (the worst insult of all — and incredibly untrue).

My grievance was never so much that The Killing Joke was published in the first place. Art is art. Bad things happen to good people and good people have to learn how to survive being a victim.

It was that it wrought a generation of poor imitations and has been defended as if it were the Koran, the Torah or the New Testament.


The heart of my argument — provoked by a variant cover that showed the Joker dominating the modern, empowered Batgirl of Burnside in an especially unsettling, resonant way — was that it was time to take The Killing Joke out of canon, where it was never meant to be in the first place.

So many superior stories — like Batman: Year One — were removed, what would be so wrong about relegating The Killing Joke to a place in history?

It has served its purpose and its continued reference just serves to make Barbara/Batgirl a victim again and again.

Anyway, people will believe what people will believe.

Since my piece a year ago, we’ve gotten the announcement that The Killing Joke would be made into an animated film from Bruce Timm. I’ve ignored it, just as I have subsequent announcements of the voice casting, the release of footage, etc., etc.

From the upcoming animated feature

From the upcoming animated feature

I ignored it because I felt neither a desire to publicize it nor to make the same argument again and again.

But then it gets announced this week that The Killing Joke will be tagged with an “R” rating. And it was like this weird cause for celebration on the web:

The Killing Joke is getting an’R’! The Killing Joke is getting an ‘R’! Woo hoo!”

And that is just bizarre.

Because the vast majority of that story is PG-13. There’s little, if any, foul language. There’s very little gore. The flashbacks to the Joker’s origin are pretty basic, noirish storytelling, as is Batman’s hunt for him in the present.

Unlike the operatic, brilliant Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller — which deals with similarly dark themes in a far more compelling, layered way — The Killing Joke is at heart a straightforward character study.


So, unless there are substantial changes to the narrative and imagery, what’s left to make The Killing Joke an “R”?

The sexual degradation of Barbara Gordon.

It’s left ambiguous as to whether the Joker actually sexually assaults her, but shooting her, undressing her and taking photographs is in the same arena. The only way, then, that I can foresee The Killing Joke getting that “R” — which Warner Brothers actually trumpeted in a press release — is that that sequence is animated in all its ignominy. (Maybe they’ll include Jim Gordon’s distant full-frontal nudity from the carnival scene but I have a hunch that won’t make the cut.)

I fully recognize the artistic choices Alan Moore, Brian Bolland and DC made and I admire their laudable desire to make comics more adult, even 30 years after the fact. That’s freedom, man. It’s the aftermath and response I find nauseating.

Giving The Killing Joke an “R” is not an indication that it’s for adults. We already knew that. It’s an indication that it will be grimly explicit in its depiction of sexualized violence.

And people are celebrating that — and it’s wrong.

Author: Dan Greenfield

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  1. I wholeheartedly agree with you, Dan! I still want to see the movie, but maybe I’ll skip over some parts. They could’ve made this movie PG-13 and still would’ve done it very faithful to the comic. I really think the Dark Knight Returns should’ve been R. That story was extremely disturbing. People want the most gruesome, vulgar stories out there. I like dark Batman too, but I have my limits.

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  2. Seeing as you have not kept up with any of the news regarding this film, let me explain this they created a 15 minute prologue, new to the story which will explore Batgirl as a character, which would most likely have more violence in it but also humanize the character beyond just being a victim to break her father.
    The cover of Joker behind a frightened Batgirl had nothing to do with showing a victimized Batgirl or against a woman. Would you say the same if Batgirl was behind the Joker and he was frightened? No, you wouldn’t, which is hypocritical. It is cause for celebration because still photos versus moving animation are completely different. Seeing a still of a bloodied Batgirl is not as bad as the blood moving around in animation.

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  3. Shying away from difficult stories serves no one. I am what this person has been accused of, a feminist “social justice warrior” that dislikes abuse of female characters without a purpose. This story served the same purpose that Death im the Family did, to give another character an emotional breaking point they don’t take the bait on, and to give a new identity for a character audiences found an uninteresting copy of Batman. Would I want this comic written now? No. Do I want the story changes to conform to modern considerations? No. This is not something we do with any other fictional works from years ago unless they don’t translate.

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  4. Do you feel the same about the infamous scene in the Jessica Jones cannon over at Marvel? Curious.

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  5. I agree, wholeheartedly. Very well said. These stories can be written in a way that is satisfying to adults without becoming inaccessible to children.

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    • According to everything being released by Warner Bros/DC in movie form… their product is not intended for children. I would not bring a child to see Batman v Superman for example unless the child was AT least 13 and then technically they are a teenager more than a child.

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  6. To all of your supporters, and all of your detractors I say that remember everyone has the right to their own opinion. a person can not like a particular part of something but still like the entire thing.
    I’ve been cautiously ambivalent about the newS that the animated Killing Joke would be rated R. Good storytelling done well doesn’t require gore or a bunch of f-bombs to make it good.
    The story told in the recent Deadpool movie was so good that it could have been rated PG (or maybe PG-13) and it still would have been a well-told story. (Although, obviously the violence is a key component to Deadpool.)
    When Killing Joke first came out, I was a teenager. I thought it was cool because it was so dark and “gritty.” (Oh how I’ve come to hate the word “gritty.”)
    Now, when I hear classmates and friends of my adult children saying that word to describe their comics, I cringe.
    I still like adult stories, and I do like the idea was Joker was trying to break Jim Gordon, but failed to do so.
    However, I think you could tell the story of The Killing Joke frame by frame, panel-by-panel just as it appeared in the comic. The message would still be conveyed, and it would not need to be rated R.

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  7. Your reasoning is your opinion and others will have theirs. All of you are entitled to them. However, to me this speaks volumes to the antiquated American Movie Rating System. It needs a FULL on change. I am from Canada, and now live in Ireland and the rating systems in both these countries are WAY better than the American system. They allow for more diverse ratings and kind of pinpoint where a film will actually fall. See an R-Rated movie in America is to ambiguous when in the rest of the world an R-Rated film gets a much lower rating. I will use Deadpool as an example. It was given an R-Rating in the USA. However, in most of Canada the movie was rated 14A which means anyone over 14 can go see the film without an adult. If they are under 14, then an adult can bring them if the adult so chooses. In Ireland the movie was rated Cert16, again, this means anyone 16 or older can go without adult supervision and would need an adult if they were 15 or younger. The American rating system needs a rating between PG-13 and R to help differentiate and limit the need for an R-Rating. I have a feeling, from everything I have seen on this Animated film, it would tend to fall on that low-end R-Rating scale and if a new system were in place would NOT be classified as R. So don’t blame the content… blame the MPAA in the US.

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  8. Late to the party, hoping to contribute.
    For comparison and bias potential: I dislike Watchman, for reasons similar to my dislike for the KJ. I liked V for Vendetta a lot. I loved Logan.
    The context of V is the nature of people (according to a brilliant comic writer), how we are prone to brutal governance, racism, sexism, how all are worst ways are here to stay, surface often, and sometimes achieve power to make whole countries horrifying in misery. How courage and honesty are vital to such peace as we can have.
    In this context, the torments and violence, mental and physical, seem significant to the story. V hasn’t quite overcome, but he believes that someone else can. And V desperately wants to be heard, he wants honesty.
    The torments in the KJ were in a context of the joker’s backstory and cruel attachment to Batman. Personal tragedy, human understanding and our defects. Horrible things happened to the Joker.
    Yet to me his backstory is rushed, and doesn’t make enough of a connection to the particular cruelty he inflicts on the Gordons.
    The lack of poignant connection between his pain and the pain he inflicts made it seem more stunt than story. Some of it was compelling, I remember Gordon’s commitment, and the pain of the backstory.
    But i contrast V, and Logan, where context and connection seem to me to make the violence …human.
    I remember watching Logan and being really thrown by the increased intensity of the violence v. previous movies. When I saw X23, a small pre-teen or barely teen, doing that intense violence it clicked – the movie was dealing with the horror of child soldiers.

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