I just recently saw the recent animated adaptation of The Killing Joke. It was good, and very interesting. What was most interesting, however, was the juxtaposition between it and other recent media, and fan reactions. (Bam! Whiff! Spoilers!)
There have been three recent re-imaginings of old properties released recently; Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars 7, and just recently, Ghostbusters. These three properties have also, in varying degrees, became touchpoints in the ongoing Gender Culture War. These movies had varying degress of respect and homage towards their original source material, but all of them ended up putting their female characters front and center. And all of them had very specific male villain archetypes.
These movies were not horrible movies. (At least, two of the three of them were not. I haven’t yet seen Ghostbusters yet, so I can’t say for sure.) And yet, some people got very, very upset at the mere existence of these movies, and spent a lot of pixels explaining in detail how bad the movies were.
And, of course, there were quite a lot of people doing the reverse. But what was interesting was how (with a few admittedly-notable exceptions), most of the people who didn’t like the movies were indeed pointing at actual things that the movies did wrong as movies. However, quite a few of the people who liked the movies were saying things like “I like the fact that they unapologetically had whiny, entitled white dudes as the bad guys.” (Whiny white dudes who were, of course, defeated by the heroic heroines, of course.)
Now, why is this interesting? Because of the way Killing Joke is set up. The second half of the movie is a brilliant (but not very original at all) animated adaptation of the classic comic. It’s worth seeing by itself; Mark Hamil’s Joker singing Vaudeville is one of those things you didn’t realize you needed in your life until you hear it. But the first half of this feature is set up as a story following the adventures of Batgirl, so that we the viewers have some context for her and her struggles, and to give weight to what happens to her in the events of the Killing Joke.
This segment of the movie has been controversial. It’s basically an R-rated episode of Batman: the Animated Series. It has one very questionable decision as far as establishing a wider world of comics continuity (the bit where Batman and Batgirl hook up.) But the elephant in the room, I feel, is Paris Franz.
There is, I feel, a reason that quite a lot of people have been pointedly upset at the recent remakes, and why the people who were pointedly delighted by them were pointedly undelighted by Killing Joke intro sequence. And it’s not just sexism. My theory here is that media can be good, quality media, that never explicitly propogandizes or takes sides, but very clearly still expresses a narrative. And I feel like there were a lot of people who lacked either the awareness, the vocabulary, or the local freedom to express a sentiment along the lines of “These were good movies (modulo Ghostbusters), but the subtext-verging-on-text of “Everything bad is the fault of this group of (white, male) people right here, who can be threatening and can cause harm, but are ultimately weak, pathetic, and will be soundly thrashed by the heroines, who will Win.” can grow exasperating.
And here is where the character of Paris Franz comes in. He is the antagonist for the intro sequence, and he is, I feel, a broadside across the bow from the other side of the Gender Culture Wars. Paris is not whiny. He is handsome, swave, and articulate while he does horrible things. And he does indeed do horrible things; his sexualization of Batgirl range from blowing her kisses while trying to kill her mid-mayhem, to actually going in for a kiss just after he’s dosed her with knockout poison. Plus, he retains a trio of prostitues (one of whom disapproves of the amateurish Batgirl costume mask he presumably instructed her to wear, as she has her own better masks at home).
Franz loses, I should point out. His first interaction with Batgirl is the heist in the intro; Batgirl stops him from stealing stuff, but he gets away, blowing Batgirl a kiss and kicking her off the outside of the truck cab she is attempting to hijack. Their next encounter is a standard superhero brawl; he nails her with the knockout poison, but as he moves in for the ‘goodnight kiss’, she knees him in the crotch and locks herself in a bank vault, knowing that she’ll have recovered before he can make it inside to her. Their third encounter is arguably a victory for him, as Batgirl gets fixated on him, takes some bait in the form of a straight-up “Walk into this trap, please!” invitation, and while Barbara holds her own, she does get rescued by Batman (who has noted that this is becoming Personal for Barbara and that she should leave Franz alone.) The fifth meeting, in which Barbara comes roaring in to rescue Batman after Franz nails the Batmobile with RPGs, she wrecks his shit, badly. But there’s a follow-up to that; as he’s being taken to trial, Franz is still mugging for the camera through puffy lips and bruised eyes. The last line he has in the feature is “Love ya, Batgirl!”
The intro sequence with Barbara is undoubtedly a feminist story. It is driven by a female character, who overflows with agency. She gets the lion’s share of the cool action sequences, and while the story (and Batman himself) tell us that Barbara is very much the junior partner in the relationship, she is not portrayed in any way as weaker than Batman. Her choices and her decisions drive the narrative.
And yet…if the standard spiel we’ve heard from everyone who strings “whiny entitled white boys” is one narrative, what is the narrative we’re getting here? Well. Something like “You have enemies. They will oppose you, leer at you, threaten you, and it will be genuinely ambiguous to what degree they do this because they are evil, and to what degree they do it because it makes you do stupid shit in response. These people are not necessarily dumb and not necessarily driven by their obsession for you; messing with you might just be a side project they play at while focusing on their real goals. And even when you take things to their level and go to the knock-down-drag-out level, you don’t actually necessarily win; they have the power to recontextualize your attacks on them as harmless, or as signs that you really care about them.”
I have no hard proof that people are thinking through narratives subconsciously, and much of the vitriol against otherwise-inoffensive media comes down to people disagreeing with the fundamental narrative and thus going looking for reasons to disregard the piece as a whole. But it does seem to fit the evidence here fairly well.