You’d Turn It Off Halfway: A Review of Batman: The Killing Joke Animated

Another mixed bag from DC/WB. I feel as I imagine I would if Zack Snyder had directed this. The parts that are right are exactly right. The parts that are wrong are dumbfounding.

People need to stop adding to and changing Alan Moore stories as if they’re smarter than he is. They aren’t. His stories are not unadaptable, as is sometimes said — they are impossible to alter. Every element depends on every other element. If you add things, the story becomes unbalanced. The additions shift the focus of the story so that this was not Batman: The Killing Joke, any longer. This was “Batgirl: The Difference Between Batman & Joker’s Fucking Techniques.”

I am a fan of Brian Azzarello. His Wonder Woman run was the only “New 52” book I truly loved.  That being said, almost no one, barring perhaps Grant Morrison, is either smart enough or qualified to add to or change a Moore narrative. This would appear to include Azzarello.

I have to assume the changes were studio-mandated because they make so little sense from a writing standpoint. The shape of the DC logo and amount of time it takes to animate indicates these additions are from the Batman v Superman decision-making era. In the wake of a controversy over a recent variant cover, DC/WB policy seems to have swung toward  the “Joker literally raped Barbara” misinterpretation. Let me not mince words: it is not in the text, plain and simple.

Joker metaphorically rapes Barbara with a bullet. The end. If Alan Moore writes a rape, he lets you know. If Joker raped Barbara to get to Gordon, guess what the photos in the carnival would’ve depicted? Otherwise, the Joker would not rape someone he’d already made sure couldn’t feel it.

If you have to alter the text to support your thesis by removing ambiguity, ambiguity was purposeful. There is no support in any continuity or any version of the Joker that he has either literal sexual intercourse or interest in such. The continual joke of he and Harley’s relationship is a marked lack of interest in her affections in favor of his relationship with Batman. It’s both a gay joke and a reference to both hero and villain’s Sherlock & Moriarty-style asexuality. Joker doesn’t fuck. You can add all the prostitute scenes implying he’s a regular poon hound you want. You can literally have him scream, “I swear, I love the pussy!” But the idea that TKJ‘s Joker is a regular with prostitutes that he doesn’t kill shortly thereafter is laughable. Even Caesar Romero’s Joker would’ve killed those girls. Joker kills. Joker maims. That is how he “gets off.”

The Joker and Batman have a sadomasochistic, homoerotic relationship, one of several in Batman. Warner and DC’s newfound conservatism seems intent on overcompensating for this interpretation. Their prevailing technique is to have him screw each female cast member on a rooftop. It won’t work, though. Also, Batgirl is more of his niece, and it was gross. Leave the Elektra complexes to Daredevil, please. (As an addendum to this, see this article. I believe Harley’s over-sexualization is part and parcel of a campaign to “de-gayify” the entire Batman mythos in the New 52 era of DC/WB.)

“Well, Doug, what did you want them to do? They had to flesh out Batgirl and make a feminist message and add to the runtime.”

Twenty minutes of thought gave me: Batgirl fights Harley in the opening. Flashing back to Harley’s origins, we parallel the “one bad day” theme. Since Harley’s bad day is when Joker drives her mad, it reinforces all the primary themes. Batgirl vs. Harley also mirrors the Batman vs. Joker plot. This gives Barbara a glimpse into her own future. In the end, she quits rather than letting it consume her. “It’ll never end,” she says to Bruce, “until one of us dies.” Her resignation sets up Batman rethinking his own approach with Joker. Cue rain. If you insist, let them have sex. But even for faithfulness, this should be older Barbara, in her late thirties. It’s two adult equals who’ve worked together a long time. She’s arriving at the moment where she needs to decide whether this is gonna be the rest of her life. Writing Batman into a mansplaining, misogynist role that Barbara overcomes only forces the actual Killing Joke to undermine and reverse that message later in the film.

Each addition took away from the whole. The positives, however, are that unlike The Hobbit films, when all the additions are cut out, it leaves a near perfect Killing Joke adaptation with tour de force swan song performances by Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy.

The Real Problem

Would a white man of his age, dress, look, and size, doing the same thing, with a gun in his pocket in an open carry state, be dead? The answer is no. Everything else you have to say is irrelevant because it accomplishes nothing. Next.

Let’s discuss why you defend lethal authority automatically rather than empathizing with the dead, why you empathize with rapists easier than rape victims, why you defend the strong’s right to abuse over the weak’s right to live life unmolested. Giving police the benefit of the doubt in all cases is a weakness to the authoritarian spirit of fascism. You are a fascist. You are weak and afraid. You will fall in behind anyone who looks like you and appears strong, though their strength is merely high volume masking their weakness, their fear. You will perform atrocities. You will blame it on your victims as you do them. You will blame it on your leaders once you are stopped. Neither will be true.

Or…

You could extend your pathetic excuse for empathy past those who look like cousins. You could realize every self-serving impulse you have is not only bad for the community, it’s bad for you, too. Paying for someone else’s schooling makes your neighborhood a better place to live, and lowers your crime rate. Housing the homeless and helping the mentally ill keeps your children safe from mass shooters, serial killers, and their own darkness. Paying people a living wage opens up job opportunities for everyone else, including you. You do these things with something called taxes, or as I prefer: duties.

Altruism is good for the economy. Being nice gets you ahead in business. These are proven, tested realities. Selfish behavior only gives the illusion of personal gain, when in fact, you’re self-sabotaging. Helping others literally helps you, and not just in the long run. It does so right now. Immediately. Psychopaths know this; they are very smart. You don’t see highly manipulative people walking around, being raging assholes. They pretend to be good, and in fact, are measurably good to everyone around them who they deem strategically significant. That’s what people mean when they say “charismatic.” It’s just making people feel good about themselves, and about them. They pay their rent and take care of their kids, help their neighbors and reward good work, all with no emotional compass to guide them. Why? Because being good is the key to success, you dumb shits.

You are not a psychopath, statistically speaking. But learn from them. You don’t have to try to be nice to your family and friends; that comes automatically. But strangers? Know that it is to your immediate benefit to be a good person. Not because of the afterlife, not because in ten years you’ll see results, not because you’ll feel good from being nice. Because when people like you, you get ahead. When you’ve taken care of your worst-off, they cease to be a burden and begin to pull their weight. It is in your self-interest to be altruistic, and it doesn’t work both ways. STOP BEING FUCKING STUPID. START BEING NICE. Good night.

…Isn’t She?

I think the majority of my life was spent mourning Andie’s decision to leave Duckie at the end of Pretty in Pink. I know, listen–I’m borderline something or other. It’s only upon watching the end of it last night that I remembered she doesn’t do that at all. Duckie sends her away. I got twice as upset at that. I even went so far as thinking about how in real life, she’d have been choosing James Spader, because Andrew McCarthys doesn’t exist.

Then, today, waiting for the bus, the similarities between Duckie and Andie’s dad, Jack, all came together and I realized something that’s probably been, like a lot of things in my life, obvious to everyone but me. That movie isn’t the story of a girl and some rich kid getting together despite their differences. It’s the story of two men of different ages letting go of women who don’t love them. Duckie of Andie and Jack of Andie’s mom who left.

6 Rules for Epic Television

We live in the new Golden Age of long format television. With Game of Thrones starting its penultimate season without a net so to speak, it’s a good time to review. What lessons have we gleaned in hindsight from the era of the Telenovel?

The format began in the Nineties. Proto-epics like Twin Peaks, Babylon 5The X-FilesBuffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek: Deep Space 9, and The West Wing set the stage. It entered its Golden Age in the early Aughts as Lost and Battlestar: Galactica started, even as many of the older shows remained on air.

There are only a few shows worth discussing, since most never finished. It pains me not to include a show like Carnivale, for instancebut without an ending, we cannot judge it. Discounting shows like Walking Dead with no end in sight: The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Lost, Battlestar: Galactica, Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, Justified, Game of Thrones, and soon, The Leftovers. 

Of the shows that got to end, few did so well. Babylon 5, The West Wing, The Wire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Breaking Bad, Dollhouse, and Justified had the highest level of viewer satisfaction, give or take. Of that lot, The Wire and Breaking Bad fared best. Those two caused the least bickering over their endings, and thus their entire runs. Top contenders for most frustrating are Lost, Twin Peaks, and The Sopranos, with X-Files Battlestar a distant fourth & fifth. 

So, what lessons can we learn from the successes and failures in the medium to better construct future long form television?

6. Rewatch Your Own Show

This one is simple. Before a finale — and before a last season or even an important death — the writers’ room should binge watch their own show. Watch your own show like a viewer. Take notes. Are there any dangling plot threads? Any plot holes? Writers should see these as opportunities. Closing them with your ending can make you look like a genius. Whedon’s programs are good at tying up loose ends in the final seasons. A dangling frustration like a lie a character tells or a simple case of an actor playing two parts transform into amusing pay-offs. What are the recurring themes, even if unintended? What are your characters’ tragic flaws? Their saving graces? A writer may think he knows these things because he designed them a certain way, but between performance, your own subconscious, and the audience, things aren’t so simple. Check the message boards. See if there are theories cooler or more sensical than your plan. Consider altering course. Speaking of…

5. Don’t Change Your Twist Because a Fan Guesses It

Lost, like many of these shows, had a fervent fanbase who shared theories on the Internet. With so many people sharing information, someone’s bound to stumble into a theory about Jon Snow or Libby’s past that actually lines up. There were several instances, like on Treme or the film Terminator: Salvation where a guess or a leak made them change the plot. First, if your plot isn’t more important than its surprises, it needs a rewrite anyway. Second, don’t be spiteful with your most loyal fans. They’ve paid close attention. Your story makes sense to them. Nothing will be more pleasing to this personality type than being right. Besides, your new ending is likely to be worse than the one you wrote first (unless it isn’t… if you come up with something better, then run with it).

4. Know the Point So You Don’t Miss It

Does your show have a point? It needs one. Seriously. This isn’t a sitcom or a Spider-man comic where the point is to never end. Epics should know they will one day end (hell, all TV shows should as long as we’re using real actors who age and die). Even Seinfeld got shit for its ending, and it was about nothing.

An epic, meanwhile, needs an epic point. Something not Philosophy 101 or something you picked up from your Yoga instructor. You know, do some research on the higher end. Have something to say. And then, and please, for the love of god and all that is holy — say it. You don’t have to make a character say it out loud. The theme should have been recurring, even if it wasn’t planned.

Despite the abrupt stop of Whedon’s Angel, its last scene kept the theme the show had repeated for five years: evil is eternal, but only wins when good stops fighting. So it ends with Angel continuing to fight. It ends with him saying “Let’s go to work.” For that matter, each of your characters has a point: a recurring theme to their behavior and motivations that should have a finale of its own.

In Babylon 5, Straczynski solidified these points with literal promotions. If a character was an attache, a character ended the show an ambassador; if an ambassador, an emperor. In B5 and West Wing, the shows also end giving us the impression that another epic is only just beginning. All while giving us glimpses of the larger ramifications of our characters actions. The point of us watching.

In Lost, Kate runs and people die because of her, but often goes against her nature because of Jack. Jack is a man refusing to believe in anything. Locke is a man who believes without question. In the end, Locke’s faith gets him killed, Jack must embrace magic, and Kate… runs? In one of the last scenes of Lost, Jack gives Hurley Jacob’s power. Kate and Sawyer then look on as Jack jumps into the magic cave to become the smoke monster (God that sounds awful). Thematically, though, Kate would leap in instead, before he had completed this ceremony. Her love for Jack drives her to act against type, but in the end, she will run, and Jack will have to chase her. In other words, Kate should’ve become the smoke monster, with Jack remaining as Jacob. Sawyer then, as liar, becomes Ben.

3. Worldbuilding, Worldbuilding, Worldbuilding

Know the answers to all the questions about your concept. Michael Straczynski, Aaron Sorkin, Vince Gilligan, or David Simon may plan their series’ every beat ahead of time, but this isn’t necessary. What is necessary is if you ask a question as part of the plot, that you know the answer. Ron Moore had no idea until the start of each season who was going to be a Cylon. While this freed them to make decisions based on drama, it also made the whole thing a house of cards that swayed in the wind toward the end.

The same improv technique holds true of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, though one may forgive Peaks, given that it is the first show of the post-Hill Street Blues era to sport a series long arc. It was unheard of, before Babylon 5 for an American show to even have a long form arc since the shows had to go on indefinitely. Moving forward, though, we see how this cannot go on.

One need not plan every move the characters make through the end, but one should know the concrete realities that are true before your story begins. Realities such as which of your characters are robots, who killed the dead body in your pilot, or what the nature of your island is. If this were a show about drug dealers, it would be poor writing not to know where the main character was born. Why should we hold a science fiction or surrealist tale to a different standard, especially if it is purporting to be more literary?

One of many lessons from J. Michael Straczynski is that of the “trap door” character. This is a character who can fill the role in the larger story of another character should that actor leave. Doing things like this during the story development phase can make it easier to weave a whole story.

2. The Longer It Takes to Answer a Mystery, the Bigger, Weirder, or More Personal the Answer

One of the better lessons of Whedon on Buffy or Straczynski on B5 is that if you bring up a question like, say, what a Vorlon looks like beneath their space suits, the more people bring it up as an unanswered mystery, the weirder it needs to be to be satisfying. Straczynski excelled at this because he already knew the answers, and so knew which ones to hold back.

Whedon excelled at plugging invisible plot holes like who created the Slayers with thematic material. The longer the answer took, the more intimate, the more relevant to the show’s arc, and the more unexpected or strange the answer. In contrast, a show like Lost would hold off on revealing how Locke broke his back, but not answer the question to level at which they’d made us wait.

1. Avoid Shaggy Dogs At All Costs

The biggest fear when watching long form arcs is that one has wasted literal days of one’s life listening to what amounts to a Shaggy Dog Story. For those not familiar, a Shaggy Dog is a long, meandering tale full of details that turn out not to matter, culminating in an anticlimax.

Lost is the prototypical version of this mistake, having gone into deep detail for each of a massive cast, only to end with few of them mattering. Several characters trumpeted to the level of a series keystone came up only in passing by the end. Many plot lines brought up over the series as integral to the show ended up either mundane in solution or unrelated to the larger arc. The ending itself was a cheat. While the entire show was not a dream, the entire last season taking place half in the afterlife is still a waste of the audience’s time. There is no reason to take several hours (let alone the entire series) to arrive at the last minutes of that show. When writers improvise mysteries, they raise questions that are interesting. When they plan them, they are instead withholding interesting answers.

What can we take away from this? All this, in the end, comes down to worldbuilding. When the storyteller knows her world, she can answer mysteries with clarity and import. She can ensure the right characters survive. She knows what to emphasize, but also what to leave out. She doesn’t have to cheat, and she doesn’t leave plot holes. If she does, she knows which character will dive into them.

Hemi Orange Is a Shade of Red

It will be interesting to watch, now that there’s little left but the entertainment, whether the New Left (the Old Right), upon entering the Warhawk, corporate-defending, surveillance-ridden, union-busting administration they will soon be electing into power, will, like the Right during W., dig their heels in deeper the more the administration is challenged. Essentially, will the Left have its own Tea Party after Clinton’s first term?

Cognitive dissonance is the most gaping exploit in the human operating system. It dictates that once the human mind has sufficiently bonded with an ideological side, it will only believe in it harder when presented with evidence it is wrong. This is how cults work; this is how political parties work; this is how religions work (particularly extremism); this is how bigotry works. Or rather, it is the way in which we are broken that allows these things to continue.
 
This is how high functioning marketing, like that of Starbucks or McDonald’s works. They teach you a new, contradictory and baffling set of rules to follow while under their roof (a small is a tall, a medium is a grande [which means large], a large is a veinte [which means 20, in a different language]). Then they hit you with a narcotic like caffeine, or acceptance, or the freedom from being corrected or argued with. Then, when you go somewhere else and slip up and use their doublespeak (order McNuggets at a Burger King), they correct you, and you dislike the outsider for it, rather than your programmers. You sink further into the ideology that you belong to the group that understands your language (even complaints about Apple can only really be understood by Apple buyers).
 
The scariest part is that the most successful strategies in the current age rely on this model, this exploit. This backdoor into the human mind. Some, like facebook or google, incidentally create these echo chambers as part of their customer service model. They stop showing you contradicting opinions, with your help and guidance, until all there is are the sounds of agreement between people who can’t tell they’re growing more and more extreme, and more and more sensitized to the Other, until the smallest disagreement becomes a heresy, and a valid, but different, opinion on methodology becomes an act of terror upon the group.

The National Rebrand

A new Guardian article came out wherein Charles Koch compares Donald Trump’s statements on Mexicans to Nazi Germany. This is the epitome of irony. This is also not the first statement they’ve made that indicates a drift to the Left. Note the smiling photographs. The Kochs are in the process of a rebrand. Go ahead and read the article at that last link. I’ll wait. It’s important.

The Kochs’ fortune comes from Nazi and fascist Italian money. Their father built refineries that enabled the Nazi war machine and Mussolini’s empire. It wasn’t Mussolini who kept the trains running on time; it was American corporations. The Kochs’ nanny, who raised them, was herself a Nazi so enthused by the invasion of Poland that she moved back home to watch. She made them go to the bathroom on a strict schedule and fed them laxatives if they didn’t. These are established, researchable facts. If they’re calling Drumpf a Nazi, it’s because they’re rebranding and because Drumpf is taking their carefully cultivated base from them. Notice the simultaneous but more subtle changes happening at Fox News as well.

Meanwhile, they are backing Hillary Clinton — a Goldwater girl, Kissinger warmonger, and center-right Democrat who only looks left when compared to a Drumpf. Considering he was one of her contributors before, and the fact that the Koch Brothers literally have a cabal of the richest, most influential people in the world making decisions about world policy and we don’t talk about it because we’re too busy making up that those things happen, and it starts to look like a long form plan. Some might think me paranoid — but corporate interests and marketing firms do this kind of research, how to manipulate people, all the time. Not to mention they are only one generation removed from Nazis, who definitely researched it. There is a pattern of willingness on their part to act on it, as well.

So let’s not kid ourselves. The Democrats are the next target for manipulation. Another political party shift is about to occur. As the Kochs rebrand, so do the parties. Notice the Republican pundits suddenly growing reasonable. Democrats will slowly become what they were before Civil Rights, and you won’t even notice you’ve become a conservative as you naysayed Bernie supporters for their idealism and actual Democratic desires. To say nothing of the actual Left, in the Green Party.

Batman v. Superman: SVU New Orleans

I knew they were fucking this up when I heard the title. No title that reminds me of Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever or Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is going to work out. NEVER ASSUME FRANCHISE. Always make your first steps self-contained. I didn’t even like the title Captain America: The First Avenger, but by the time Marvel did that, it was the last movie before The Avengers and that movie was definitely happening. Whenever Warner Brothers gets too excited about franchising, they force directors to shove in all sorts of set-up for shit that doesn’t matter. Green Lantern was supposed to be self-contained and practical. WB turned it into a CGI shit-show that was telling you about the rainbow lantern corps before introducing you to the lead character. Everything about this film felt like it should be happening after new Batman and Wonder Woman films to go with Man of Steel. Who knows? Maybe after watching the new WW (which Gadot, a bright spot in an otherwise joyless film, is actually making me look forward to), which takes place in 1916, and the new Batman which would hopefully be set before MoS, this movie’s beats might feel earned.

I also think, much like Watchmen, there’s going to be a cut of Batman v Superman on DVD that will actually make sense. I hear like 45 minutes got cut out, and Snyder is my #1 on a list of good-to-great directors who are garbage in the editing room. The Ultimate Watchmen Cut revealed he’d chopped out absolutely necessary scenes, left in scenes that only made sense with the scenes he’d cut, and left in countless redundant scenes and self-indulgent slo-mo. In the cut of BvS I saw, there’s no excuse for a rehash of Batman’s parents’ death and the falling into a bat cave at the start of the movie — not only have we seen it before, but it gets flashed back to later in the same film.  I’ll bet there’s a narrative thru-line in the first act that got hacked to absolute bits, leaving us with the mind-numbing jumps from one disconnected plot to another. Snyder has tons of action-directing problems, but is usually great at weaving a coherent story — his problems show up when he has to cut for time. He’s overly attached to clever bullshit and has no eye for what’s necessary. None of the political stuff should’ve made it into the theatrical.

I also smell Green Lantern-levels of Warner Brothers meddling. The opening sequence, the best part of the movie, is clearly designed to reveal who Affleck is in the last shot as we pull back to reveal the Wayne Enterprises sign on the ground, yet we start instead with that redundant origin I mentioned? Sounds like that opening of Green Lantern that brought up the Lantern Corps and Parallax and the color yellow being fear, all 20 minutes before Hal hears the exact same speech in a much more logical place.

Most of the Batman / Superman fight is unnecessary if you think about what the actual climactic battle of the film is. SPOILER ALERT: In a Doomsday / Death of Superman film, why did we waste 45 minutes setting up a plot hurdle on the way to the point? Probably because WB Marketing had come up with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. There is a decent Batman vs. Superman movie and a decent Doomsday movie in here, but they don’t go together. Much like the mutant cure and The Dark Phoenix Saga being shoved together in X-3. Or the Black Suit / Venom Saga and the end of the Green Goblin arc in Spider-man 3. Or the campy Electro origin and The Death of Gwen Stacy in Amazing Spider-man 2. So basically all of the worst comic book movies of the past 20 years come down to studios making the same mistake: Mongolian clusterfucking two thematically contradictory storylines into one film. Somewhat because they don’t understand the Marvel model, but mostly because they’re just greedy and impatient.

The title, much like the shoe-horning of Justice League BS, totally screws the film. You call this movie World’s Finest and you can have them fight for a second and then get over it. You call it Batman v. Superman, and you have to spend an entire movie getting them to fight EVEN THOUGH THAT FIGHT ISN’T IMPORTANT, Lex is the real villain, and Doomsday is the final fight. (If Batman hadn’t KNOWN THE WHOLE MOVIE that Lex was the villain, his decision to focus on Superman wouldn’t seem so pants-shittingly stupid and bigoted.) It’s like calling the first Avengers film Thor vs. Hulk vs. Iron Man vs. Captain America. Even Civil War leaves room for them to stop fighting.

That’s not even to mention how the core of these characters seems intentionally absent in this version of the universe–that’s an actual Snyder problem. Superman acts like Batman and Batman acts like the Punisher in this movie, and I have a feeling I’d be dealing with that even in a perfectly coherent Snyder Doomsday/Justice League/whatever film.

Reset the “DC doing something stupid” counter.