While we’re all fighting over how good or bad the live action DC Extended Universe are, I would like to take a moment to remind people that a DC animated movie series exists.
These are direct-to-video, hand drawn animated films, usually based on popular comic storylines, and they tend to vary in quality. Some of them are really great, others…not so much. And I think right now two animated movies are very relevant: Batman: The Killing Joke (the newest offering) and Batman: Assault on Arkham (which is basically the ORIGINAL Suicide Squad movie).
Batman: Assault on Arkham is amazing. It’s just as good–if not better–than most Hollywood blockbusters out right now. It’s genuinely exciting and compelling, with a plot that’s layered but not too complicated, characters you actually like and feel sorry for, and it’s graphic without being overly gratuitous. Batman: The Killing Joke is…pretty bad. The main reason for this is because it chooses to have a long prologue dedicated to Barbara Gordon, which makes her out to be an insecure, sexually frustrated young woman who loses more than she wins, and does make her own choice to retire…only to get shot, paralyzed, and assaulted later.
But I think the main thing that illustrates what makes Arkham great and Killing Joke not is how they deal with the sex scenes regarding the main female characters, Barbara and Harley Quinn.
This is the sex scene between Batgirl and…Batman. You know, the man who is much older than her and is supposed to be a father figure. And who she’s never had a real romantic or sexual relationship with in the comics (she had one with the first Robin). Throughout the scene, she is extremely angry at him, and he makes it clear that he doesn’t see her as an equal. She fights him and pins him down in anger…and awkwardly kisses him. They embrace, and she takes her clothes off and we get an offscreen sex scene. On a public rooftop. Where someone could see them. Oh yeah. *Insert erotic music here*
It doesn’t look like either character is truly enjoying it. It also feels like it comes out of nowhere. Why are these two having sex? Why don’t they look like they’re into it? Apparently it’s to make us feel more sorry for Barbara when she gets shot, but it just makes the situation infinitely worse, especially since their relationship only gets more awkward from there.
See, The Killing Joke is an INTENSELY misogynistic story (to the point where Alan Moore, the original writer, disowned it). Not only is the Joker’s main reason for going insane the (offscreen) death of his wife and unborn child (yay for fridging women!), but the treatment of Barbara is disgusting. She only appears two times: once, when she’s at home and shot (and there’s even a pause between when she sees Joker and when she gets shot, she doesn’t even fight back) and again when she’s in the hospital, frightened and paralyzed. And we never see her again. The movie tries to remedy this by giving her an extended role, but rather than humanizing Barbara by expanding on her relationship with her father (which would’ve made her paralyzing actually tragic), the movie focuses almost entirely on her sexuality, having her lust after characters and characters lusting after her (which causes her to nearly go over the edge and kill someone, after which she decides to retire), thus making what happens to her all the more insulting. It reinforces Barbara as a body, not a person, and as a plot device, not a character. Course, that might have to to with the fact that the writers and producers are literally ALL MEN, but hey, the glass ceiling is thick.
Honestly? If the movie wanted to be respectful to Barbara, they should’ve written her out entirely. You don’t have to add any of this. Just have Joker kidnap Commission Gordon and try to drive him insane with all the horrors of the world. Focus more on the dynamics of Batman and the Joker. You don’t need to bring Barbara into this mess.
By contrast, here’s a sex scene between Harley Quinn and Deadshot in Arkham:
Look how into it they both are. Harley has found someone to move on from the Joker, and Deadshot has found a companion. It’s also very quick and contained. Both partners are willing and enthusiastic. And later, you see them have a steady relationship, where they both look out for one another and work together. And Harley Quinn isn’t objectified one bit; here, she owns her sexuality, and has her own character, and is important throughout the movie (and we don’t need to have her defiled)! She even helps save the day in the end! And it’s important to note that there are also two other women (Killer Frost and Amanda Waller) who have their own character development and role in the story (unlike Barbara, who was the only woman in her movie and had a lot to bear).
In short, how a female character expresses herself sexually can tell a great deal of what her character is like and how the narrative treats her. And considering how a lot of superhero movies are struggling with how they represent their female characters, these two movies can be used as lessons on what to do and what NOT to do in handling them.