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The DC film universe is starting the year off strong with the billion-dollar success of Aquaman, a feat few in the industry expected. While Warner Bros. is surely hoping that creative momentum and enthusiasm will continue with the release of Shazam! in April, the studio isn’t letting the cinematic universe rest on its laurels. Warner Bros. is further diversifying the DC film universe with new characters and creators set to break rules, and perhaps some records along the way. The R-rated Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn), set to be released in 2020, began principal photography last week. Birds of Prey, directed by Cathy Yan, features a team-up between Suicide Squad breakout Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollet-Bell), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Comic fans may notice that notably absent from this lineup is Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl-turned-Oracle-turned-Batgirl again. But, if WB’s plan works out, she won’t be missing for long.
A Batgirl film was first revealed in March 2017 and was set to be written, directed and produced by Joss Whedon, with a 2018 production start. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator stepped down from the project in February of last year, citing an inability to make the story he wanted to tell work, though many online suggested that Justice League’s reshoots and other controversies may have had more than a little to do with the separation between Warner Bros. and Whedon. Regardless of the circumstances, it’s clear that the landscape of Hollywood is shifting and if Batgirl is to come to the screen, she should be taken there by a woman. Last April, Warner Bros. hired Birds of Prey screenwriter Christina Hodson to write the script, and the search is currently underway for a woman filmmaker. The question is, for a character with a history as storied as Barbara Gordon’s, what kind of Batgirl film do we need to see?
Hodson’s prior credits include the thrillers Shut In (2016) and Unforgettable (2017), but her most notable work to date is Bumblebee (2018). The Travis Knight-directed Transformers prequel, currently in theaters and cited by many as the first great Transformers movie, offers a refreshing take on the Hasbro mythos and takes a major shift away from the films of Michael Bay. Hodson, who conceived the story and wrote the script, created an engaging protagonist in Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), one who acts like a teenage girl with her own interests and complexities, rather than a middle-aged man’s approximation of a teenage girl for the service of teenage boys. It’s easy to see how Hodson could bring a similar consideration to Barbara Gordon, who has faced her own trials in the hands of men for the service of men.
Talk to any well read comic book fan and bring up the name Barbara Gordon and one of the first things you’ll hear referenced is The Killing Joke, or Alicia Silverstone. But for the sake of argument, let’s just go ahead and make the tough call and say The Killing Joke has had stronger staying power than Batman & Robin (1997). The acclaimed 1988 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland is simultaneously one of the best Joker stories and one of the worst Batgirl stories. The central thrust of the story involves Batman seeking to put an end to the Joker once and for all, while an origin story for the Crime Prince of Crime is explored through a series of flashbacks. In an effort to drive Commissioner Gordon mad with “one bad day,” the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon through the spine and paralyzes her, taking photos of her naked body to torture a drugged Gordon with.
It’s one of the darkest moments in DC’s history and while Batman has a history of sidekicks getting brutally beaten or murdered, Barbara Gordon, featured as defenseless and out of costume, feels different. It is different. Ultimately, Barbara Gordon’s paralysis and abuse is a background factor in the story. It’s one of the first things we think of when we think of Barbara Gordon, but more often than not, it’s not the first thing we think of when we think of The Killing Joke. Barbara Gordon is made ancillary to the events of the story, her pain a notch on the belts of three men whose pain is resides at the forefront. Moore later expressed his regret towards that part of the story in a 2006 interview with Wizard magazine, where he was quoted saying “I asked DC if they had any problem with me crippling Barbara Gordon — who was Batgirl at the time — and if I remember, I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor on the project … [He] said, ‘Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch’. It was probably one of the areas where they should’ve reined me in, but they didn’t.”
Moore wasn’t reined in, but over the years as comics culture has shifted with the realization that women make up a large portion of the comic book readership, there have been attempts to offer reparations for Barbara Gordon. But before that, Kim Yale and John Ostrander saved the character from being disregarded by introducing her as the wheelchair-bound information broker, Oracle, in the pages of Suicide Squad in 1990. For many comic fans of a certain generation, myself included, Barbara Gordon was always Oracle. Oracle represented a major win for the representation of disabled people in media, and became an important part of the Batman mythos and, notably in the hands of Chuck Dixon and Gail Simone, the missing piece of the Black Canary/Huntress team-up Birds of Prey. So when DC decided to un-paralyze her in 2011 for its New 52 reboot, the decision proved to be understandably controversial. After all, it wasn’t like the universe was lacking in Batgirls with Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown having both adopted the role. In DC’s efforts to undo what had been a creative miscalculation, they alienated a fanbase that had invested nearly twenty years in Oracle.
Hodson finds herself in an interesting creative position with Batgirl. Barbara Gordon is the most recognizable name to hold the mantle, but many would argue that she was both more popular and better served as Oracle. But in order to get to Oracle, a terrible deed must be done. There’s not an entirely insignificant portion of fans who would love to see the The Killing Joke brought to screen in Batgirl, not because of some strain of moral deviance, but because its one of the industry’s most-celebrated works, one that some fail to understand is far more of a Joker story than anything else. There’s no fault in appreciating The Killing Joke, it’s a graphic novel I cite as one of my favorites, but there is fault in thinking of it as a Batgirl story, which it is most definitely not. In recognizing this, DC Comics has spent the past eight years continually moving Barbara Gordon away from The Killing Joke, not erasing the fact that it happened, but refusing to let Batgirl’s story be one of victimhood. She’s moved from being a grim and overcompensating figure at the start of the New 52 reboot, to a well rounded young adult living in Gotham’s hipster neighborhood in the hands of Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr. Even though the 2016 animated adaptation of The Killing Joke attempted to make Batgirl more central to the story, it seems clear that Barbara Gordon’s role in The Killing Joke is something best left behind. The evolving history of comic book canon is a beautiful thing, and mistakes of the past can allow moments of greatness to happen in the present, like a conversation on trauma shared by Barbara Gordon and Harley Quinn in the pages of Tom King and Clay Mann’s Heroes in Crisis No. 4. But within a film universe, operating under different rules and different concerns, perhaps Barbara Gordon doesn’t need that trauma, at least not the kind born from being a background player.
There will be plenty of preconceptions and misconceptions going into Batgirl, and undoubtedly plenty of opinions about who she should be and what she should represent. Undoubtedly the R-rating of Birds of Prey, and what will presumably be a PG-13 rating for Batgirl, will shade opinions on this and raise questions about how the two properties will inevitably interact. Those are questions best saved for another day, but Hodson has the ability to find the range of Barbara Gordon, one that isn’t limited by MPAA ratings. She’s not a symbol like Batman, but a human being, and that’s what makes the prospect of a Batgirl film with Barbara Gordon so appealing. And if Batgirl fans have anything to say about casting, then Hailee Steinfeld, whose voice Hodson manages to work so well with, would be the perfect choice to capture the complexities of Barbara Gordon.
Perhaps Batgirl could take a page from Steinfeld’s other film currently in theaters, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), which is sure to be a gold-standard of superhero movies going forward and perhaps just as influential to this next wave of superhero movies as The Dark Knight (2008) proved to be for the past ten years. With Cassandra Cain already set for a role in the DC films, and Stephanie Brown too much of a fan-favorite to sit on the sidelines for long, Batgirl doesn’t simply have to be a singular look at the superheroics of young women. Hodson has an opportunity to explore the history and legacy of Batgirl, one that is much richer than a single story from twenty years ago.
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