One of the most famous comicbook stories of all time, The Killing Joke is coming to screens - not the big, silver kind, but small screens in the form of an R-rated animated movie. The comic, by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, was intended as a one-off tale, but wound up influencing the DC Comics universe for decades anyway (including massive changes to specific characters).
Initially, one of the stars of the film had some hesitation in adapting it. Mark Hamill, who has now voiced the Joker in numerous projects for television and videogames for 24 years, told Empire in a preview feature on the film that he's "a Killing Joke purist" and wanted to do a very different take on things.
"When they first talked about it, I said, 'The only way we can do this is as a book on tape so that we honor every comma, every word, every letter, every syllable of Alan Moore's script. We can add music and special effects to enhance it.' They kind of said, 'What are you talking about? Nobody is doing this as a book on tape. It's not commercially viable for us to do it that way. See if you can get the rights and record it in your basement or something if that's what you want to do. This story has to be expanded.'"
The story, then, sees brand-new Barbara Gordon material, helping to better establish Batgirl in this universe before she experiences terrible trauma.
Once recognized that they needed more material in order to make a feature-length film, producer Bruce Timm said they "took that opportunity to basically tell a Batgirl story, which we don't often get a chance to do these days. And it was great, because we could spend more time with her as a character and get to understand what she's all about and how she's similar to Batman in some ways, and really different in others." Their reasoning for crime-fighting, and even how they do it, is very different, and gets showcased here.
That does underline that the rating for this film, the first such rating for a DC Animation project, is there for a reason.
"Even that surprised me, how edgy the Batgirl material was," Hamill said. "It really isn't for kids. I hope people understand when they say it's R-rated, they mean it."
When the story first came up as an animation possibility years ago, WB was going to adapt it as only a "shorter movie at a lower price point" in case the R rating meant reduced sales, Timm revealed. "But right around the time we were ramping up, the Watchmen movie was released and underperformed. Everybody kind of took a step back and said, 'Well, maybe the time's not right for an R-rated superhero movie, so put it on the shelf.'"
The Killing Joke movie idea came up again a few years later, but gun violence in the real world, associated with Batman, pushed back production once more.
"It came up again and we even had started production with character designs and stuff. But then that horrible shooting at the Dark Knight Rises theater happened and everybody got nervous again about it, because of gun violence, so we put it back on the shelf," Timm said. Finally, when it came up a third time, they figured out how to do it.
The film's story is unique, Hamill says, because "the Joker is so unrelenting in his lack of humanity." He had to ask himself "what did I just record?" during some days in the booth. Conversely, Batman's humanity "comes through so much more in this script" said fellow two-and-a-half decade voice actor Kevin Conroy, who returns as Batman here. "The struggle of Batman with evil and with wanting to reconcile himself to evil, to subdue evil and actually save the Joker. That's the wonderful thing about this script."
Batman: The Killing Joke hits digital HD on July 26, 2016 after premiering at San Diego Comic Con, and hits Blu-ray and DVD on August 2, 2016.