Long-Awaited 'Batman: The Killing Joke' Movie Adds Batman-Batgirl Romance to the Consternation of Some Fans

The R-rated animated adaptation Batman: The Killing Joke is no laughing matter. Considered one of the greatest Batman stories ever — and featuring, arguably, the single best depiction of the Joker and his psychosis — it’s based on Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s 1988 graphic novel that has proven incredibly tricky to adapt for the screen. Finally, after three tries over the course of a decade, the animated feature version of The Killing Joke will arrive in theaters on Monday for a limited engagement before hitting home digital and disc formats. At San Diego Comic-Con on Friday, producer Bruce Timm (best known for his Batman, Superman, and Justice League animated series of the ’90s and ’00s) brought his creative team along to discuss the long-gestating project and premiere the movie for several thousand stoked fans.

First though, voice stars Kevin Conroy (Batman), Tara Strong (Barbara Gordon/Batgirl), and Ray Wise (Commissioner Gordon), along with Timm, screenwriter Brian Azzarello, and director Sam Liu swung by Yahoo Movies to recount the struggle to get the film off the ground. (Watch the video above.)

“This is the third time we’ve attempted to make this movie,” said Timm, who originally conceived of The Killing Joke as a short-form direct-to-video release. Despite its stark violence and polarizing story, which some critics have described as “torture porn,” DC and Warner Bros. backed the idea of an unfiltered adaptation. “Then the Watchmen movie came out [in 2009] and underperformed and they said, ‘Maybe this isn’t the time for an R-rated superhero movie.’”

“A couple years later we trotted it out again…. We started designs and some preliminary storyboard work and then the shooting in Aurora happened,” continued Timm, referring to the 2012 Colorado mass shooting where 12 people were killed and dozens more injured at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. “It was like, ‘Batman and gun violence: Maybe this isn’t the time to put this movie out.’ So then it went on the shelf again.”

Eventually, DC and Timm thought the timing was right and decided to green-light a feature-length version. But before production could begin, the brain trust needed to develop additional material to flesh out the story, since, per Timm, “the graphic novel would only give us enough for 30 minutes.”

According to Azzarello, the extended prologue, which delves into the early relationship of Batman and Batgirl and establishes their working dynamic, performs an important service. It fleshes out the character of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl, revealing how she begins her crimefighting career and how heat-of-the-moment sex with Batman derails their partnership. “She’s the only one who didn’t have an arc in the original story,” the writer said. “I think that really makes the movie,” added Timm. (That turned out not to be a universal sentiment, which caused some chaos after the film screened; more on that below.)


After the story was set, Timm was able to lock up Conroy, the longtime voice of the Dark Knight in animated shows, films, and video games. Timm also brought back Mark Hamill, who had perfected his Joker opposite Conroy on Batman: The Animated Series and continuing through the Batman: Arkham games. Hamill had since sworn off the role, saying he’d only return to the role if DC ever adapted The Killing Joke.

While Hamill was MIA from Comic-Con (he’s in England shooting a little something called Star Wars: Episode VIII), his performance was roundly praised by the filmmakers and cast mates. “All the Joker stuff he’s done before has led to this,” said Azzarello. Conroy says that acting against Hamill’s twisted Joker ”took me to places I’ve never been.”

And then, as the panel was about to being, the moderator got a phone call from Hamill. Hamill said he has been wanting to do this story for 22 years and relished the opportunity to participate. Then the Joker hijacked the proceedings, telling the audience to “enjoy the show, it’s just as depraved as all of you.”

In the room, reaction to the film’s late-night premiere seemed largely positive, with applause for all the key voices. Conroy and Hamill were in top form, and Hamill’s rendition of the Joker’s song “I Go Looney” is an instant classic. There was, however, a vocal minority put off by the Batgirl-focused early scenes. During the 20-minute post-screening Q&A, one fan questioned the need for the prologue and the insertion of sexual tension between the Bats. The filmmakers attempted to rebut the criticism. “I think she is stronger than the men in her life in this story,” said Azzarello. “I think she controls the men in her life in this story.”


At that point, someone shouted out, “Yeah, by sex…” Azzarello didn’t appear to hear the remark and tried to engage the critic, but the audience member didn’t immediately repeat his comment. (That prompted the writer to call the person a “p—y.”) Eventually the gist of the criticism became clear: Instead of empowering Batgirl, the prelude could be interpreted as demeaning or objectifying her (for instance, she’s the one seen stripping off her costume during her dalliance with Batman and then later complains to her stereotypically gay male friend about the resulting awkwardness.) “I think that both Batman and Batgirl make a series of mistakes that escalates…. That’s a very human thing,” said Timm, adding that he didn’t want to present Batman as “perfect,” and the early sequence shows he’s as fallible as anyone else.

Still, based on what a handful of viewers were saying on their way out of the theater, the controversy surrounding the source material might soon be supplanted by the controversy over the additional content.

There was one other question that came up at the end: Whether the filmmakers subscribed to the notion that the “killing joke” of the title means that Batman actually kills Joker at the conclusion of the story (something that’s not explicitly seen on the page or on screen). Timm, who was the only one to commit, firmly said no: “Personally, I don’t think he kills him.” Let the debate continue.

Batman: The Killing Joke will screen in select theaters on Monday and Tuesday via Fathom Events and be available for digital download on Tuesday. The physical version arrives on Blu-ray and DVD on Aug. 2.