Alan Moore and Brian Bolland‘s 1988 graphic novel “Batman: The Killing Joke” is one of the most acclaimed stories in DC Comics history, and it’s also one of the most controversial. It turns out that one of those people with complicated feelings towards the “Killing Joke” is the producer behind the recently released animated adaptation, Warner Bros. animation veteran Bruce Timm.
“There were things about the comic that frankly have bothered me for decades, but I decided going in, I’m not going to try to put my stamp on the movie. I’m not going to try to change it and make it better or whatever,” Timm told CBR in a video interview last month at Comic-Con International in San Diego (view the full interview above). “We’re going to do a straight adaptation of the comic. I’ve been ambivalent about the comic for a long time. But it’s a great comic. It’s definitely disturbing on a lot of levels, but we didn’t back away from any of that.”
The bulk of the controversy surrounding “The Killing Joke” — since its release and still today — centers on the story’s treatment of DC’s most famous Batgirl, Barbara Gordon, who is shot by the Joker (leaving her paralyzed), stripped naked and photographed.
While the animated adaptation retains much of Barbara Gordon’s “Killing Joke” story arc, it also adds new elements to her story — including a sexual relationship with Batman. While those additions have also been criticized, Timm stated that the intent was to give her more of a role to play in the overall narrative.
“In the comic, she basically shows up and gets shot, and then we see her and she’s a crippled victim in a bed, and that’s the last you see of her,” Timm said. “To me, one of my favorite things about the movie is the whole first half of the movie, before we even get to ‘The Killing Joke.'”
“You get what she’s about, you set her up,” “Killing Joke” director Sam Liu told CBR. “The way they constructed it, it gives you everything you need. It helps it as far as being a movie.”
According to “100 Bullets” and “The Dark Knight III: The Master Race” writer Brian Azzarello, who wrote the screenplay for the adaptation, there was also a very practical reason for adding new story beats: “If we had done a straight adaptation, it would have been very short.” (The “Killing Joke” comic is 48 pages long, a little more than the size of two single comic book issues from its era.)
Though DC’s straight-to-home release animated features have leaned somewhat into adult material before, “The Killing Joke” is the first to receive an R-rating — something rare even for live-action adaptations of mainstream superheroes (though, given the R-rating for the “Ultimate Cut” of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” not unheard of for DC). Timm told CBR that while an R-rating wasn’t a specific target, it was something the creative team behind the adaptation always realized was a possibility.
“We made the decision early on to not back away from the controversial elements of the story,” Timm said. “We figured if we’re going to do it, we’re going to be crucified if we don’t stick to the spirit of the comics. We decided not to tone anything down.”
According to Timm, Warner Home Video was supportive of entering uncharted territory with “The Killing Joke.”
“We told them, straight up, at the very beginning, ‘This could end up with an R-rating. Are you OK with that?’ ‘Yeah, it makes us a little nervous, but if it has to be an R-rating, then, yes,'” Timm related. “When we did the movie, from the script onward, we didn’t try to go for the R-rating — ‘here we go, brains and boobs everywhere’ — but at the same time, we didn’t try to tone it down.”
Starring Kevin Conroy (Batman), Mark Hamill (the Joker), Tara Strong (Barbara Gordon/Batgirl) and Ray Wise (Commissioner Gordon), the animated adaptation of “Batman: The Killing Joke” is available now on multiple platforms.
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