Batman: Death in the Family was a seminal event when it launched in 1988, getting comic book readers to phone a 1-900 number in order to vote whether Jason Todd — the then-Robin at the time — should live or die in following issues.
Now Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment are set to bring it back again, this time in the form of an interactive Blu-ray, filled with story branches and animated shorts, with each choice letting viewers not just decide Jason Todd's fate once again, but actually get to follow multiple strands of his story in experiences that vary in length depending on what you choose.
"I think it was Bruce Timm who said, 'You know, one of the most famous interactive audience choice moments was around the death of Robin [in] the Death in the Family stories. That's where they looped me in," explained Brandon Vietti (Young Justice), during a panel for the upcoming release during DC's FanDome event. Vietti, who directed 2010's animated feature Batman: Under the Red Hood, also wrote, directed, and produced the upcoming interactive experience.
Vietti, who loves interesting story structures, felt that this interactive "branch storytelling" method would be a great way to recreate that same event-of-the-same-name from 1988, while also updating the whole medium and giving viewers even more choices as they watch through.
"It won't play like a video game," stated Vietti regarding the experience. "There's one big branch that's 20 minutes. There are several others that are seven minutes long. There's one that's 30 seconds."
Vietti isn't the only familiar name returning for this project; also back in the recording studio are John DiMaggio (Adventure Time) as the Joker and Vincent Martella (Phineas and Ferb) as Jason Todd, expanding the role of the character he'd played the teenage version of 10 years ago in Under the Hood. (Supernatural's Jensen Ackles voiced the adult Todd, with Bruce Greenwood voicing Bruce Wayne/Batman.)
"Getting a chance to not just revisit this character, but going to different places with Jason Todd ... I had a great time revisiting him," said Martella of some of the highlights of returning to the role. "Every decision that you make can really impact where this character is going to go."
He added, "I think people are going to like the places where Jason Todd is going to go. It's very exciting and unexpected in a lot of ways."
Death in the Family offered Vietti the chance not just to add in new characters, but also to expand the roles of previously existing ones.
"You'll see some that were in the original Under the Red Hood movie but just didn't have a big role," teased Vienetti. "One of the characters I was pretty excited about bringing in is Talia al Ghul. I wanted to give her a little more importance in the story. [We] also brought in Two-Face, who actually does have a pretty important role in Jason Todd's backstory."
Gary Cole will be voicing Two-Face, while Zehra Fazal will play Talia al Ghul.
But while Vietti wasn't able to tease any of the storylines that fans might be able to expect in the upcoming release, he did touch on some of the themes he wanted to draw on.
"One of the things I loved about Judd's story in Under the Red Hood, and also I think it's one of the things that's evolved in Batman stories in general over the years, is themes of fatherhood and themes of family," said Vietti about Judd Winick's writing for the film, and Bruce Wayne's propensity for adopting "BatKids," as fans have come to call them. "The list has really gone on and on over the years. There are themes of family there, and in Under the Red Hood, it really strikes home in such a heartfelt and tragic way.
Adds Vietti of his goal while writing: "Every branch has that theme of fatherhood and family at the core of it."
DiMaggio brought up a different theme. "It's interesting how revenge plays in this all through these stories. It's compelling."
"There's lots of revenge in different ways, and what that means to a lot of these characters, and what redemption means to a lot of these characters," said the actor. "That was something I was focusing on in all these different storylines. Just things that you experience as a young adult and how that shapes you to now live in the world that you live in."
For Vietti, some of the things that place within the story — especially to Todd — really struck him as "horror material," which is something he really tried to lean into. "I was trying to make a bit of a horror movie. It's not really superhero material."
His other aim while writing the project was to load it with easter eggs for eagle-eyed fans, who might notice a few tucked here and there within the visuals of the film — such as an arcade named after Winick.
But if given the choice to vote in 1988, where would Martella, DiMaggio, and Vietti fall on the issue of letting Todd live? Well, all three said they'd pick to let him live, though Vietti has some hesitations.
"I'm not even sure if that's the compassionate choice," admitted the writer. "How horrible and tragic was that moment beaten with a crowbar and blown up in a warehouse? How do you recover from that? That's a really interesting character turn and a really interesting character story."
Added Martella: "You see that in this film. There are consequences to him living through that."
Batman: Death in the Family arrives on Blu-ray and Digital Tuesday, Oct. 13.
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