“A Death in the Family” is probably one of the most well known Batman stories of all time. It’s been a cornerstone of Batman’s psychology since it happened, weighing him down with so much guilt over Jason Todd’s death at the hands of the Joker that it changed Batman’s character in every medium for a generation – you see hints of Jason’s fate 20 years later in Batman v Superman, even.
But as much as the fact of Jason’s death impacted Batman stories for decades, so too did its manner: “A Death in the Family” will always be remembered as the comic that gave fans a say in Jason Todd’s ultimate fate. They chose to murder a Robin. And in the latest DC Animated feature, you too will be able to choose to murder a Robin.
“This was the perfect opportunity now, with the Blu-ray technology that we’ve got to re-present that famous moment in comic history,” Batman: A Death in the Family producer Brandon Vietti tells us in an interview.
Vietti is an old DC animation hand, starting in the art department of Superman: The Animated Series before writing and directing several episodes of DC cartoons like The Batman, then directing features like Under the Red Hood (which also dealt with Jason’s death and subsequent resurrection), and producing the fan favorite series Young Justice. So not only does he have experience with this story, but he also has experience diverging and differentiating from the central DC narrative, a useful skill when writing a branching narrative adventure like this. He’s excited about bringing the viewer into the writer’s room, too.
“Every choice that I make for Jason and every choice presented to the viewer has to feel like a complete moment for Jason,” he says. “And it allows the viewer to be part of the writing process when they get to make these choices for Jason.”
Jason Todd may have been controversial as Robin, but it was “A Death in the Family” that elevated him to a core part of the Batman mythos, and “Under the Red Hood” that made him an enduring, top tier character – here was Bruce’s greatest failure, compounded by an unwitting abandonment, alive and challenging Bruce’s philosophical foundation every chance he got by explicitly refusing to use Bruce’s methods.
“My favorite Batman stories are the more cerebral ones,” Vietti says “I think there’s an element of the dark psychology involved, and I think that’s the appeal of Jason Todd is that he has a foot in both of those worlds.
And for a character who exists as the pinnacle of human accomplishment, psychological and motivational challenges are the most effective storytelling devices.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s got such a good Batman to work with. Bruce Greenwood (Thirteen Days) reprises his role as Batman, one he first performed in Vietti’s earlier Batman feature, Under the Red Hood. “I was incredibly moved by Bruce’s approach to Batman,” says Vietti. “I felt like Death in the Family’s story specifically was really presenting Batman as a father and I thought that was a really interesting story that I hadn’t seen a lot of before.”
Greenwood brought compassion and tenderness to the role, Vietti says, two characteristics he’s only let sneak through a few times in his years in the role on Young Justice and in the earlier feature.
Of course, there’s also a certain gruesome glee involved in branching, self-directed narrative storytelling. Everyone remembers at least one bad ending they stumbled across as a kid in one of these stories, whether it’s being kicked out of an airlock by a space vampire or being fed to sharks by a Thai druglord, half the fun of this type of storytelling came from the writers getting wild with the endings. It’s especially fun when writing a story with DC characters, Vietti says, because of the…multiversity…of source material.
“Any one of these branches could spin out into just its own different universe that you’re in control of,” he tells us. “And you can affect the main continuity in brutal ways, and I’m not going to get into all of the different brutal ways that we did that, I want people to discover that, but there were no holds barred in creating these new branches.”
Batman: A Death in the Family releases on Blu-ray on October 13th.