Warner Bros. (2015), Warner Home Video (April 14, 2015), 1 Blu-ray + 1 DVD, 80 mins, 16:9 ratio, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Rated PG-13, Retail: $29.96 (regular edition without figure: $24.98)
Bruce Wayne’s newly revealed son continues to challenge his father’s authority in terms of both parenting and how to treat criminals, leading to a showdown between the two caped crime fighters. But neither Batman nor Robin realizes that Damian is being viewed as a pawn by a secret society in Gotham City. If Gotham is to be saved, they shall have to learn to work together.
The Sweatbox Review:
More and more, these DC Animated Movies are feeling like advertisements for whatever comic is a top seller at the comic shops these days. It was one thing when they were adapting supposedly “classic” stories (even if some of their choices could have been better), but the current idea seems to be to push whatever popular tale came out recently, as if to simply bolster sales of book collections just coming onto the shelves at bookstores. The age of corporate synergy is well upon us, with the multinationals apparently thinking that we don’t just want more of the same— we want exactly what we just read to appear on our TV screens.
Well, that’s not entirely fair. The people behind the DC animated movies have been giving things their own twists, so that the movies are not simple retellings of the comics. In the case of Batman Vs. Robin, the springboard might appear to be the writing of Grant Morrison, who introduced us to bat-spawn Damian Wayne a few years ago in the comics. One collection of his stories, after all, is named Batman Vs. Robin, though in those tales Batman was actually Dick Grayson and not Bruce Wayne. Actually, the meat of the movie’s plot comes from other sources, namely books written by Scott Snyder and Peter Tomasi. It was Snyder who created the Court of Owls, a secret society operating in Gotham City, led by its richest citizens. Meanwhile, it was Tomasi that fleshed out the dynamic between Bruce and Damian (this was after Bruce apparently returned from the dead), and gave us a story of how Damian was almost swayed away from Bruce by another man of mystery.
Batman Vs. Robin, the movie, was written by respected comics scribe J.M. DeMatteis, who is known for adding a superior psychological nuance to his work. It is up to him to combine the various plot threads from the comics, and fortunately he delivers a script that is strong in terms of dealing with the complex nature of each character’s psyche, and how they interact with one another. He begins his story with Damian in Robin garb, tracking the Dollmaker, a psychopath who has kidnapped many children from Gotham City. We quickly find out that Robin left Gotham on his own, leaving Batman to track him down, angrily voicing his disagreement with Robin’s choices. It is clear that Batman not only fears for his son’s safety, but also has yet to develop trust in him. Damian was trained to be an unfeeling assassin, and Bruce knows that Damian could easily revert back to his old ways of thinking.
Batman’s worst fears appear to be realized after a vicious fight leaves Dollmaker dead. Though it turns out that another man is responsible, the other choices that Damian made that night put him in the doghouse, so that he is forbidden from leaving the grounds of Wayne Manor. This sets up further tension between father and son, even as Batman goes on to investigate the murderer of Dollmaker, with the first clue being an owl feather left at the scene. Bruce recalls tales his father told him when he was a boy, involving a legend about a secret group that ruled Gotham City. This Court of Owls had an enforcer named Talon, and it isn’t long before Batman’s investigation brings him face to face with the supposed myth and his army of Talon zombies.
Once Robin escapes his housebound imprisonment (getting away from a babysitting Nightwing, no less), he too finds himself facing Talon. But rather than a fight, Talon wishes to speak with Robin. He is more interested in turning Robin against Batman, and he has witnessed the friction between the two. Using this to his advantage, Talon coerces Robin into considering becoming his partner.
Ironically, the Court of Owls has plans for Bruce Wayne too. They also arrange for a little chat, and make Bruce an offer to have him join the Court. Bruce’s assured refusal is in stark contrast to the conflicted Damian, who prefers Talon’s company to his father’s but can’t shake the influence of Bruce’s morality. So, even as Damian disappoints Talon, Robin still comes to blows with Batman in an extended fight sequence that underlines just how damaged the Waynes are psychologically. We have all had quarrels with our dads, but the violence of the fight between Batman and Robin left me thinking that they are both seriously disturbed and even pathetic. I don’t fault the script for this, as I can’t see a DeMatteis comic go quite so far as the onscreen violence gets here; instead, I think it is the judgement of director Jay Oliva that comes into question. Oliva loves his fight scenes, and this one is well choreographed; but I don’t think such a display between two supposed heroes does much to have us root for either of them. Superhero battles may be a time-worn trope in comics, but having a father and son go at it so forcefully is really kind of sickening. (An earlier fight between Robin and Nightwing is somewhat more restrained.)
The film gets back on track somewhat as Robin’s reluctance to heed’s Batman’s advice gets him into trouble, and Bruce finds himself attacked by another zombie army. With a common foe revealed, Batman and Robin rediscover their faith in each other, and re-establish the parent-child bond while bringing defeat to their enemy. Past excesses in the movie’s direction are revisited in some gruesome fight sequences, but at least all out heroes are on the same side by this time. The quality of the script shines through at the end, though, as we witness an unusual father and son discussing their issues and coming to a mutual understanding.
In many ways, this is one of the better quality scripts that has been produced for a DC animated movie. The psychological depth is impressive, and there are some moments of truly solid character development. DeMatteis also uses a number of flashbacks and dream sequences effectively to illuminate the characters’ inner feelings. However, a few other issues hamper the movie, including an overly convoluted plot that ties in several elements from the comics skilfully, but then leaves numerous plot holes. The actual aims of the Court remain somewhat vague, as are their plans for Batman, who could have easily been killed by them on at least a couple of occasions. The bloody resolution also leaves many more questions in terms of what will happen to Gotham City next; the ramifications aren’t immediately obvious, but when you think about who makes up the Court, one must realize that the fallout of the story’s conclusion would be massive; but this aspect is left untouched.
I would say this is a step up from last year’s Son Of Batman; but another pass at the script, and a less bloodthirsty director could have helped this film achieve the greatness it strode for.
Is This Thing Loaded?
The disc begins with Trailers for Justice League: Throne Of Atlantis and the upcoming Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts. More trailers are offered from the menu, including those for Son Of Batman, Lego DC: Justice League Versus Bizarro League, and Flintstones and WWE: Stone Age Smackdown.
The Blu-ray contains a number of good bonus features pertaining to the feature, beginning with the featurette Gotham City’s Secret: The Mythic Court Of Owls (31:25). Featuring Scott Snyder and his artistic collaborator Greg Capullo, plus other erudite commentators, the story from the comics is discussed, as well as the implications for creating something that affects the history of Batman’s town. The court mythology gets examined further by the same folks in The Talons Of The Owls (14:03). It’s always nice to get some extra background on the stories that inspired the movie, especially when we can hear from the creators.
The movie’s Audio Commentary is a lively one with Mike Carlin from DC Entertainment, supervising producer James Tucker, and director Jay Oliva. Not a moment goes by without someone having something to say in this informative discussion.
Sneak Peak at Justice League: Gods & Monsters (11:08) contains quite a bit of finished animation, with the upcoming movie’s creative peole describing how it will focus on an alternate reality. This is Bruce Timm’s baby (though he doesn’t direct), so fans will be sure to look forward to it.
The 4 Bonus Cartoons include two stories that see Batman at odds with a grown-up Dick Grayson: The Color Of Revenge from Batman – The Brave And The Bold, and Old Wounds from Batman: The Animated Series. Then there are two more random choices, Obsession from Superman: The Animated Series, and Auld Acquaintance from Young Justice.
And, for some reason, they decided to pitch in a random Merrie Melodies cartoon, Super Rabbit. Odd, sure, but one can never decry having extra Bugs Bunny on hand.
The included DVD has all the same DC and Flintstones animated trailers, plus the JL: Gods And Monsters preview.
The Blu-ray case contains both a Blu-ray and a DVD, each one occupying one side of the case. An insert is included for an Ultraviolet code. The cover slip is elaborately embossed, making the cover image all the more striking. The version we received for review is the deluxe one with larger outer box to accommodate a Batman figure. The highly detailed figure is not articulated, and stands 3” high. If I had paid an extra $4 for this version, I don’t think I’d feel cheated. It’s quite nice.
Ink And Paint:
The 16:9 image is as close to perfect as I require. These releases are always getting knocked for banding issues, but I see nothing too obtrusive. It may depend on your equipment, but in my opinion, this transfer is pretty darn good. The “soft lighting” approach that these features often have was not even done to an annoying extent this time, allowing for a pleasing, solid image.
The DTS-HD master Audio 5.1 track is impressive, opening with some nice low frequency effects as Robin charges after the Dollmaker in the Batmobile, and the audio never lets up with its involving surround effects. Every punch gets its due, and every raindrop or random noise in the environment helps to keep the story’s immediacy for the viewer. Dialog never gets drowned out, despite a very active mix and thundering music. Nicely done.
The Blu-ray also carries Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in French, German, and two forms of Spanish; and subtitles in English (for the hearing impaired), French, Thai, German, and Spanish (both forms again). The DVD carries Dolby Digital audio tracks in English, French, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, and Thai; and subtitles in the same languages plus Chinese and Korean.
To say that Batman Vs. Robin is not as offensively dumb as Son Of Batman would be faint praise, but there is actually some real positive news here. J.M. DeMatteis proves himself an able screenwriter, offering a nicely nuanced blend of pathos, action, and intense character studies. The director, of course, had to go and turn the film into yet another over-the-top exercise in violence that includes a brutal exchange between a father and son that, while fulfilling the promise of the cover and the movie’s title, does little to make us admire our heroes. Still, the script has enough interesting stuff in it to keep a thinking viewer interested.
I’ve never been a fan of the Court of Owls concept, and the movie didn’t change my mind. I am, however, a big fan of the Damian Wayne concept, and that aspect is well handled in most places here. Given where the comics went next, we just may see him meeting the Joker next. I would be looking forward to seeing that! With solid video and great audio, plus a number of informative bonus features, this disc gets a reserved “thumbs up.”
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?