Movie Discussion: Son of Batman (2014) — initial thoughts

Warner Bros. Animation has released their 20th animated feature today,                         Son of Batman,
available for download on iTunes now, rental on May 6, and in DVD/Blu Ray “Entertainment Pack” on May 6th.

There’s a lot I want to say but I will save for a longer review tomorrow. (Here it is!) My initial thoughts, however? I’m really disappointed that this does not seem aimed at casual viewers, since only those more vested in Batman lore will appreciate this film. I have to drop some spoilage here after the poster image, so if you want to preserve your virgin eyes, come back after watching the film…


UN-familiarity Breeds Contempt

First, consider if you were a viewer unfamiliar with the source material. I’ll grant you the fact that Batman himself may not be wholly unfamiliar, since at this point he is a kind of cultural touchstone, or at least everyone can recognize the masked crimefighter archetype.

But you can’t just name-drop “League of Assassins” and “Lazarus Pit” and rely only on the audience to fill in the correct information. In this film, in the very first scene we are introduced to Damian by name, and the League of Assassins, but why, exactly, this should be his “legacy” and what, exactly, this League is (aside from the obvious “assassin” part of their name) is all up to the viewer. I *guess* we should care about Damian, as he’s the only name we know at that point (soon someone calls out “Talia” so there’s that), and those soldiers are violently and relentlessly deadly. But aren’t assassins bad guys, so why *shouldn’t* they fall down with sprays of blood? In other words, the pathos given to us by the film (the grandfather fighting well, then dying, against what’s called a “hostile takeover” by a traitor) is confusingly at odds with our expectations. The audience is asked to accept only one context at this point, and since we usually take things at face value, there are obviously some conflicting implications to all of this. Hey, I’m all for a lack of obvious and redundant exposition, so thank you filmmakers for treating me like I’m smart, but this opening might be too much in the other extreme.

Maybe if we could have seen the League from the beginning *in action* being the “bad guys,” we would care why Damian should not pursue that legacy, and, ultimately, why he should stay with Batman. Even the bittersweet farewell to his mom at the end is sending mixed messages. Batman, just tell Talia she’s evil and that’s why Damian can’t stay with her!

Another example: Damian watches Slade escape and his vow to return, saying “Ubu!” We will learn in Act 3 that Ubu is the name of the man next to Slade. But until he’s taken down as a kind of Mini-Boss, there’s really no way for the audience to make that connection, so for all we know Damian just shouted a Asian swear word at that point or something. How about helping the viewer a bit? Do an more extreme close-up on Ubu, or add Ubu’s appearance earlier alongside the family, or even add a couple of words to Damian’s dialogue, something like “Who? Ubu!? No…”

Acceptance Isn’t Development

But no matter. Everything is engineered to just get Batman and Damian in the same room together as quickly as possible, after all. At that point, quips start to follow in more rapid succession, including the deadpanned “I thought you’d be taller,” “I can drive,” and a series of spoiled brat jokes with Alfred once Damain’s in the Wayne Mansion. But, shouldn’t there be ramifications and implications to all of this? I mean, I have to say Batman takes all of this all pretty well, with essentially no personal conflict over this situation at all. Strange, since its such an inversion of the basic tenets to his archetype.

Perhaps it’s a limitation of the animated medium– there’s a subtlety to body language and facial expression that a live actor (or admittedly a bigger budget) could give, and time to explore it. Curiously, the animators chose to not show any movement in Batman’s eyes. With the only movement ever being in his lips, the range of emotion/characterization of Batman in costume is entirely too limited. There is a nice scene when a Damian lookalike walks alongside a guy dressed from the past, and sure enough it’s a flashback to li’l Bruce Wayne and his father, paralleling Batman and Damian. Thankfully, we don’t get a rehash of the scene in Crime Alley/Batman’s origin in order to make this parallel work. If only the camera could linger a bit there, the filmmakers could allow the moment to breathe a little bit and let the implications and characterizations settle a bit.

Oh, and I really wanted one of Damian’s lines to be his characteristic “*tt*” just so that I could finally hear an “official” interpretation of that sound.

damianTT More review tomorrow!