Movie Review– Son of Batman (2014)

sonofbatmanlogoWith SPOILERS, naturally!

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Digital download available on iTunes from April 22nd
Digital rental available from May 6th
Home Entertainment pack available on DVD/Blu Ray from May 6th

First of all, let’s be clear: this movie is primarily for comic fans. If you are merely a casual Batman acquaintance, a primarily animated-Batman fan, or just a general animation aficionado, you will find this a nice looking film with some interesting sequences, especially the fight choreography, naturally. Of course, you will also find a lot of superficial character interaction that ventures confusingly close to melodrama, as well as a plot that doesn’t really care to do much more than rely on the high concept already summarized by the film’s title.

OK, so if it’s for comic fans, will THEY enjoy it? Will they enjoy seeing the characters they’ve followed for years distilled into underdeveloped, cliche, 74-minutes versions of themselves? I hope so. But then again, in doing so, aren’t you really just watching it to see a watered-down visualization of something you’ve already read? Does this film really just become like a frat boy with one in-joke in his repertoire, one which he loudly proclaims to his own amusement and to others’ bewilderment? “HA! The *SON* of BATMAN!” he chortles, and everyone else arches an eyebrow and says, “yeah? ‘AND…?!'”

META-COMMENTARY: Please note, I AM indeed aware of the comicbooks that serve as source material for the film, but I am trying here to judge the film as a work in and of itself; the film should try to be its own entity and rise or fall by its own identity, right? After all, this film is being praised by Mary Ellen Thomas, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Vice President of Family & Animation and Partner Brands Marketing, who says in an official press release that the company is “proud to release this title as the 20th DC Universe Animated Original Movie.” It’s also an important piece of the company’s “Batman 75” promotion, which aims to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Batman’s creation.

So, spoilers, in case you watch the movie and somehow failed to read the title– Batman/Bruce Wayne has a son. Obviously, the movie centers around this premise, providing a lot of set-up until Batman and Damian, his son, meet for the first time, and then it continues with what is essentially Damian’s story, as he becomes Robin in seeking revenge on Deathstroke for his attempts to kill his family and take over their legacy, the League of Assassins.

It’s a pretty straightforward story, and one that allows action to naturally be at the forefront– Damian is introduced when a seemingly peaceful Asian monastery (nonetheless called the League of Assassins) is attacked by armed mercenaries of some kind; Later, Batman is introduced by taking down a crazed villain; in this case, Killer Croc. In the former, watch for Talia (who doesn’t get the moniker “Mother of Son of Batman”) using a pump-action shotgun to mow down rows of soldiers, as well as firing a Gatling gun that shoots hundreds of arrows at a time. In the same scene, Ra’s al Ghul (at first just called “grandfather”) single-handedly faces a cascade of bullets from close-range fire, all by deflecting them with his sword.

Clearly the film doesn’t forget this is a superhero action flick, and superheroic action is peppered throughout. The fight scenes are often quite visceral (earning a PG-13 rating) and all have several well-choreographed moves. There’s nothing too groundbreaking, perhaps, except in the sense that Damian/Robin is a kid and can have a different range and timing when fighting adults. The final showdown between Robin and Deathstroke is perhaps the most visceral of all, and the location of scene on a burning scaffolding allows for some genuine tension. Notice a subtle touch here– Damian’s finishing move has more than a little parallel with Batman’s previous move when finishing off the Man-Bats earlier in the movie.

While action is certainly the film’s strong point, the development of plot points themselves are clearly very weak. There are way too many instances of key elements that appear in a line of dialogue, but are never explored or developed nor are their implications considered. As I said above, for newcomers to Batman’s world, this is very confusing, whereas comic fans will certainly accept this without a problem.

One glaring example is in the first meeting of Talia and Batman in the film. Talia recaps their relationship for the viewer’s benefit, which basically amounts to a thinly-veiled description of Batman being date raped. There’s no reaction from Batman beyond agreeing that “it wasn’t all bad.” Comicbook fans will no doubt appreciate the significance of the relationship between the two, but out of context, the viewers can only assume something much more limited, and therefore unsatisfying. Maybe in this universe, Talia and Batman had one tryst about eight years ago and for some reason Batman never took down an organization calling itself the League of Assassins in the intervening time. Afterward, Talia leaves the two together, sailing away without comment and won’t be seen again in the film for quite some time.

Really, the movie is supposed to be about Damian himself. Batman and Talia and Nightwing (the previous Robin) are regulated into supporting roles for Damian going through the standard tropes of the Hero’s Journey. It is he who has the Call to Adventure, and his is the Thresholds, the Mentor (in Batman), the Gifts (of the Robin suit), and the Temptation (of revenge) and Return (accepting his role as Robin.) Pretty much every story beat is Damain’s, but what’s weird is that it’s all from the perspective of Batman. How dare the Title Hero get in the way of this Batman movie!

Case in point– Damain breaks into Wayne Enterprises and confronts Bruce in his executive office. Story-wise, it shows off Damain’s ninja-skills. Thematically, it’s a way to parallel Damian’s place in the League with a place in Wayne Enterprises. Hero Journey-ly, it’s part of “Atonement with Father” trope. However, the whole scene is done from the point of view of Bruce Wayne, who ushers all his assistants out of the way and never bothers to explain to anyone why he’s trying to secretly hide a young boy in his office. Add a laugh track and what could be a dramatic journey for Damian is merely a punchline in the Wacky Misadventures of Bruce Wayne.

It shouldn’t make for an unbalanced tone overall, but it does. Is the film trying to be a comedy? an adventure? a character piece? Damian fulfills his heroic journey, but he spends the majority of it being snarky, petulant, and pretty much unlikeable until his last-minute change of heart appears, without very little build-up. And how does the story change the other characters, such as Batman? Not much. Should we consider that he appears to accept Damian in a new role as Robin? Well, he kind of did that already from the very beginning, didn’t he?

Also? Damian apparently hasn’t seen this pic:

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While I can’t say Batman does (or even should) change in this story, I give credit to the writers for helping establish Batman’s motivation, when he explains why heroes do what they do (and perhaps why he doesn’t use guns, doesn’t just kill the Joker, etc.) “You can’t fight crime by becoming a criminal.” Great line.

All of this discussion so far and I haven’t talked about the villain– which is perhaps appropriate because the film doesn’t really do that, either. He’s pretty much there for some generic might-makes-right kind of motivation, with some generic “force the scientist to make my soldiers into monsters,” and, I suppose, because Deathstroke is popular in the comics and TV nowadays. In a couple of places, the dialogue sets up Deathstroke to be a kind of foil for both Batman and Damain, but nothing much more is done with that, so I can’t tell if I’m reading too much into it or if it’s genuinely supposed to be subtext.

The real problem is with Deathstroke’s voice (Thomas Gibson), which feels completely wrong. There are too many hints of “being unhinged” or “playfulness” (i.e. “Joker”?) that does not match the way the character is portrayed at all, both in his story’s purpose and also his costume design. This could be a feature of the actual words in the dialogue, which are either generic villain-rants or over-the-top villain-glee.

Overall, however, the voice acting is perfect for Damian (Stuart Allen) and most of the supporting characters. Batman’s (Jason O’Mara, reprising the role from Justice League: War) fits much better in this film than in the previous; this could be due to O’Mara growing in the vocal performance or it could be that it blends well into the overall tone of Gotham City. However, there are times when the voice starts to crack a bit, showing that the graveling Batman-in-costume voice does not allow for much emotional range.

You can’t fault the art design for the film. The characters are well-depicted, with just a little touch of classic, “4-color” sensibility appropriate for capes and tights. In this respect, it’s pretty spot-on from the source material. (Deathstroke overdoes it with the modern-day penchant for shoulder pads and pinstriped body armor.) I would prefer a bit more classically American-style animation, with more of a sense of weight from the characters, more squash/stretch and follow through, but the Warner Bros./DC Animation unit’s aesthetic for this and their Justice League film seems to echo the more “serious” Japanese anime influence, complete with slightly stilted movement from pose to pose.

Once again, however, this “seriousness” that shows up in the animation, color palette, principal voice acting, heroic journey, and more, seems at odds with some inherently amusing and often downright melodramatic situations. The film must balance these realities, but it’s a wobbly balance. As I said, some comic fans will likely accept these wobbly bits without a problem, as it’s probably nothing they haven’t seen or considered already. The film thus may exist for them as a validation of some disbelief that has already long been suspended. As a work of art on its own, however, it’s only giving the bare basics, gleefully carrying its story along while ignoring those skeptical calls of “wait a minute…” along the way.

I’d like to give the film a “Yay!”, at least for the effort and for clearly taking itself seriously. And it sure deserves more than just a “Blech!”, but the final mark is appropriately just a short, clipped *tt…*

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(PS. You can read more thoughts after my first viewing here.)

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