Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Animated Discussions: Batman Vs. Robin

In July of 2013, Warner Bros. Animation made a change to the way they were handling the DC Comics direct to DVD movie program. Instead of a series of one off stories, they were going to start making most of the animated features fit into a cohesive universe based loosely on the New 52. You haven't seen me talking about this new program thus far because I felt it met with mixed results. There was a feeling to me that they were pushing the boundaries of blood and violence simply because they could. But each none has gotten progressively better, and I would have written up the previous entry, Justice League: Throne of Atlantis, if not for want of time. But last week, Batman Vs. Robin was released, and I enjoyed it so much that I felt I had to write it up, despite being a bit behind the curve, putting the review up a week after release.

The plot revolves around two conflicts, one external to Batman's family, and one internal, that come together in the end. The external conflict is Batman dealing with the appearance of the Court of Owls, a secret society that has shaped Gotham City's history for centuries. The internal conflict is Batman dealing with his son, Damian, who came to live with him in an earlier film, Son of Batman, and who, having been trained by his maternal grandfather, Ra's al Ghul, to be a master assassin, is having a hard time fitting in with Batman's more strict morality. As the Court makes its play to not only destroy Batman and win Brcue Wayne to its side, Damian is wooed by Talon, the Court's assassin, to become his apprentice and abandon Batman.

This story isn't a direct adaption of any one story, but actually draws it's main inspirations from two, and neither of those is the Grant Morrison story, "Batman Vs. Robin." The first story is obviously Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's "Court of Owls," the very popular inaugural arc of the current volume of Batman. The Court and their Talon are the main antagonists of the film. The second story is the first arc of the second volume of Batman and Robin, "Born to Kill," by Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason. The stories are blended together well, having the Talon take the place of Nobody, the villain of the latter story, who was trying to win Robin away from Batman.

With a screenplay from comic book writer J.M. DeMatteis (who also wrote a handful of episodes of Justice League Unlimited and Batman: The Brave and the Bold), this is one of the best written of the DC animated movies. DeMatteis gets to the heart of Batman and Robin's relationship, and establishes the conflict between them well; it's not just that Damian is a brat with a chip on his shoulder, it's that Bruce doesn't know how to be a father. Nightwing and Alfred both appear, giving their own opinions on how Batman should be dealing with this, but they are used sparingly, allowing the conflict between father and son to keep the central place in the narrative.

By removing Lincoln March, the central villain of the initial Court of Owls story, the movie allows the Talon to take center stage as the villain. That Talon remains unnamed throughout the story, but his background is revealed, and he is not one of the Talons that we've met in the comics. His background is not a direct parallel for Batman's, making him another anti-Bat, but with his training and his being raised by a criminal father he betrays to the police, it's clear that he is meant to understand Damian and what it's like to have a father who doesn't understand and love you, allowing for a logical conflict between Batman and Talon for Damian's loyalty.

The new animated style is also starting to grow on me. While it's not as clean as the classic Bruce Timm style, it has a great sense of fluidity and lends itself to more detail. The designs for the Talons, and the creepy way they move and heal, was a highlight of the movie. The characters in costume look great, but the one place I feel still needs a little work is some of the more sedate moments. This style is very action oriented, so the faces when not masked or in motion can occasionally look a bit off model, with oddly flat faces.

Jason O'Mara, now in his fourth outing voicing Batman, has grown well into the role. It's always hard to hear a new Batman, since Kevin Conroy has inhabited the role for so long, both in screen and in my head, but O'Mara is finding a nice balance, making his voice gruff but understandable. Stuart Allan also does a good job as Damian; it's not often that an actual kid voices a kid in an animated feature, but Allan is a professional, and his Damian can sound both haughty and tragically young at the appropriate times. Jeremy Sisto, who once voiced Batman in the Justice League: The New Frontier feature, voices Talon, and is well suited for the villain. Because it's a Batman project, do keep your ears open for the requisite Kevin Conroy cameo, this time as Bruce's father, Thomas, who gets to read the Court of Owls nursery rhyme. And listen for a brief appearance by an almost unrecognizable Weird Al Yankovic as this world's version of the Dollmaker, who combines the version from the pre-Flashpoint continuity with the current version, giving him an interesting and creepy tie to classic Superman villain, Toyman

I know there has been some grumbling from various internet corners about Warner adapting these new stories when there are so many classics to still be adapted. But for the reason that they're new and can be changed, versus something like Killing Joke that is etched in stone after twenty plus years of being regarded as a classic, it makes sense to me. While I too would love to see Kingdom Come on my TV, this is anew bit of universe building. And if Batman Vs. Robin is any indication, this new program is moving in the right direction.

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