Making its world premiere this past weekend at WonderCon in Anaheim, Son of Batman is the latest DC Universe original animated film from Warner Brothers, the twentieth, in fact. Based on Grant Morrison’s story from 2006, which introduced Batman’s ten-year old son Damian Wayne as the new Robin, this movie takes the broad strokes of that story and reduces it down to a seventy minute film. And, for the most part, it succeeds, although there are several things in this movie that keep it from being a home run for me.
The plot of the movie is fairly straightforward; notorious Batman (Jason O’Mara) arch rival Ra’s al Ghul (Giancarlo Esposito) and his daughter Talia (Morena Baccarin) are attacked in their mountain stronghold, so Talia sends her son to hide with his father, who, it turns out, is Bruce Wayne (that’s not a spoiler; I mean, the name of this thing is Son of Batman, after all). During his exile from home, Damian (Stuart Allen) learns how to be a Robin, and how to learn to be a compassionate warrior and not just the lethal killer his mother and grandfather trained him to be. Add a lot of fighting, a dash of bratty remarks from Robin, and some family tension, and that’s pretty much your movie.
The movie opens with a giant attack on the hidden mountain fortress of immortal warlord Ra’s al Ghul by the mercenary Deathstroke (Thomas Gibson) and his men. After the attack, we see that Ra’s daughter Talia has brought her son Damian to Batman for protection against Deathstoke, and reveals to him the existence of his son in the process. This is an important moment in the life of Bruce Wayne that just goes by way too fast; Talia pretty much just shows up, says, “hey Bruce, this is your kid, OK later bye” and Bruce Wayne accepts this without so much as a DNA test. Sure Bruce, just take the word of your terrorist ex-girlfriend that you haven’t seen in a decade; there’s no reason she might be lying about the kid’s paternity or anything. While I realize this could have all happened off screen, the fact that they don’t bother to show any doubt in Bruce’s mind about his being the father of Damian, or dealing with the news that he is now a father, is just bad writing to me. They could have trimmed some of the first five minutes of non stop battle from the opening scene and used it to show Bruce questioning and then coming to grips with the idea that he has a son. This one thing would have elevated this movie a lot for me, and we never get to see it.
There is some other stuff that really rubbed me the wrong way about this movie, and I’m going to get these out of the way before I talk about what worked for me. For starters, the level of violence in the opening sequence in this was way over the top; I think it’s fair to say that the first eight minutes of this movie are the bloodiest and most brutal of any DC animated Batman movies to date, and maybe any of the live action ones too. the movie opens with Ra’s al Ghul and his family at his Himalayan mountain fortress overseeing his soldiers, the League of Assassins. Suddenly they are attacked from the air from mercenary soldiers in helicopters, lead by Deathstroke. During this fight, we see arrows go through necks, swords go through torsos, and blood spilling pretty much everywhere, and not for a little while, either; this goes on for a good five minutes, at least. This is the amount of blood that would have resulted in Chris Nolan’s films getting an R rating, but for some reason this is PG-13 in cartoon form. I get that these are Batman movies essentially geared towards older teens and adults, but by virtue of being Batman, younger kids are going to come across it. And there are ways of showing extreme violence from villains without being this bloody – the comics have found ways of doing it with the Joker for decades. In a nutshell, the graphic nature of the violence felt pretty gratuitous.
My second major quibble is the portrayal of Deathstroke in this movie. In the comics, Deathstroke is traditionally a mercenary who does horrible things to be sure, but more or less lives by a code of honor, twisted thought it may be. He takes jobs, he completes them, he gets paid for it. Quests for personal power, and feeling burned because someone else was chosen to run an organization in his place? None of that feels like Slade Wilson to me. And when you factor in all the other changes they made to him in this movie (like how he lost an eye), it feels like they could have used any generic bad guy. Why bother to use Deathstroke if he’s only barely gonna be the character? Aside from being a trained killer and his overall visual look, this Deathstroke feels like another character entirely. The version voiced by Ron Perlman in the Teen Titans animated series felt more like Deathstroke, and there he was just called Slade.
So what did I like about this movie? If this movie gets anything right, it is its portrayal of Damian Wayne. Stuart Allan brings the right bratty sense of superiority and entitlement to the part, and seems to be the only voice actor having fun with the role (what kid wouldn’t have fun playing Robin, especially this version of Robin?). Let’s be honest- Damian is the best Robin there has ever been, at least in terms of fighting skill and training, having been trained since birth to be the ultimate assassin. In the short running time this movie allows, we see a lot of that in play here. He plays off well against both Jason O’Mara’s Batman and Sean Maher as Nightwing. In fact, while I think O’Mara and Maher are fine in their roles, I think that Allan acts circles around them. He’s in nearly every scene, so he ends up saving parts of the movie that I otherwise found fault in.
The animation style also fits in nicely with this particular story; the design has a slightly anime look to it, and while I like it, it seems to be the new “house style” for these DCU animated movies; it’s what was used already in Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox and Justice League: War. As two of the three animated movies each year will be connected, continuity-wise, from now on, it also looks like they will be keeping the same animation style and voice cast for each of these. It’s not an ugly look, but it’s a little bland, and considering that 75% of their output is going to look like this from here on out, I would have hoped that more thought would have gone into it. But it’s a look that worked for this film anyway, and I liked it better than I did for the last two movies, I’d say. The fight sequences in this movie were extremely well animated, and since most of this movie is made up of fight scenes, I’d say it worked.
Ultimately, Son of Batman gets by on its well done action sequences and a fun performance from Stuart Allan as Robin, and is worth checking out for those two things alone. Damian’s version of Robin is no longer around (although maybe not for a lot longer) so those of you who have missed him might want to check out this one out for that reason alone. But having come off such stellar animated movies as The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Under the Red Hood, and Batman: Year One, this one can’t help but feel like it falls short of those earlier achievements.
Son of Batman will be released on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital download on May 6th, 2014.