This past weekend at WonderCon, as they’ve done for the past several years now, Warner Brothers Animation gave fans an early viewing of their latest movie, and this year it was Batman Vs. Robin. Essentially a straight sequel to last year’s Son of Batman, this movie reunites the voice cast from that film, with Jason O’Mara as Batman and Stuart Allen as Robin/Damian Wayne, although this time with veteran comics writer J.M. DeMatteis writing the screenplay, and Justice League: War’s Jay Oliva directing. Both creative change-ups helped this movie become a marked improvement over the last installment and, in fact, the last several installments of DC’s animated film series.
Ever since the departure of Bruce Timm as executive producer from the DC Universe animated films, there has been quite a bit of a decline in quality across the board for the entire series, and I’ve been pretty harsh on almost all of the post-Dark Knight Returns DC animated films. With the change in approach to the animated films, Warner Animation is trying to create a unified look and feel for all of its movies, largely based on the New 52 comics continuity. Unfortunately, it has resulted in a lot of generic movies as of late that all look, feel, and sound the same. Moreover, they just couldn’t compete with the better DC films from the past few years.
I’m happy to say that Batman Vs. Robin turns this all around for me. Sure, the title is generic and clunky and totally lacking in poetry, but this movie does everything right that Son of Batman failed to do, despite having many of the same creative people behind the scenes for both movies. Like most of the better DC films, this one wasn’t a direct adaptation of any one particular story; rather, they cherry-picked and combined elements from various comics, specifically Grant Morrison’s Batman run and Scott Snyder’s “Court of Owls” storyline. In the comics, neither of these stories really had anything to do with each other, but the way in which J.M. DeMatteis brought these two disparate storylines together was inspired.
Batman Vs. Robin picks up a few months after the last installment, Son of Batman, with Bruce’s son Damian trying to adjust to life with a father that disuades killing instead of encouraging it like his grandfather, Ra’s al Ghul, did. The opening fight sequence has the two fighting the Dollmaker, an especially creepy villain played by none other than “Weird Al” Yankovic, who does an appropriately unsettling job as the villain. It’s an excellent way to start the movie, and it really shows the difference between how our two heroes approach crimefighting. “Justice, not vengeance,” Batman keeps telling Robin, but you can’t help but feel this message is having a hard time sinking in after a lifetime of being raised by assassins. As the rift between the two starts to become apparent, Batman’s newest villains, the Court of Owls, see an opportunity to use this wedge to their advantage.
The addition of the Court is one of the main elements that gives this movie a cooler edge than others. Although the bulk of Batman’s most iconic villains were created in the 1940s, it seems that at least once a decade, the comics create a new villain who achieves truly iconic Bat-villain status. (In the ’60s it was Poison Ivy, the ’70s gave us Ra’s al Ghul, the ’80s brought Killer Croc, the ’90s introduced Bane, and the past decade gave us one villain in the form of many with the Court of Owls). This movie is the Court’s first appearance outside of comics, but they make the transition to the silver screen quite well, with all their creepiness firmly intact, even if some of the details of their organization are missing.
In the film as in the comics, the Court of Owls are a monolithic secret society comprised of Gotham’s most powerful individuals, who have been pulling the strings of everything that goes on in Gotham City for generations — think Marvel’s Hellfire Club meets the weird sex cult of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. However, this secret society has no use for a winged vigilante getting in the way of any of their plans for Gotham. So while the Court is doing its best to seduce Bruce Wayne into joining, they’re also trying to bring down his alter ego once and for all.
Their key to doing this is to try to seduce Robin to their side, and they use one of their agents, the Talon, who had a similarly strained relationship to his own father, to do just that. The interesting thing is that although the Talon is clearly a bad guy, the movie shows that he really does care for Robin, and think that his way is really the best way; none of the emotional stakes in the movie would have worked without this being the case I don’t think. The tug of war between Batman and the Talon is what gives the movie all of its weight.
As for the action, I have to say that the fight scenes were also some of the best I’ve ever seen from one of these DC animated films. While I felt that the action leaned a bit too heavily into gratuitous gore seen in the Son of Batman, here it’s pretty brutal without going into the zone of fetishizing the brutality, which the last movie definitely did. It’s a fine line, but director Jay Oliva manages to walk it. The actual Batman versus Robin fight doesn’t take up that much screen time, but it’s very well staged and animated, and the climactic fight scene finds things for the whole Bat-family to do, including Nightwing (who has a smallish role, voiced by Firefly’s Sean Maher) and Alfred. In terms of sheer action, this ranks among the best of the DC movies.
In Son of Batman, I didn’t much care for the voice acting. Although it is mostly the same cast here, everyone stepped up their game in this one. Jason O’Mara does a more than admirable job as Batman, not an easy task considering he has to follow Kevin Conroy, who most see as the definitive animated Dark Knight (and has a cameo in this movie as well). Ultimately, Batman Vs. Robin is a step in the right direction for the DC animated films, and I hope the folks at Warner Brothers give director Jay Oliva the chance to finish this “Batman and Robin” series of films in a proper way.
Batman vs. Robin arrives April 14 on Blu-ray, DVD and digital HD.
RATING: 3.5 OUT OF 5 BURRITOS