Before the World Premiere of DC Animation’s newest installment of the Bat-verse, fans in front of me were excitedly whispering about the film. They were bemoaning DC’s movie projects, wishing that the successes they have in animation could simply just carry over to live action projects. This has been the dream of nerds since way back in the glory days of Batman: The Animated Series. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy wiped away concerns, but that dark and gritty world he created has handicapped Man of Steel and could very well do the same to the forthcoming jumbled Batman vs. Superman and Justice League. In other words, fan worries are back.
It’s easy to see why comic book fans flock to these films, because they’re the most accurate adaptation of the medium you’ll find. The sequel is adapted from the wildly popular Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo story arc The Court of Owls, and for the most part, does a fairly great job. These films are also not just for kids, as Batman vs. Robin, the follow up to last year’s Son of Batman, is shockingly dark and adult. This is a movie that references David Lean’s 1948 Charles Dickens’ adaptation of Oliver Twist AND has a villain rip someone’s heart out of their chest.
While the legend of the Court of Owls and the army of Talon’s are ostensibly the main draw and center of the story, Batman vs. Robin is truly about the relationship between father and son. Damien Wayne, Bruce’s son and Ra’s al Ghul’s grandson, is understandably having some growing pains in his transition from 10 year old League of Assassin member to ward of Bruce Wayne and sidekick to Batman. You’d think Batman would have a greater understanding of a kid who’s just like him (aside from the killing part and the non-zero chance of becoming a Dexter like psychopath), but no, Batman struggles to grasp the whims of fatherhood like all of us. It’s mildly grating, but ultimately, the relationship between Bruce and Damien is the most genuine part of the movie, and packs a surprisingly emotional punch. Which is good, considering all the other punching going around.
There’s only so many fights and battles you can watch before it feels like you’re watching a rerun, or just become desensitized and numb to it. That’s even easier with a cartoon. There’s only so many versions of the same fight between Talons or Batman, Nightwing and Robin that I can watch before it devolves into video game button mashing. But still, the action sequences are compelling when they tell us something about these characters, as when Dick Grayson and Damien swap insults back and forth along with their impossible kicks. Sean Maher’s Nightwing, in a minor role, is one of the bright spots, grappling with Bruce focused on his real son and new Robin,the role that he grew up filling. There’s certainly more to tell here, but instead, Nightwing is moribund reaction shot central.
As you’d expect, Damien Wayne isn’t responding well to being cooped up in Wayne Manor, constantly leaving at night to fight crime. How dare he do exactly what Batman does, what his father does? The Cold Open takes Damien to the town of Ichabod (I wonder what that references), where he encounters the deranged and incredibly creepy Dollmaker (voiced brilliantly by Weird Al Yankovic; seriously), who has children in cages and has morphed other children into deranged doll mask wearing villains. Batman and Damien make quick work of them, and Damien, still getting used to the whole not killing thing, promises to “tear your heart out.” He doesn’t, but someone else does: Talon (Jeremy Sisto), who urges Damien to act on his instincts, before disappearing.
Soon, Batman is investigating the legend of The Court of Owls and Damien has found himself another father figure in Talon, one who’s even more manipulating than Bruce. He’s forced to choose between them, and this is where the “vs.” in the title comes in. Of course, the battle is really just an emotional one, than a level of Mortal Kombat. The Court of Owls are essentially Gotham’s upper class elite version of the “Greater Good” Gang from Hot Fuzz, deciding what’s best for the city at the expense of its citizens. They see Bruce Wayne and Batman as obstacles to their vision, somehow, despite all of their power and influence, not realizing that the two are one and the same. But hey, comic books.
In Scott Snyder’s original story, the Court of Owls were perhaps the most formidable villain that had been created for the character for years, decades even. He seamlessly wove a secret society into Gotham that didn’t feel formulaic and forced, and Talon and his army of regenerating soldiers, were scary. Snyder was injecting the Batman mythos with something new, and for once, you actually thought Batman might lose. That feeling of discovery is mostly lost in translation, as it simply doesn’t feel as exciting or different on screen, and thanks to Bruce Wayne’s superhuman healing abilities, you never really worry about the outcome. Not that you would anyway, but we like to pretend.
Kevin Conroy fans will be delighted to hear that he returns to the Bat world, voicing Thomas Wayne in flashbacks. Yes, this means we get another retelling of the murder of Martha and Thomas Wayne, though it does service the story. Plus it provides the unintentionally hilarious bad parent moment when Thomas tells Bruce of the terrifying legend of the Court of Owls before bed, then promptly leaves him. Bruce was going to be damaged either way!
Along the way, we get some ridiculous cleavage from Bruce’s love interest Samantha (Grey Griffin), Alfred stealing the show whenever he’s given a chance to speak, and the clunky, cheesy dialogue you might expect. But Batman vs. Robin works thanks to Bruce and Damien’s rocky relationship, and the rather mature way in which it’s dealt with. Plus, there’s a surprise and fan-favorite Batsuit to get excited for. The whole thing is fun, something the dark, gritty Zack Snyder movie verse we’re seemingly stuck with could learn from.
Batman vs. Robin arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray April 14th and on VOD this Tuesday, April 7th.