Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Heath Holland On...Batman vs. Robin

by Heath Holland
Why is Batman fighting his friends these days?

Beware the Court of Owls, that watches all the time,
Gazing from the shadows, behind cement and lime.
They see you at the hearth, they see you in your bed.
Take care, beware, or they’ll send the Talon for your head

It’s been a while since I’ve written about one of these animated films based on notable DC Comics stories, but then, it’s been a while since they’ve given me reason to do so. Oh, there have been several animated projects released in the last couple of years, but they took a nose dive in terms of quality. One reason for this is because they followed the current path of DC Comics themselves, with a rebooted universe designed to be easily accessible for new readers and fans. A big magic wand wiped away a lot of what we knew. Now, after some growing pains, we’re finally given something worthy of our time that stands on its own as a narrative.

If you haven’t picked up a Batman comic book in the last few years, or if you haven’t watched the most recent handful of direct-to-video films, it could come as a surprise to learn that Bruce Wayne/Batman has a son named Damian with Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter, Talia. That story was covered in a previous film, Son of Batman, and is based on the comic book work of writer Grant Morrison. Damian, the new Robin, is a ten year old who is struggling to find his identity and torn between Bruce Wayne’s impossible obsessions and the ruthlessness of his mother and grandfather. The premise of Bruce Wayne learning that he has an adolescent son provides us with an opportunity to view Batman as someone we haven’t seen him as in a really long time: a father.
The other major player in Batman vs. Robin is the Court of Owls, which is a secret society of Gotham City’s most elite sons and daughters who have acted as an Illuminati for hundreds years, shaping and guiding the city from the shadows. They are more than willing to shed blood for the greater good of Gotham, and have near-immortal assassins as their pawns. The Court of Owls hail from a storyline in the comics written by Scott Snyder, and unfolded over the course of a year in the printed adventures of Batman. The idea behind the threat is revolutionary, and the comic broke new ground. That’s hard to do when you’re dealing with a character that has been around for over 75 years.

Batman vs. Robin attempts to marry the Damian storyline with the Court of Owls storyline, but ultimately proves to be too much for an 80-minute movie to tackle. Either of those stories would have been served well on their own, but uniting the two together means that both suffer some serious trimming. I could be wrong, though; I read the comics, so I didn’t go into the animated movie “pure.” There were things I was expecting that I didn’t get. Anyway, I also have to mention the title, which doesn’t work for me at all. Is this thing called Batman vs. Robin as a harbinger of next year’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. I mean, Batman definitely has an ideological battle with Robin in this movie, and there are even some fisticuffs between them, but the real conflict between the two is in their worldview. The physical threat comes from the secret society and their assassins, so I wish they’d just called the film Batman: The Court of Owls. Or maybe Batman: It’s Tough to Be a Dad When You’re Being Hunted by People in Owl Masks.

Still, there’s loads of good stuff to be found here. Both Damian and Bruce feel like actual characters, rather than just cool looking superheroes that pose a lot—though they are that, as well. The film makes it very clear that Bruce/Batman is tortured by the death of his parents as well as his decision to become a vigilante, and he fears that he brings tragedy to the lives of everyone that he touches. Damian, on the other hand, is struggling to balance his own relentlessness (he doesn’t understand why Batman doesn’t kill criminals and ends up fighting the same ones over and over) with his desire to be the son that his father needs him to be. It makes for good drama, and it’s easy to sympathize with both of them.
The animation style relies heavily on Japanese anime, which benefits these DTV movies by lending a more mature tone and smoothness to the fight scenes. Every punch has weight, and the action never gets so fast that we can’t make out what the fight choreography actually is. It allows the movie to look like a million bucks and recreate iconic comic book images without it drawing too much attention to itself.

The movie is directed by Jay Oliva, the same dude who knocked it out of the park with The Dark Knight Returns a couple of years ago. IMDB tells me that he’s a storyboard artist alongside Zack Snyder on both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The screenplay is written by J.M. DeMatteis, who was co-writer (along with Keith Giffen) on Justice League International back in the 1980s, widely considered to be one of the most FUN comic books from the era. He also wrote some classic Spider-Man stories, including “Kraven’s Last Hunt.” DeMatteis is a big deal, and his involvement actually makes me like the movie more. It’s like having Tom Hanks in your project; it doesn’t matter what the project is—it’s just going to be better with his involvement.

Cast-wise, we have Irish actor Jason O’Mara as Batman, child actor Stuart Allan as Damian, Firefly and Serenity’s Sean Maher as Dick Grayson/Nightwing. Jeremy Sisto (Clueless) is Talon, the head of the Court of Owls’ assassins. Making cameo appearances are Kevin Conroy—arguably the most famous Dark Knight ever, thanks to a decades-long run on shows like Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League, and the Arkham Asylum games—as Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s ill-fated father. Al Yankovic even appears against type as The Dollmaker, a psychopath who kidnaps and tortures children, turning them into living dolls.
On that note, indulge me a rant: the retail store Target, as well as several others, sells these movies in the “kids and family” section of the store, which is a huge problem. Just because a movie has Batman in it, or Superman or Wonder-Woman, does not mean that it’s intended for children. This movie is rated PG-13 for violence, suggestive images (it has partial nudity and buckets of blood), and thematic elements like rape, murder, and moral quandaries like whether people who do those things should be killed before they hurt others. The packaging makes it pretty clear that this is not kid stuff, but retailers don’t seem to care. The thought of some working parent buying one of these movies for their young child to watch by themselves really upsets me, and I’m sure it’s happened. It’s the parent’s job to use discretion and be mindful of what the kid is watching, but surely it’s the retailer’s job not to put the DVD next to Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers. “Mommy, what’s Heavy Metal?”

I liked Batman vs. Robin, even if I didn’t like the title. Some things don’t work, but enough things do to make it worth your time. It isn’t The Dark Knight Returns, but what could be? It’s also not a strict adaptation of either the “Batman and Son” story or the “Court of Owls” story, which is good news because that means you can go read those and have a totally different, richer experience. Still, I’m a fan of animated movies like this when they take chances and have more on their mind that just repetitive, hollow action. Don’t get me wrong; hollow action is great, but it’s always nice when that’s built upon a foundation of solid characterization, where you understand and care why everyone is fighting in the first place.

As a tease for next year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, this movie fails miserably. However, as a mature Batman story with a deep understanding of what makes these characters tick, this is a hit. I’ll be going into July’s DTV release, Justice League: Gods and Monsters, with tentative optimism, rather than the defeated doubt that’s been a part of the previous three or four. The next film also promises the return of Bruce Timm to the DC animated universe, which is cause for celebration. I guess we’ll just have to wait to find out if Batman vs. Robin is the beginning of an upward trend or simply a fluke.


  1. Great article Heath. I haven't enjoyed many of the Dc animated releases post TDKR with the exception of the shorts celebrating Batman's 75th. The recent movies remind me a lot of the Gotham Knight anthology that was released between Batman Begins and the DarkKnight which was a mixed bag at best.
    Justice League: Gods and Monsters has me excited too and keep an eye out for Cold Eythl I hear she is missing from refrigerator heaven.

  2. Thanks Heath, an Interesting insight into whats going on I knew nothing about, the owl masks look kinda creepy, like you said not really made for children,

    As you started the column you started maybe unknowingly? with " It's been a While" and that phrase always throws me and I have to sing it!

    To almost quote Southpark " This Podcast has warped my fragile little mind"

  3. Even a tepid Heath Holland Stamp of Approval on something like this is good enough for me - I got into The New 52 Batman a bit on your recommendation and enjoyed The Court/City of Owls stories a lot (I even got one of those creepy Owl masks with the edition I bought - freaks my cats right out). I didn't realize Batman vs Robin dealt with that story at all so I'm a lot more interested that I was. Not surprised it doesn't live up to The Dark Knight Returns (another favourite I have you to thank for) but yeah, I'll give it a shot for sure.

    1. Who can blame you for not knowing that the new Batman animated movie called Batman vs. Robin is also about The Court of Owls? If I could get my hands on the marketing department (and the people who decide what part of the shelves to stock these movies in), I'd shake them like a Polaroid picture.

  4. This reminded me that I have a still-sealed copy of the animated Wonder Woman bluray tucked away somewhere. I need to finally break that thing out and give it a watch.

  5. Batman VS Superman full movie watch