I find myself running hot and cold over Son of Batman, the latest direct-to-video animated feature from DC Animation. On the up side, I get a kick out of its mixture of Shaw Bros. kung-fu chop-socky action and the sensibilities and production values of a James Bond film, all bound up in superhero spandex. On the down side, the movie is fairly conventional and a few plot points fall very flat, which is especially disappointing since the source material was so sharply aware of playing with genre conventions. Son of Batman is enjoyable entertainment in the end, but it’s definitely falling short of the line’s high points like Wonder Woman, All-Star Superman, or Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths.
At the start of Son of Batman, longtime Batman villain and head of the League of Assassins Ra’s al-Ghul finally meets his end at the hands of his former protege Slade Wilson, a.k.a. Deathstroke. Ra’s al-Ghul’s daughter Talia gathers up her son Damian, heir apparent to the League of Assassins, and flees for Gotham City and the Batman. Her reasons are surprising to the Dark Knight: Damian is his biological son, born of a semi-drug induced night of passion a decade earlier, and she is leaving the boy in his keeping while she goes to exact revenge on Deathstroke. The boy soon proves to be exceptionally trained as a ninja, and also almost entirely uncontrollable. Before long, Damian is defying Batman’s orders, striking out on his own to hunt for the men responsible for murdering his grandfather. His investigations (and, eventually, Batman’s direct involvement) soon reveals Deathstroke’s larger, more sinister plans.
Son of Batman is one of the most overtly violent and bloody movies from DC Animation, easily earning its PG-13 rating. The movie definitely doesn’t hold back on the gory results of ninja swordplay. Despite the copious amounts of blood splattering the screen, the violence doesn’t feel gratuitous since it’s presented as the inevitable consequence of the high-speed combat and the blood isn’t lingered on too excessively. Those fight scenes are also one of the best things about the movie. Son of Batman‘s adaptation from the source material is loose, and the bulk of added material are extended combat set pieces that can play out better in a moving medium like animation than they can on a printed page. It works well enough to extend the running time to feature length, with fight choreography emphasizing the speed and efficiency of the participants. It also means that characters like Batman or Damian can demonstrate their prowess by mowing through dozens of opponents in a single fight.
Significant liberties have been taken in translating the story from page to screen. The consequence is that Grant Morrison’s freewheeling, uninhibited creativity has been tamed somewhat, turning the storyline a little more conventional. Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert’s original Batman and Son comics were largely drawing on superhero traditions and storylines (especially the 1987 graphic novel Batman: Son of the Demon), but Morrison’s dash from mad idea to mad idea can sometimes be a little exhausting, especially when the mad ideas seem to come at the expense of a coherent plot. Son of Batman brings the story down to Earth a bit, losing some of that freewheeling creativity in the process. I think the creative choices and trade-offs were well-made, even if I miss the pedal-to-the-metal insanity of the original comics a little bit. Once the initial surprises are out of the way in the first act, the rest of Son of Batman tends to yield more pleasures of the “How Are We Getting There?” variety than “Where Are We Going?” ones. Given the way the movie sticks largely to genre conventions, I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to reveal that the climax incorporates both a “you have dishonored my family” duel followed shortly after by an explosive end to an intricate bad guy lair.
I think the adaptation definitely betters the source material in its dialogue, thanks to a delightfully pulpy screenplay by Joe R. Lansdale. Grant Morrison’s dialogue tends to be functional, forcing the plot forward or dispensing whatever mad idea he’s come up with, but doesn’t manage to be terribly memorable on its own. Lansdale’s dialogue is wonderfully pulpy, full of terrific tough-guy (or gal) one-liners and macho posturing, which fits the genre mashup of this movie perfectly. The voice cast does a decent job bringing those lines to life. Jason O’Mara reprises his role as Batman from the last DC DTV movie, and while he does a solid job, there are a few moments where he seems to slip into a Christian Bale-ish over-rasp, which can make some of his line reads feel a bit stilted. Stuart Allan is great fun as Damian, whose haughty demeanor and supreme confidence are amusing to us even as they infuriate most of the people on screen. Thomas Gibson is OK as Deathstroke, but at best he’s just evoking Ron Perlman’s performance as the character from Teen Titans.
A few minor points are irritating. Some plot points feel less like organic developments as much as attempts to force the plot where the crew wanted it to go. The setup for the third act of the movie involves a failed assault by the remnants of the League of Assassins, but the direct frontal assault against enemies with an overwhelming numerical advantage, fortified in a well-defended position doesn’t feel like a ninja thing to do on a number of levels. Its inevitable failure ends up making one character look unnecessarily dumb. One dramatic turn near the end also feels mostly like a ploy to get Batman out of the way for a little while. Finally, Deathstroke seems to have some of the worst habits of James Bond villains, undertaking an unnecessarily complex plot and happily monologuing to whoever is in front of him. His “I brought you here to kill you” gloating near the end of the film doesn’t seem like arrogant confidence as much as irritatingly blatant stupidity. I wanted to scream Tuco’s advice from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly: “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”
The video and audio for Son of Batman on the Blu-ray are exceptional, as always. The bonus features are also quite satisfying. Two featurettes delve into the history of the source material: “The Fang and the Demon Head” focusing on Ra’s al-Ghul and the League of Assassins and “Strange Blood Ties” focusing on Damian Wayne. Those curious about the comics should know that the latter documentary contains major spoilers (though they should also know that DC doesn’t make it easy to know where to go after reading the initial Batman and Son trade paperback, and as usual neither documentary thinks to provide information on the source comics and how to get at them). Both documentaries weigh in between 10-15 minutes, avoiding undue padding or bloviating by the participants, so neither one wears out its welcome. A “Designing the Characters with Phil Bourassa” featurette is wonderful, containing lots of behind-the-scenes artwork as Bourassa provides highly informative commentary on how he approaches the problems of character design for animation and on the animation process in general. A sneak peek for the next movie, Batman: Assault on Arkham, got me completely geeking out at the prospect of what seems to be a Suicide Squad-focused movie and the return of C.C.H. Pounder as Amanda Waller. Four excellently selected bonus cartoons are included: the Ra’s al-Ghul-centric episodes “Out of the Past” from Batman Beyond and “Showdown” from Batman: The Animated Series (the latter of which was also written by Joe R. Lansdale), and the Robin-centric episodes “The Knights of Tomorrow!” and “Sidekicks Assemble!” Unfortunately, like all past Blu-rays, all the episodes are presented in standard definition that looks terrible when upscaled on a high-definition TV, even The Brave and the Bold episodes where high-definition masters are presumably available. The combo pack also includes a DVD and an UltraViolet digital copy.
With the recent explosive growth of superhero films, it seems that many of the people making them are adapting and absorbing different genre conventions to play with to keep from repeating the same formulas again. Captain America: The Winter Soldier lifts much of its sensibilities from 70’s-era Cold War spy thrillers, while Guardians of the Galaxy seems to be aiming for comedy as much as action and the upcoming Batman: Assault on Arkham seems to be pulling in a lot of heist movie conventions. Son of Batman pulls the same trick by mixing martial arts with James Bond, both of which fit a character like Batman perfectly well. The results are solid if not exceptional.