The latest DC direct-to-video movies have embraced continuity as a storytelling tool, and like the comic books they are loosely based on, accessibility is sacrificed for complexity as time goes on. Some stories lend themselves to larger time frames than can be comfortably shoehorned into a 90-120 minute running time, especially the kind of multi-generational family dramas that the Batman DC DTV movies are. Batman: Bad Blood is a movie that will be enjoyed more by those who have been following along with its predecessors, Son of Batman and Batman vs. Robin, but definitely at the expense of being a self-contained standalone story. This is especially true with the continuing development of Damian, the title character of the first movie and the current Robin, since a number of plot twists in this movie resonate much more deeply if you’ve been following along in his story from the beginning. The end result is still entertaining enough to hold off the little voice in my head that said, “Wait a minute…” a few times in the movie.
Batman: Bad Blood begins with a rousing action sequence, when Gotham newcomer Batwoman tries to disrupt gang activity that is more than it seems on the surface. Before long, Batman himself drops in, leading to an impromptu team-up against a new criminal named the Heretic. However, Batman’s timely intervention is short-lived when the entire encounter comes to an explosive end, making Batwoman the only witness to his seeming demise. Batman’s mysterious extended absence soon attracts the attention of the Gotham criminal element and its police force, along with former Batman protégé Dick Grayson/Nightwing as well as Damian, who left for a monastery at the end of Batman vs. Robin. Nightwing very reluctantly dons the famed cape and cowl to pose as Batman while he investigates his mentor’s disappearance, and even more reluctantly allows Damian to accompany him. Soon, the pair encounter Batwoman and her story, adding another somewhat unwilling partner in the investigation. Before long, the now-trio is joined by Luke Fox, son of Wayne Enterprises COO Lucius Fox and an Afghan War veteran, whose suspicions about a connection between Wayne Enterprises and Batman are soon proven true in a very surprising way.
Batman: Bad Blood reminds me of the second X-Men movie, which built and improved on its predecessor across nearly every dimension at the expense of accessibility. While I don’t think Batman: Bad Blood improves on this franchise to quite the same degree, this third installment doubles-down on the larger, overarching theme of family so much that the theme becomes more visible in both earlier movies. Every major character in this movie is dealing with issues of family legacy and the weight of expectations of the older generation on the younger, and major plot developments involve a betrayal that cuts deeper because of the family element. The final conflict of the movie can even be viewed as the clash between two extended clans, with one character in particular pulled between them both (and I hesitate to state which one for fear of giving away some of this movie’s wonderfully nasty surprises). Surprisingly, some plot elements that seemed under-developed in earlier movies get more satisfying growth and development in this one, such as Damian’s chafing under Batman’s constraints and Nightwing’s on-going efforts to escape the Batman’s shadow. They’re done well enough to make the earlier movies look better, since they are now clearly parts of a larger whole, as well as give this movie a pass for at least some of its under-developed plot elements, on the assumption that they’re going to come back in play in subsequent installments.
However, simply fitting into a larger whole doesn’t excuse some of the weaker elements of Batman: Bad Blood. Its worst problem is that it has a few more characters than its plot can support comfortably, with Luke Fox and the Heretic being the most problematic. While I like the character and Gaius Charles does a fine job bringing him to life vocally, Luke Fox’s role in the film is marginal and tends to interrupt the main plot a bit too much. With a running time of just over an hour, he’s left too far on the sidelines to make a very positive impression. On the other hand, this might also just be a side-effect of Batwoman’s screen presence, which is electrifying thanks to a nicely substantial rationale for her to be there and a strong vocal performance by Yvonne Strahovski. The character is given enough force of personality to be able to stand up to Batman and his partners in crime-fighting, and she ultimately makes an excellent addition to the cast. It’s also a big deal that the movie doesn’t really make a big deal of her sexual orientation. While the movie notes her homosexuality on at least three occasions, it also does so in lines and scenes that are treated exactly as a heterosexual romantic entanglement would be (especially with the added complexities that a superhero alter ego injects into the mix). I expect we’ll be seeing more of her and Batwing in future movies, but the difference in their handling is best summed up that I want to see more Batwoman because she’s interesting, but I want to see more Batwing because he isn’t defined well enough in this movie.
Unfortunately, the Heretic doesn’t fare nearly as well. He seems like he should be much more interesting and central to the plot than he ultimately turns out to be. Son of Batman had Deathstroke and Batman vs. Robin had Talon as memorable villains that were good matches for Batman. The Heretic is definitely set up as someone comparable to them, but nearly every plot twist in the film ends up undercutting his importance. The disappointment extends to his right-hand woman Onyx. While I appreciate the effort to give her subtext despite her complete lack of dialogue, it’s hard not to notice that she’s still being defined largely as the Heretic’s girlfriend and proxy rather than a character with motivations and character of her own. Then again, I suppose the average top henchman in James Bond movies didn’t get even that much characterization, so perhaps she’s only making a genre convention more visible by failing a variation on the Bechdel Test.
Newcomers Gaius Charles and Yvonne Strahovski do fine vocal work in the movie, and Jason O’Mara seems more comfortable inhabiting Batman. However, out of necessity, much of the film is carried by Sean Maher’s Nightwing and Stuart Allan’s Damian. Stuart Allan’s Damian is as delightfully grating as ever, as his haughty demeanor has not diminished over time. Sean Maher has the toughest job as Dick Grayson/Nightwing, since he has to carry the dramatic weight of his own character arc as well as pull off an impression of Batman (which Damian amusingly mocks at one point). He has the toughest job of any actor in this film, and carries it off with aplomb.
As with all the Batman-centric “New 52”-inspired direct-to-video movies, the action sequences in Batman: Bad Blood are spectacular, featuring creative choreography and staging. I’m always appreciative when character traits are communicated through fighting styles, and Batman: Bad Blood‘s large cast makes it a perfect vehicle for this. Even without the different costume, you can tell Nightwing-as-Batman distinctly from Batman because of the different way that they fight. Nightwing’s balletic grace also contrasts nicely with Batwoman’s more down-to-Earth, grungier fighting style or the brutal efficiency of Damian and the Heretic. However, the excellent animation in these scenes only highlights deficiencies in some of the quieter, less hectic moments. If the animation in the DC DTV movies didn’t reach feature-film quality consistently, they were always been a sizable cut above the average animated TV action show. However, some moments in this movie feel much choppier than earlier movies; the scene that introduces Luke Fox as he talks with his father Lucius is one scene that stands out as looking unusually choppy.
As always, the movie on Blu-ray is great across both audio and video dimensions. There is a small but solid set of bonuses included, with two featurettes focusing on the fight choreography and on the evolution of the extended Batman family over time. “Putting the Fight into Gotham” is a joy, as Jay Oliva is joined by numerous other crew members to detail their approach to choreographing animated action, extending even to earlier DC animated TV shows and movies. Since the action sequences have been one of the best things about this series, hearing the crew talk about them in more depth is most welcome. “Expanding the Batman Family” is also a solid featurette documenting the evolution of characters Robin and Nightwing, Batwoman, and the different versions of Batgirl (but, sadly, no mention of Ace the Bathound). The featurette wins points for documenting the 1950’s Batwoman and Bat-girl characters, though it also earns some demerits for completely failing to mention that both were created at least partially to combat Frederic Wertham’s infamous accusations in Seduction of the Innocent that Batman and Robin were a gay couple. It’s an especially curious omission, because the arm’s-length approach Batman and Robin had for Batwoman and Bat-girl arguably had the exact opposite effect while also undermining both of the female characters. The former passes unmentioned while the latter does. We get the usual sneak peek at the next movie, Justice League vs. Teen Titans, which promises to introduce the younger counterparts to the Justice League while also extending Damian Wayne’s story. Finally, two episodes of Batman: The Brave and the Bold are included: the Batman-family oriented “The Knights of Tomorrow!” and the Batwoman-oriented “The Criss Cross Conspiracy!” They’re both excellent episodes of that show and fit well with the themes and characters of the movie, and it seems that we get a proper high-definition rendering of them on the Blu-ray.
A deluxe edition release also includes a Nightwing figure to go along with the Batman figure that came with the deluxe package of Batman vs. Robin. Like the Batman figure, Nightwing is not articulated, but he also has a much better paint job. Lines are clean from the mask, hair, and chest logo, without any of the messy application that made Batman disappointing.
Continuity is a double-edged sword in superhero stories, but the Batman-themed movies in the DC DTV line have been consistently enjoyable superhero soap opera. Batman: Bad Blood continues this theme, and sets up strong expectations for future installments.
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