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The shadows of Gotham City are no place for a child, but Damian Wayne is no ordinary child. Now bearing the mantle of Robin, he blazes a headstrong and sometimes reckless trail alongside his father, Batman. While investigating a crime scene, Robin encounters a mysterious figure, Talon, who leads him on a life-altering course through the depths of Gotham’s secret society, known as The Court of Owls. It’s a dangerous journey that will force Batman and Robin to face their most dangerous adversary – each other! (From WB official synopsis)

 Batman vs. Robin
The DC Animated Universe (DCAU) movies still aren’t working for me. Sadly, the prevailing problem appears to be almost unavoidable, as long as they keep adapting popular arcs from the comics. The comics have hours and hours to develop stories and character nuances. Often, the plots are informed by other arcs, which is frustrating enough if you’re trying to jump into reading comics and you missed the last giant crossover event. The poor saps making these movies are tasked with cramming 50 issues of content into 70 to 80 minutes of screen time, while simultaneously making room for elongated action sequences that are largely left to the reader’s imagination in comic book form.

Son of Batman, the first chapter of the arc that continues here in Batman vs. Robin, was especially disappointing for me, because I am such a big fan of the Grant Morrison Batman and Robin comics it was based on. Those bizarre and unique tales are a bit grotesque, but really lend themselves to a colourful animated adaptation and the violence wouldn’t be out of place in the unnecessarily graphic DCAU. But the limited runtime and demand for meathead fisticuffs leave little time to explore Morrison’s brilliant nuances. With Batman vs. Robin, screenwriter J. M. DeMatteis is more free to explore Morrison’s characters without being too attached to his story beats. The most necessary changes come out of the fact that Bruce Wayne is actually alive in the DCAU and was ‘dead’ at the time of Morrison’s run.

 Batman vs. Robin
This animated version is further changed by incorporating the ‘Court of Owls,’ a relatively new threat in the comics, rather than The League of Shadows, who were already used in Son of Batman (as well as Christopher Nolan’s live-action Batman movies). Unfortunately, the Court of Owls is pretty much the same thing as the League of Shadows, so the novelty is wasted (their plans are more or less the same as Ra’s Al Ghul’s in Batman Begins). It’s also a little hard to take Damian’s angst as seriously as the filmmakers expect. I really liked the more amiable scenes between Bruce & Damian and think that voice actor Stuart Allan does a good job embodying his struggle, but DeMatteis’ dialogue doesn’t give him a lot to work with. He’s still pretty irritating. More bothersome is the fact that Damian was the antagonist in the Morrison books. Arguably, the change works better this time around, as he fulfills the same character arc with more conviction. DeMatteis script is commendable in its efforts to unit Bruce childhood with Damian’s struggle to meet Batman’s standards with the reemergence if the Court of Owls, even when the correlation doesn’t quite work. In the end, he also pulls together quite a few plot points/twists in a relatively short timeframe.

Director Jay Oliva, a graduate of Marvel’s bygone STV animated series and DCAU regular since Green Lantern: Emerald Knights, is working from a better script than Ethan Spaulding was on Son of Batman and his action is notably better. He and the animation staff are still limited by some unattractive design choices that seem to be part of the studio’s new ‘house style.’ I’m not a fan of the blocky, pseudo-Anime character designs, the ‘New 52’ costumes, or the ugly digital shading (more on that in the video section). The animation itself still doesn’t look any more ‘theatrical’ than well-made TV shows, especially during expositional sequences, when frame-rates are at a premium and facial expressions are stiff. But the action scenes are a big step up from the last installment. They might even be the best hand-to-hand set-pieces to appear in any of the DCAU.

 Batman vs. Robin
The tonal cruelty and heavy-handed attempts at appearing more ‘adult’ continue to confuse me. When a villain has his heart ripped out during the first action sequence, I felt more inclined to laugh than cheer, but a later sequence, where Damian saves an elderly woman from a rape threat after her elderly husband is beaten nearly to death for a few minutes, genuinely bothered me, as did the Owl Lieutenant’s child-abuse-laden back-story. I don’t understand who these movies are being made for. They’re too juvenile to appeal to adults that don’t appreciate comic book tropes – tropes that do not attempt to subvert or update – and too brutal to appeal to the children and adults that usually flock towards Batman stories. I understand that, like most vigilante stories, this is a morality tale, but the message is lost in the ‘coolness’ of the violence.

Video


Batman vs. Robin is presented in the usual 1.78:1, 1080p HD video on this Blu-ray and looks a-okay. The problems almost all pertain to limitations in the material. For instance, the overall film is so dark that details are obscured and colours are softened by blackness. Hand-drawn lines are sharp and solid hues are consistent, but both are limited by the glossy, fuzzy airbrushed qualities of the ugly digital shading effects (though the diffused lighting elements are quite clean). The colours are purposefully dulled, but the subtleties are not entirely lost in grayness. The green and reds of Robin’s costume, for example, are still clear, if not sated. The few colourful and bright moments appear generally crisper. There are definitely banding effects throughout the colour grades, but this is so common in similar animated movies that I just assume it’s some kind of creative choice at this point.

 Batman vs. Robin

Audio


Once again, an aggressive DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack sets a relatively cheap STV animated movie on the same level as its big screen counterparts. Dialogue is clean and consistent without sounding canned and it is all well centered. Sound effects are dynamically mixed throughout the stereo and surround channels, yet the volume ranges are wide enough to not overwhelm key aural elements, such as the words the actors are speaking. Battle scenes are brimming with swishing limbs, clanging swords/billy clubs, and bassy impacts, culminating in a super-sized mech-suit fight in the Batcave. The Batmech’s servos and militarized Batmobile engine sounds great as they rotate throughout the speakers. Frederik Wiedmann returns as composer and does a fine job matching the tone of the film with his largely ambient score, but I do lament the lack of memorable themes. The hum of melodies and punch of the percussion work give the LFE a little something extra to do.

Extras


  • Commentary with creative director Mike Carlin, director Jay Oliva, and supervising producer James Tucker – This is a pleasant enough track that includes a lot of technical details, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and discussion of greater universe mythology. It helped me appreciate the thought that goes into a DCAU movie and makes me wish I liked the movie more.
  • Gotham’s City Secret: The Mythic Court of Owls (31:30, HD) – A look at the Court of Owls’ place in DC comics’ ‘New 42’ universe, including writer/artist interviews and images from the comics that inspired this movie.
  • Talons of the Owl (14:00, HD) – The filmmakers and comic-makers talk about the design and inspirations behind the Court’s assassins, known as ‘talons.’
  • Sneak Peak at Justice League: Gods & Monsters (11:10, HD) – An elongated trailer for the next DCAU movie, which is being supervised by Bruce Timm, following a break from STV movies. It looks like more overtly dark stuff, but more cartoonish and entertaining. My fingers are crossed.
  • Bonus cartoons from the DC Comics Vault:
    • Batman: Brave and the Bold episode: The Color of Revenge (22:40, SD)
    • Batman the Animated Series episode: Old Wounds (21:10, SD)
  • Merrie Melodies short: Super-Rabbit (8:20. HD)
  • Trailers


 Batman vs. Robin

Overall


Batman vs. Robin is a step up from Son of Batman. It has well-executed action, a better plot, and opens the door to more personal Batman tales. But it’s still an over-simplified version of better stories from the comics, the characters are stiff, and the ridiculous violence/dark streak is embarrassing. The fans that have already been enjoying the DCAU shorts will probably mark it among the series best, though, and have a decent Blu-ray to look forward to, including a nice A/V presentation and a sizable portion of special features.

 Batman vs. Robin

 Batman vs. Robin

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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