Son of Batman (US - BD RA)
Gabe reviews his first DC Animated Universe original movie...
Hidden atop a secret mountain stronghold lies the League of Shadows and its fearless leader, Ra’s al Ghul. Together with his equally dangerous daughter Talia, he oversees a trained army of assassins with plans for global domination. But an uprising from within the league now threatens to shift the balance of power and sends Talia and her young son, Damian, fleeing to Gotham City. With assassins on their trail, Talia seeks the protection of Batman, who, unbeknownst to him, is the boy’s father. With his son in tow, Batman wages war against the villain Deathstroke and the League of Shadows, all while teaching his headstrong boy that one can’t fight crime by becoming a criminal. With help from Gotham’s finest, including Commissioner Gordon and Nightwing, Batman will soon discover that his son and most trusted ally are one and the same! (From WB/DC’s original synopsis)
I am an abiding, long-term fan of the DC Animated Universe – the one originated by the likes of Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Alan Burnett, Dwayne McDuffie, Glen Murakami, and a number of other talented creative types. The stories that spanned from Batman: The Animated Series through Justice League Unlimited (that’s 1992-2006) include my favourite versions of most of DC’s characters and stick with me in a way that other comics from the era cannot. I’ve also enjoyed the more recent episodic off-shoots, Teen Titans, Young Justice, and even Green Lantern (give it a chance, it comes together eventually). One would assume that this practically flawless run (there are bad episodes mixed into every one of those shows) would extend to the DC Animated movies as well, especially when considering the quality of such in-universe movies as Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero, and Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. And yet the studio’s more recent stand-alone animated movies are leaving me cold.
The failure of these projects rarely have anything to do with the limited animation budgets, but the inherent problems of adapting established, multi-issue comic book arcs into single-sitting narratives. Some of the stories just aren’t very interesting or unique – they rely more on the empty spectacle of meathead superheroes punching each other through buildings than good writing (the two Superman/Batman movies, for example). Other stories are weakened when separated from the elaborate, tangled narratives that informed them when they were originally released in a serialized comic book form ( Batman: Under the Red Hood). Some of the studio’s better output – All Star Superman and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, in particular – only end up working in parts, because the episodic stories they’re adapting are too long and involved to work as stand-alone stories (even in two parts, The Dark Knight Returns felt contracted). In the end, only three of these films ended up approaching the achievement levels of the original DCAU shows and each worked for different reasons. Wonder Woman was a crisply-paced, tightly constructed origin story, Green Lantern: Emerald Knights effectively exploited an anthology structure, and, most impressive of all, Superman vs. The Elite ended up improving on its source material.
With Justice League: War, the ‘DCAU original movies’ (the studio’s preferred designation) began the process of building continuity between films (including Marvel-style post-credit sequences). This apparently makes Son of Batman the second film in the series. Writers James Robinson (credited with story) and Joe R. Lansdale (credited with screenwriting) are also adapting the first chapter of a much larger story, not abbreviating several chapters or adapting the final chapter without a proper lead-in. All of this helps Son of Batman overcome many of the problems that typically afflict these movies, but leads to a whole new series of storytelling pitfalls – namely that it feels too short and overlong all at the same time. The actual plotting is a shallow excuse to define characters and frame action, which may have worked as either the first act of a proper movie or as a 22-minute television episode that would introduce a new character to an ongoing series. It doesn’t help that Batman’s son, Damian, is, by design, an unlikable character and definitely not the type of person one could ever build a popular series around.
In Morrison’s comic, Damian is an antagonist and a particularly difficult obstacle for Batman and Nightwing to overcome, because they can’t just beat him up and throw him in prison. He’s also being used as an infiltration tool by Talia al Ghul, which adds another dimension to his often irritating presence. In the film, Damian is a protagonist and something of an audience surrogate who is made to unlearn years of indoctrination in a matter of maybe two or three days after being reunited with his father. This is because, in DCAU original movie tradition, the first two acts of plot are ancillary set-ups for big action set-pieces. Damian’s redemption is less of a climax than an incidental event, as is Deathstroke’s ill-defined plan to…you know, I don’t know what Deathstroke’s plan was. I guess he was making Man-bat ninjas? The apparent shared-universe model also proves problematic, because there’s no attachment to the events of Justice League: War, which ends with the promise of some kind of battle with Atlantis.
Director Ethan Spaulding and his crew of storyboard artists/animators/et cetera, have done a good job bringing a grittier version of Gotham to life, but definitely spend more energy on their action sequences than their character interactions (if there’s a lot of talking to be done, characters tend to stand perfectly still while doing it). The opening sequence, where Deathstroke’s ninja minions attack The League of Shadows, is the highlight, while the larger-scale battles against Man-bat ninjas are too generic to get excited about. Despite being a gorehound horror fan, the gore in these PG-13-rated movies tends to put me off. I’ve grown weary of superhero antics that are too violent to share with a child, especially from DC, who seems intent on griming up every one of their major franchises. In this case, Spaulding and his animators get particularly carried away when depicting sword and shotgun wounds and Ra’s al Ghul’s graphic demise. Though such violence seems quaint next to the implied torture of Talia al Ghul, which is a cheap ploy to rile Damian’s ire. It all feels so tacky.
Son of Batman’s animation is about as good as we’ve come to expect from the DCAU series – it’s a bit short on frame-rate, but moves well enough, matching the efforts of superior episodic TV animation, like The Legend of Korra. I certainly can’t fault the effect in terms of Blu-ray image quality. The crisp hand-drawn elements are supported by digital ink & paint programs that ensure this 1.78:1, 1080p disc features plenty of strong, clean colours and solid elemental differentiations. The basic designs are similar to those of Justice League: War, but the overall transfer is a bit more problematic, due to a darker, more commonly gradated palette. It’s sort of like the DCAU version of Blade Runner – halfway between Ridley Scott Neo-Gothic and Bruce Timm’s Neo-Deco. These blended fills, glowing light sources, and purposefully blurred movements all create artefacts, some of which are probably unavoidable (low level noise along some of the softer edges, for instance) while others definitely represent minor compression issues. Hue to hue blends often result in banding effects, while the digitally-enhanced lighting effects (like that of the neon green Lazarus pits) are usually cleanly diffused.
These films don’t quite match the audio scale of their big-budget, theatrical release counterparts, but also don’t disappoint in terms of lively aural environments. This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is plenty busy throughout the action scenes in particular. Highlights include the helicopters and ninja battles that open the film and a particularly bombastic multi-Man-Bat creature escape scene that includes Nightwing zipping around in a jet-powered Batwing. The dialogue-heavy scenes are drier with occasional discrepancies in volume levels, but also feature a handful of directional enhancements (specifically off-screen antics, like Damian cutting down all of the fancy bushes on the Wayne estate). New DCAU recruit composer Frederik Wiedmann’s ( Green Lantern: The Animated Series and Beware the Batman) score is merely serviceable in terms of themes, but successful in terms of the eerie tone it imparts those otherwise quiet dialogue scenes with. The music is somewhat lost in the louder action without ever entirely losing its edge in the stereo channels.
- The Fang and the Demon Head: The League of Assassins (10:10, HD) – An interview with various industry types and Son of Batman’s crew (including Morrison) concerning the history of Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows.
- Strange Blood Ties: Damian Wayne (15:10, HD) – Further interviews about Damian as a character, including some comparisons between the comic and movie.
- Designing the Characters with Phil Bourassa (9:40, HD) – A fairly self-explanatory description of the character design process.
- Sneak Peek at Assault on Arkham (7:30, HD)
- From the DC Comics Vault – Two episodes of DCAU cartoons:
- Batman Beyond: Out of the Past (21:00, SD)
- Batman: The Brave and the Bold: The Knights of Tomorrow! (23:00, SD)
Son of Batman is one of the better-looking DCAU original movies, but, in the long run, it follows the precedent of being disappointing. It feels unfinished, oversimplified, and overly-dependent on action scenes, robbing the source material of what made it so special in the first place. 74 minutes is too short a time to cover Damian Wayne’s extensive character arc and the filmmakers have opted to skip over the weird and wacky villains writer Grant Morrison stirred into the original comics. If there was a promise of animated versions of the events that followed Damian’s introduction, I would be more willing to forgive some of the many shortcomings, but it looks like the next movie will be a prequel to the Arkham Asylum video game (bleh…), despite the studio’s promise that their post- Justice League: War movies would have a shared and continued continuity. The Blu-ray looks and sounds just fine, though, so the fans set on collecting all of these films have nothing to worry about.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray 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.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 6th May 2014
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 Latin Spanish & French, Dolby Digital 2.0 Castilian
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Strange Blood Ties: Damian Wayne, Designing the Characters, The Fang and the Demon Head: The League of Assassins, Sneak Peek at Batman: Assault on Arkham, Two Bonus Cartoons, Trailers, DVD Copy, Digital Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ethan Spaulding
Cast: Jason O'Mara, Stuart Allan, Morena Baccarin, Giancarlo Esposito, Xander Berkeley, Thomas Gibson, David McCallum
Genre: Action, Adventure and Animation
Length: 74 minutes
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