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Batman vs. Robin

Warner Bros. // PG-13 // April 14, 2015
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted April 19, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

During conversations about the writers behind Batman's comic-book runs nowadays, two names that'll frequently pop up in a positive light are Grant Morrison, responsible for Batman: Arkham Asylum and a new take on the dynamic between Batman and Robin, and Scott Snyder, the Black Mirror author who spearheaded the DC Universe's "New 52" rejuvenation of the character with the Court of Owls. Both writers have had numerous ups and occasional downs among the comic community, naturally, but they've both introduced fresh, enduring elements to the Dark Knight's mythos, from a controlling conspirator organization embedded in Gotham's history to a worthy, unlikely voice against Batman's no-killing policy in the form of his son. DC's latest animated film, Batman vs. Robin, attempts to merge the innovations of Morrison and Snyder into a direct continuation of the studio's last film, the lackluster Son of Batman, and while it's easily a step in the right direction in the hands of Assault on Arkham's Jay Oliva, its blunt articulation and cluttered reworking of established stories clash into an eventful, engaging, yet uneven entry into this canon.

Written by graphic novelist and Brave and the Bold alum J.M. DeMatteis, Batman vs. Robin picks up shortly after the events of Son of Batman, where Damian Wayne (Stuart Allen) -- son of Talia al Ghul and Batman/Bruce Wayne (Jason O'Mara), grandson of nemesis Ra's al Ghul -- has fully taken on the responsibilities of the next Robin. After a conflict of opinion over whether their current villain, child kidnapper and manipulator The Dollmaker ("Weird Al" Yankovic), deserves to be killed despite Batman's policy on the matter, Damian's rebellious streak gets the best of him, driving him away from Wayne Manor at nights in search of what defines his personality. What he finds, not by coincidence, is an offer from a shadowy individual, Talon (Jeremy Sisto), who understands Damian's inclination to kill where necessary, a man who also happens to be the key enforcer for the Court of Owls, a clandestine society pulling Gotham City's strings for much of its existence. Damian's given a choice that'll have bigger repercussions than he realizes.

Considering he began as the spawn of what was first considered one of DC's non-canonical "Elseworlds" stories, Damian Wayne's perseverance throughout the Batman narrative comes as a bit of a surprise, largely on the steam of Grant Morrison's fondness for the character. While his knowledge-base, combat skills, and general capabilities can be polarizing as a child character -- justifiable wunderkind progeny or unbelievable Marty Stu? -- Damian's lineage and ruthless perspective add a dose of ideological conflict to the Batman formula that works towards justifying those misgivings. Getting that info across in the short timespan of Son of Batman proved to be problematic, emphasizing his unrealistic nature in quick fashion, but Batman vs. Robin doesn't make a big fuss out of his prowess, instead allowing him to simply do his thing like a more-than-capable, unbridled sidekick with a merciless streak. Suspicions won't go away, but this take on Damian's story goes a long way to focus on the stronger attributes of his presence for the sake of something morally complex and emotionally intriguing.

The key aspect of Batman vs. Robin comes, obviously, in that conflict between this volatile assassin-trained Robin and the life-preserving Batman, feeding into the rocky father-son relationship between the Waynes. This brings out a different, vulnerable side to Batman that frequently goes unexplored (or avoided), resulting in a predominant parental angle that's ... well, something that the Caped Crusader doesn't wear all that well. While Jason O'Mara and Stuart Allen reprise their roles as Batman and Damian Wayne respectively following their middling turns in Son of Batman, they've marginally improved in giving their characters distinguishing energy and emotional tempo, which certainly helps those abnormal scenes where Batman displays hints of patriarchal concern. As a result, the Grant Morrison-inspired side of the story works slightly better than expected at the start, with a tolerable rendition of the hot-headed Damian struggling between his instincts and his guardian's creed.

There's another side to Batman vs. Robin in the form of the Court of Owls, and, by extension, their key enforcer Talon, which has been considerably reworked to accommodate for Damian Wayne's elevated significance. Fans of Scott Snyder's comic-book arc hoping for the same kind of satisfaction will find a skeletal reinterpretation here, stripping away some of what makes the Court intriguing to make way for a nonsensical conspiracy and a cluster of hollow action beats. Much of what defines the underground society remains intact -- their general purpose and appearance, their morbid method of creating assassins, Bruce Wayne's interest in them at a young age -- but they've been streamlined and distorted to a point where few of their machinations make a whole lot of sense beyond giving their head assassin a reason to exist. Instead, that energy has been directed into bequeathing this continuity's Talon with a defined personality that differs from Snyder's run, one of a sympathetic vigilante with a curious interest in Robin that creates a muddled connection between the two narratives.

Batman vs. Robin crams a lot of material into its 80-minute runtime, resulting in obligatory stretches of clunky exposition, close calls, and shallow dialogue necessary to drive the story forward, yet it mostly holds together at first as an invigorated take on the relationship between the crime-fighting Waynes. Around the halfway point, however, director Oliva and writer DeMatteis lose control of its already waning sensibilities, coming in hard and fast with references to the comics and vigorous action -- cue more vulnerability for Batman -- that ultimately cannot hide the absurdity of its connected dots. Despite the briskness of the animation's violence and its accompanying mature-leaning tone, the product of the film's buildup is chock full of bizarre choices and inconsistencies that lead into a head-scratcher of a final act, one that tries desperately hard to keep intertwined the ideas from both Snyder's and Morrison's stories while telling its own tale. Batman vs. Robin might hold one's attention and own up to its premise, but as a convincing narrative in DC's animated universe, it doesn't quite hit the mark.

The Blu-ray:

Batman vs. Robin swoops down onto Blu-ray in a pair of packages from Warner Bros. and DC Animation: a standard two-disc set including the film in both HD and SD; and this deluxe package that includes a figuring featuring Batman in his DCAU suit, held in a box alongside the vanilla release. For those interested, the figure is static with no moving arms or head, and stands fixed on a rocky terrain. The Blu-ray itself comes with a very nice embossed, metallic slipcase that replicates the front artwork, while the disc artwork features a familiar owl statue design. A UV/Digital Copy slip has also been included.

Video and Audio:

"Looks great, however ..." has become a common theme among enjoying DC's better animated efforts on Blu-ray, and Batman vs. Robin's 1.78:1-framed, 1080p AVC encode ends up being no exception. You know the drill: the black lines of the artwork -- a lucid progression of Son of Batman's aesthetics -- are sharp and satisfying (if a tad harsh), most of the vivid shades of color in the characters and other focal elements are robust underneath a veil of intended darkness, and the fluidity of the animation's motion looks exceptional. Intricate statues in an owl museum display absolutely impeccable fine detail, while soft-green lighting in that same scene balances magnificently against the shadows environment. Contrast is largely well-balanced, if somewhat light at times, never rubbing out details, and the blurry artistic flourishes that occasionally hamper the studio's work are kept to a minimum here. The problem, of course, comes in color banding, a frequent and unsatisfying issue throughout this transfer full of strips of color in skylines and in some shaded elements. If you've become desensitized to the issues with DC's animate fare, you'll be able to see beyond the nomenclature flaws and really enjoy what's there.

Boy, does this 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track telegraph a payload, though. Granted, DC's animated films have consistently made use of the full breadth and depth of the surround stage, so it doesn't come as much of a shock to hear the whirring Bat-gadgets, explosions, and hand-to-hand combat elements move between the front channels and travel towards the rears on a frequent basis. Subtle sound effects, like digital blips or footsteps, deliver clean and natural highs. Aggressive punches and stab wounds dig deeper into the higher-end and lower-frequency spectrums, filling out the action-oriented track with fine clarity and deep bass ... though, in a few scenes, the rumble of bass got a little too aggressive for the track to handle, resulting in some distortion. Dialogue remains clean and natural, frequently backed by nothing but distortion-free silence, while the tense thriller-inspired music maintains a steady bass pulse and presence that doesn't drown out the action. All together, Batman vs. Robin sounds pretty fantastic.

Special Features:

Audio Commentary:
Director Jay Oliva, DCAU creative director Mike Carlin, and supervising producer James Tucker sit down to discuss their inspiration behind Batman vs. Robin, and they don't really shy away from revealing the sources of their narrative ideas. Early on, they discuss the differences between this version of the story and how it differs from what's in the text, elaborating on the narrative potential of the Court of Owls, where Talon's personality really comes from (hint: it's not original), and the intriguing nature of Bruce Wayne as a father to a potentially homicidal child/sidekick ... and, apparently, how they both just need hugs. They bring up the emergence of female fight-choreography specialists for animated work, how they might put a moratorium on Wayne-family death scenes in future films after this slightly-tweaked version, and some after-thought justification to the prowess of the Talons. These three aren't the most energetic of commentators, but they offer decent little insights across the track's length.

Gotham City's Secret: The Mythic Court of Owls (31:25, 16x9 HD):
Here's a bit of a treat for fans of the comics: while Batman vs. Robin's short length and cluttered plotting works itself into a corner in not being able to comprehensively elaborate on the Court of Owls, this thirty-minute featurette fills that void with a more in-depth look at the creative process and intricacies behind Gotham's secret society. Writer Scott Snyder, artist Greg Capullo, and other members of DC's creative staff elaborate on the uniqueness of such a pervasive element added to the city's long history. As with some of the other DC animated extras, it's a tad over-produced and drawn-out, but the inclusion of clippings from Snyder's Court/City of Owls run and their discussion of a few interpretations about the iconography and back-story potential (who's responsible for the murder of Bruce's parents) makes for a satisfying piece about the mythology.

The Talons of the Owls (14:03, 16x9 HD):
Very similar to the Court of Owls segment, DC's creative team also dig their claws into the lore surrounding the society's collective of assassins. Interviews again touch on the creative process behind their creation, from their parallels to Batman's tactics and origin of their gear to the real-world inspiration behind how/why they "recruit" individuals at a young age, mixed with clips from the animated film, snips from the comics, and a few other relevant archival photographs. A few of the musings are a bit presumptuous in their importance, but it's a neat glimpse into the conceptualization process behind one of the New 52's most interesting new elements.

Warner Bros. have also included a series of partially-related extras on this disc, including A Sneak Peek at Justice League: Gods and Monsters (11:08, 16x9 HD) and a series of cartoons From the DC Comics Vault (SD): Batman: The Brave and the Bold: The Color of Revenge (22:44, 16x9); Batman TAS: Old Wounds (21:13, 4x3); Superman TAS: Obsession (21:19, 4x3); and Young Justice: Auld Acquaintance (22:04, 16x9). They've also thrown in Merrie Melodies' Super Rabbit (8:15, 4x3) and an arrangement of Trailers for DCU: Son of Batman, LEGO - DC: Justice League vs. Bizarro League, and The Flintstones and WWE: Stone Age Smackdown.

Final Thoughts:

Combining the director responsible for overseeing DC's Assault on Arkham and the two-parter adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns with the sagas of the Court of Owls and Damian Wayne sounds like a recipe for something really, really promising . While full of sharp, violent momentum and a reputable boost in characterization over Son of Batman, Batman vs. Robin struggles with the mishmash of storylines as it progresses. Dry swaths of compulsory exposition, superficial conspiracy plotting involving the Court and its Talon(s), and a messy final act full of dubious circumstances undermine the strengths generated by the complex relationship between Damian's deadly streak and his father's rigid no-killing perspective. It's a step in the right direction, absolutely, but not the leap ahead one might hope for from Jay Oliva and the source material. WB's Blu-ray looks expectedly good and sounds terrific, and the commentary and pair of featurettes about the Court of Owls make for a great collection of extras. The film probably only merits a watch or two, but the entire package comes mildly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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