While the feature film division of Warner Bros.' partnership with DC seems to be struggling to find a distinct voice and enough momentum to compete with the blockbuster behemoth that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, DC's legacy seems to be in good hands with Warner Bros. Animation. Warner and DC's straight to DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD animated films have been producing quality comic book adaptations with gorgeous animation, excellent voice acting, and an overall respect to hardcore fans of the source materials.
On the surface, these films look like cheap animated spinoffs of DC's big budget superhero films for children and tweens. However, they can be edgier and more adult-oriented than their megabudgeted live-action counterparts. Most of these films are rated PG-13 for bloody violence and adult themes. (Who knew that superheroes can bleed? The PG-13 live action versions have been steering clear of the red stuff for a while now.) Instead of watering the material down for children, Warner Bros. Animation is staying true to the original visions of the comic books, especially when it comes to adapting the Caped Crusader to the small screen.
2011's Batman: Year One was a panel-by-panel recreation of the original comics, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was an epic two-parter that didn't shy away from the violence and the many adult themes of Frank Miller's miniseries. Batman vs. Robin is a loose sequel to last year's Son of Batman, which was about Bruce Wayne (Jason O'Mara) finding out that he has a son named Damian (Stuart Allan) with Talia al Ghul. By the time Batman vs. Robin begins, Damian has already taken the mantle after the original Robin, Dick Grayson (Sean Maher), grew out of his sidekick role and became a vigilante known as Nightwing. In stark contrast to Batman's strict "no killing" rule, this new Robin had been trained by the League of Shadows to become a ruthless assassin. Frustrated by not being able to dole out instant capital punishment to Gotham's criminal trash, Damian finds a kindred spirit in another masked vigilante known as Talon (Jeremy Sisto), who looks like a less tacky and fitter version of Nite Owl from Watchmen. Talon, who works for a mysterious cabal made up of Gotham's 0.1% called the Court of Owls, has no qualms about killing for justice, and he wants to recruit Damian to become his own Robin.
For the uninitiated, the Court of Owls is basically the League of Shadows mixed with the orgy scene from Eyes Wide Shut. The biggest difference between the two is that the Court of Owls wants to wipe out Gotham's seedier elements while fully controlling the resulting utopia, while the League of Shadows keeps trying to burn the whole city to the ground. As the Court of Owls tries to destroy Batman, who they see as a threat to their plans, Robin tries to decide between staying with his estranged father or choosing to turn into the ruthless assassin he was trained to be.
These films have been steadily improving on the stark 2D gothic noir animation style of the '90s animated show which eventually gave us Mask of the Phantasm, which was perhaps the best Batman film until Christopher Nolan's trilogy came along. The fast-paced yet coherent visual approach complements the excellent fight choreography that doesn't shy away from showing some surprisingly graphic violence.
I have no doubt that if Batman vs. Robin and other PG-13 DC-Warner Bros animated films were live action, they would get slapped with R ratings. The story's themes circling around Batman's rule against killing are handled with a good amount of depth. Instead of being presented as a psychotic demon child -- his name even fits that cliché -- Damian is portrayed as a conflicted kid who strongly believes that certain people deserve to die yet has trouble making the decision to take a life.
The standard definition presentation of Batman vs. Robin takes full advantage of the fact that it's only 80 minutes long and pushes the limited bitrate of the DVD format. Even though the film is good-looking enough to warrant a viewing on Blu-ray, despite its low budget relative to its live-action counterparts, the DVD looks impressive upconverted on a large HDTV. The black levels are near perfect, there's an remarkable level of contrast, and, aside from some minor aliasing issues, there isn't much video noise to talk about.
The surround audio mix of Batman vs. Robin challenges the bombastic audio presentations of live-action megabudget blockbusters. Its Dolby Digital 5.1 track fully utilizes each channel and will give your system a workout. If the lossy DVD track is this impressive, I'm sure the audience checking Batman vs. Robin out on a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio track on Blu-ray will not be disappointed.
I had a lot more fun watching the 80 minutes of Batman vs. Robin than I have with the recent DC live action efforts, and it's not even amongst the best that DC-Warner Bros' straight-to-video animated films have to offer. Perhaps instead of trying to replicate Nolan's vision with the Justice League, Warner Bros. should throw some Pixar-level cash to their animation department and see what they come up with.