Bruce Wayne’s newly revealed son continues to challenge his father’s authority in terms of both parenting and how to treat criminals, leading to a showdown between the two caped crime fighters. But neither Batman nor Robin realizes that Damian is being viewed as a pawn by a secret society in Gotham City. If Gotham is to be saved, they shall have to learn to work together.
The Sweatbox Review:
More and more, these DC Animated Movies are feeling like advertisements for whatever comic is a top seller at the comic shops these days. It was one thing when they were adapting supposedly “classic” stories (even if some of their choices could have been better), but the current idea seems to be to push whatever popular tale came out recently, as if to simply bolster sales of book collections just coming onto the shelves at bookstores. The age of corporate synergy is well upon us, with the multinationals apparently thinking that we don’t just want more of the same— we want exactly what we just read to appear on our TV screens.
Well, that’s not entirely fair. The people behind the DC animated movies have been giving things their own twists, so that the movies are not simple retellings of the comics. In the case of Batman Vs. Robin, the springboard might appear to be the writing of Grant Morrison, who introduced us to bat-spawn Damian Wayne a few years ago in the comics. One collection of his stories, after all, is named Batman Vs. Robin, though in those tales Batman was actually Dick Grayson and not Bruce Wayne. Actually, the meat of the movie’s plot comes from other sources, namely books written by Scott Snyder and Peter Tomasi. It was Snyder who created the Court of Owls, a secret society operating in Gotham City, led by its richest citizens. Meanwhile, it was Tomasi that fleshed out the dynamic between Bruce and Damian (this was after Bruce apparently returned from the dead), and gave us a story of how Damian was almost swayed away from Bruce by another man of mystery.
Batman Vs. Robin, the movie, was written by respected comics scribe J.M. DeMatteis, who is known for adding a superior psychological nuance to his work. It is up to him to combine the various plot threads from the comics, and fortunately he delivers a script that is strong in terms of dealing with the complex nature of each character’s psyche, and how they interact with one another. He begins his story with Damian in Robin garb, tracking the Dollmaker, a psychopath who has kidnapped many children from Gotham City. We quickly find out that Robin left Gotham on his own, leaving Batman to track him down, angrily voicing his disagreement with Robin’s choices. It is clear that Batman not only fears for his son’s safety, but also has yet to develop trust in him. Damian was trained to be an unfeeling assassin, and Bruce knows that Damian could easily revert back to his old ways of thinking.
Batman’s worst fears appear to be realized after a vicious fight leaves Dollmaker dead. Though it turns out that another man is responsible, the other choices that Damian made that night put him in the doghouse, so that he is forbidden from leaving the grounds of Wayne Manor. This sets up further tension between father and son, even as Batman goes on to investigate the murderer of Dollmaker, with the first clue being an owl feather left at the scene. Bruce recalls tales his father told him when he was a boy, involving a legend about a secret group that ruled Gotham City. This Court of Owls had an enforcer named Talon, and it isn’t long before Batman’s investigation brings him face to face with the supposed myth and his army of Talon zombies.
Once Robin escapes his housebound imprisonment (getting away from a babysitting Nightwing, no less), he too finds himself facing Talon. But rather than a fight, Talon wishes to speak with Robin. He is more interested in turning Robin against Batman, and he has witnessed the friction between the two. Using this to his advantage, Talon coerces Robin into considering becoming his partner.
Ironically, the Court of Owls has plans for Bruce Wayne too. They also arrange for a little chat, and make Bruce an offer to have him join the Court. Bruce’s assured refusal is in stark contrast to the conflicted Damian, who prefers Talon’s company to his father’s but can’t shake the influence of Bruce’s morality. So, even as Damian disappoints Talon, Robin still comes to blows with Batman in an extended fight sequence that underlines just how damaged the Waynes are psychologically. We have all had quarrels with our dads, but the violence of the fight between Batman and Robin left me thinking that they are both seriously disturbed and even pathetic. I don’t fault the script for this, as I can’t see a DeMatteis comic go quite so far as the onscreen violence gets here; instead, I think it is the judgement of director Jay Oliva that comes into question. Oliva loves his fight scenes, and this one is well choreographed; but I don’t think such a display between two supposed heroes does much to have us root for either of them. Superhero battles may be a time-worn trope in comics, but having a father and son go at it so forcefully is really kind of sickening. (An earlier fight between Robin and Nightwing is somewhat more restrained.)
The film gets back on track somewhat as Robin’s reluctance to heed’s Batman’s advice gets him into trouble, and Bruce finds himself attacked by another zombie army. With a common foe revealed, Batman and Robin rediscover their faith in each other, and re-establish the parent-child bond while bringing defeat to their enemy. Past excesses in the movie’s direction are revisited in some gruesome fight sequences, but at least all out heroes are on the same side by this time. The quality of the script shines through at the end, though, as we witness an unusual father and son discussing their issues and coming to a mutual understanding.
In many ways, this is one of the better quality scripts that has been produced for a DC animated movie. The psychological depth is impressive, and there are some moments of truly solid character development. DeMatteis also uses a number of flashbacks and dream sequences effectively to illuminate the characters’ inner feelings. However, a few other issues hamper the movie, including an overly convoluted plot that ties in several elements from the comics skilfully, but then leaves numerous plot holes. The actual aims of the Court remain somewhat vague, as are their plans for Batman, who could have easily been killed by them on at least a couple of occasions. The bloody resolution also leaves many more questions in terms of what will happen to Gotham City next; the ramifications aren’t immediately obvious, but when you think about who makes up the Court, one must realize that the fallout of the story’s conclusion would be massive; but this aspect is left untouched.
I would say this is a step up from last year’s Son Of Batman; but another pass at the script, and a less bloodthirsty director could have helped this film achieve the greatness it strode for.