There’s been much hand-wringing about the state of DC Comics’ live-action franchise, with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice looking increasingly like a make-or-break proposition if they want to keep up with Marvel. Those woes often paint over the fact that DC’s television and video endeavors are doing quite well. Their direct-to-video releases, while they have their ups and downs, still set a standard of quality that makes longtime fans extremely happy. Their newest release – Batman vs. Robin, screened this past Friday before a packed house at WonderCon in Anaheim – makes a welcome addition to that canon, and a sign that direct-to-video can still adhere to expected standards of quality.
Batman v. Robin serves as a sequel to last year’s Son of Batman, which united Bruce Wayne (voiced by Jason O’Mara) with his child by the al-Ghul family Damian (voiced by Stuart Allan). Both voice actors return to their duties here, along with director Jay Oliva, who seems to have a Midas touch as far as these animated projects go. This time, the Dynamic Duo goes up against the Court of Owls, a shadowy organization composed of Gotham’s elite who have grand plans for their city and its residents. Those plans don’t include any pointy-eared vigilantes in them, so they send their chief henchman to tempt Damian – now serving as Robin – away from his father.
The Owls form the best part of the story: a refreshing break from the supervillain-of-the-week format and a smart way to highlight the tensions between father and son. While some of their twists and turns advertise themselves a little too openly, they demonstrate a different kind of threat than we’re used to seeing: something Batman can’t destroy with detective work and a good right hook. Their creepy visages – borrowed heavily from Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut – make it more horror film than comic book flick, and their lack of super powers contribute immeasurable to the film’s gritty, down-to-earth feel.
More importantly, they connect to the evolving emotional state of our two heroes, as Damian strains against his father’s limitations and Bruce learns that parenting means more than just giving orders. Unlike Batman, the Court of Owls has no problems killing people, and Damian finds himself drawn closer into their web as Bruce’s control-freak tendencies prove to be too much. Not only does the notion show Bruce in a more flawed and human light, but it demonstrates what might happen if Damian slips from his influence. Oliva shows a sure hand in linking those themes to the copious action pieces, turning what could have been random mayhem into something with a little more resonance.
That willingness to shift gears – especially with a character as well traveled as Batman – constitutes a big part of this series’ success. The Grant Morrison comic books that inspired it has enough energy to fill a dozen more movies , and while Oliva shows obvious affection for his source material, he’s also willing to add his own details if they serve the story well. While DC’s live-action movies have suffered from the need to appeal to a broad audience, the animated features have less pressure, and can please the hard-core fans without leaving newcomers in the dark.
That’s a deceptively tough balance, but these films have managed more often than you’d expect. They tend to lean too heavily on Batman and the Justice League, but then again, efforts like this one demonstrate the up side to that focus. Batman vs. Robin hits another high point for this series, and as a sequel to an already terrific production, suggests that there may be many more to come. As long as Oliva retains his touch and the source material stays strong, we may not need a live-action DC franchise.
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