The Son and the Knight
Batman gets a lot of flack for hanging around with sidekicks, but these characters often make for the most compelling stories. How can the Caped Crusader justify a life spent pursuing vengeance as he's guiding a fledgling crimefighter away from the same fate? It's a guaranteed way to heighten both tension and emotion within an adventure, and it looked as if Son of Batman -- the latest of DC Comics' animated features -- would not only follow suit but even sweeten the pot with a familial edge. Instead, what the Dark Knight's fans get is a crash course in what happens when a comic-based project becomes more concerned with putting on a "mature" and "serious" front than with just telling an interesting story. Son of Batman possesses the makings of a compelling premise, but rather than bridge the gap between young admirers and old, it alienates everyone with its uneven and somewhat self-important take on the character.
The League of Assassins is in a shambles. Its leader, Ra's al Ghul (voice of Giancarlo Esposito), has been put out of commission by Deathstroke (voice of Thomas Gibson), his excommunicated right-hand man. Vowing to have revenge and protect her father's legacy, Talia al Ghul (voice of Morena Baccarin) has taken her son Damian (voice of Stuart Allan) to Gotham City so he can be looked after by his biological father -- Batman (voice of Jason O'Mara). The product of a one-night stand between Talia and the Dark Knight, the hot-headed and well-trained Damian has inherited his dad's thirst to see justice served, vowing to take down Deathstroke by himself. But the boy has much to learn about letting his inner demons get the best of him, and despite his initial reluctance, Batman takes on the job of helping the lad control them. However, their time is short, as Deathstroke soon plans to unleash a horde of genetically-altered warriors on the world and watch it all burn.
I look at Son of Batman not so much as a movie but as 74 minutes of missed opportunities. It's normally good practice to focus on what a film is and not what it isn't, but when the results are as unsatisfying as they are here, what could've been creeps into your subconcious whether you like it or not. Although Son of Batman may have based itself on a Grant Morrison-penned arc from the pages of DC Comics, it jettisons almost everything that made the storyline a complex and head-turning chapter in the Caped Crusader's mythos. There's so much to be done with the idea of Batman being confronted with a child who ties him to one of his greatest adversaries, but all we get out of it here is a bad buddy cop movie. Does the Dark Knight experience emotional turmoil at his own kin being raised by a society of killers? Nope. Does Damian endure his own struggles upon findling there's more to life than single-minded vengeance? Not really. Do we see Talia using her boy as a pawn to perhaps sow chaos in her ex-lover's world? Not a chance. But hey, we sure do get a lot of cliched quipping as Batman and Damian race to stop the bad guy of the month's latest vaguely-defined world domination plot!
Son of Batman needs a certain amount of history and build-up to succeed that its running time of an hour and change simply cannot accommodate. The story's most integral moments feel glazed over, gypping adult fans of a powerful, introspective plot and making any children who might be watching bored with all the grown-up talk. On that subject, while DC's animated films do skew towards an older audience, there's an awful lot of bloodshed here. It feels out of place against stuff as fantastic in tone as Deathstroke's army of mutant ninja man/bat hybrids. I know Batman is renowned for his moodiness, but this flick can't even make the Dark Knight taking on a massive crocodile monster feel anything but stuffy and brooding. The animation itself looks fine (if a touch on the choppy side), and the actors do an overall decent job giving life to their characters. O'Mara sounds close to what it'd be like if Harrison Ford donned the cape and cowl, Allan overcomes some stiff line readings to pass muster as Damian, and though his role is minor, David McCallum steals the show with a sassy interpretation of Alfred. Only Gibson seems ill-suited for the part of Deathstroke, with the film's egotistical take on the villain likely to inspire viewers more to chuckle than to cower in terror.
Intended as the next in DC's attempts at building a shared continuity with its animated movies (a la the Marvel Cinematic Universe), Son of Batman elicits little hope for the future. Considering the company's pace of three cartoon features a year, it's quite possible that the next title will be a pleasant surprise, as last year's Superman: Unbound turned out to be. But until then, Son of Batman's slash-and-burn storytelling and hesitance to have some real fun will be here to cast a pall over the Dark Knight's escapades yet to come.
(Released by Warner Home Video and rated "PG-13" by MPAA.)