DC Animation has returned with another anime-infused entry into their New 52 inspired universe, Son of Batman. Given that the movie is based on the first chapter in Grant Morrison’s Bat-epic Batman & Son, the announcement of the project had me giggling at the thought of it being the first in a series of adaptations based on Morrison’s surreal deconstruction of the Batman mythos. That’s not what the folks at DC’s animation department had in mind, however. Instead, they’ve created a very loose adaptation of the most basic elements of Morrison’s story (specifically Damian Wayne, Talia Al Ghul, and ninja Manbats) re-appropriated into a very different Batman adventure. Taken entirely on its own terms, this is a perfectly entertaining entry into DC’s string of animated movies. As an adaptation of stellar source material, it’s definitely a disappointment. But, beggars can’t be choosers, so once I got past what I wanted the movie to be and accepted what the project actually is, I can’t pretend that I didn’t have a good time.
The film kicks off at the Ra’s Al Ghul’s temple for the League of Assassins when Deathstroke suddenly attacks the base. A bloody brawl breaks out with Talia (Morena Gibson) wielding machine guns, Damien (Stuart Allan) slashing through a ninja army, and Ra’s (Giancarlo Esposito) dying at the hands of his former mentor Deathstroke (Thomas Gibson). So, it’s instantly clear the movie is its own beast and a pretty wild one at that. Avatar: The Last Airbender director Ethan Spaulding stages his story in the same anime-inspired style, filled with over-the-top action sequences. From there, we jump to Gotham City, where Talia introduces Batman (Jason’ O’Mara) to his secret son. She leaves Damian with Batman so that she can pursue her father’s killer and Bats deals with that whole fatherhood thing. His vicious, assassin-trained son feuds with Alfred (David McCallum) and Nightwing (Sean Maher) while Daddy Bats discovers that Deathstroke is in Gotham putting together an army of Ninja Manbats. Damian, of course, wants to kill to avenge his grandfather’s death, while Batman wants to teach him how to achieve a more responsible brand of justice.
Son of Batman flies by at a tight 74 minutes, filled with absolutely stunning action scenes designed by Spaulding in a surprisingly bloody and visceral style. It’s an effective if simple story that runs roughshod with DC continuity. While Damian and his story are adapted pretty closely from Morrison’s comic, everything else has been reinvented by screenwriter Joe R. Lansdale. Thankfully Lansdale is no slouch, having served on the 90s Batman Animated Series as well as scripting Bubba Ho-Tep. He’s got a very lurid, punchy, and humorous writing style that defines this feature. Deathstroke is completely reinvented as a spurned student of Ra’s Al Ghul in a way that will irritate fans of the character, but actually serves the story quite well. Essentially, what Lansdale and Spaulding have created is a globe-hopping Ra’s Al Ghul/ninja/Batman adventure tinged with anime touches. Their movie is as entertaining as that description suggests, just obviously not the deepest, psychologically complex, or most meaningful Batman adventure imaginable.
The visuals are solid, the action relentless, and voice cast is strong throughout with one notable exception. While returning players like O’Mara (who previously growled his way through Batman in Justice League: War) fit their roles comfortably, youngster Stuart Allan is a bit of a distraction as Damian. It’s not that the child actor gives a bad performance, as much as his voice doesn’t suit the character. As Morrison conceived character (and Landsdale wrote him for the film), Damian is a pint-sized ninja warrior who is wise beyond his years, cold, and calculated. Allan, on the other hand, is very much an LA child actor who sounds like the only hardship he’s faced is that one time his Xbox died. He nails the snotty, spoiled brat aspect of Damian, but sounds too much like an average kid to communicate the rest of the role.
That slight bit of miscasting sums up the flaws with the movie as a whole. The project’s primary goal is to introduce Damian to the DC animated universe, and while the filmmakers understand Damien’s appeal, they don’t understand the heart of Morrison’s original story. Not only was Batman & Son a throwback Dennis O’Neil-style Bat adventure, it was also a study of how parental responsibility would screw up Batman, using the pint sized assassin as a circus mirror reflecting back all of the Bat’s worst qualities and impulses (not to mention the opening chapter of a multifaceted Bat epic). Son of Batman only picks up on the old school adventure aspect, and pushes that as far as possible, folding in the light anime style that’s been part of these DC movies since Gotham Night and pushing it farther than ever. Granted, the flick is one hell of a ride, it’s just a shame that it simplifies the source material and the central character so much.
The Blu-ray disc is as solid of a package as we’ve come to expect from the folks in DC’s animation department. The video transfer is vibrant and stunning, the sound mix and score are as rich and pounding as any Hollywood feature. It’s certainly a pretty disc that in no way feels like an assembly line direct-to-DVD cash grab. DC treats these fan service features with class and that’s why the fans are still buying them in big numbers. The special feature section offers plenty to enjoy, just sadly not quite as robust of a collection of features as previous discs. First up comes a fifteen-minute doc about Damian Wayne with Grant Morrison as the star of the show, discussing his impulses in creating the character and the entire arc he wrote for Damian over several years. Next up comes a 10-minute examination of Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Assassins that serves as a fun introduction for any unfamiliar fans. There’s also a quick 10-minute look into the film’s art style, and a 10 minute promo/discussion of DC’s next animated feature Assault On Arkham Asylum, which promises to be both a prequel to the video game series and a Suicide Squad feature (in other words, I can’t f-ing wait).
Finally, there are also four vintage episodes from the DC animation vaults. First up are two Robin-focused episodes of Batman: Brave and The Bold that are darker than average for the surreal Silver Age series (especially one episode involving Damian Wayne and the Joker’s son). But the real gems are a Jonah Hex vs. Ra’s Al Ghul episode of The Batman Animated Series and an absolutely excellent episode of Batman Beyond written by Paul Dini (in which Talia returns and Bruce attends a campy Batman musical that has to be seen to be believed). Overall, it’s a strong package for perfectly entertaining Bat-flick. This isn’t the greatest animated movie that DC has produced, but it’s also far from the worst. The biggest problem is simply that these guys raised the bar for the series so high after The Dark Knight Returns that even something as genuinely enjoyable Son of Batman can’t help but feel like a mild disappointment in comparison. Still, all things considered this is definitely real treat for Batman fans that’s not to be missed. Even if though it’s not a perfect representation of the character, it’s still nice to see Damian Wayne sliding into the animated DCU. Now with any luck we’ll get a movie where Dick Grayson takes over as Batman with the little guy in an adaptation of Morrison’s finest hour with the character. It’s probably not going to happen. But as always, I dare to dream.