Batman: A Death in the Family stands out as the comic that rocked Bat fans with its slaughtering of Jason Todd at the hands of Joker. But it wasn’t only Todd’s jarring death that made the book memorable, but the break between issues where fans were given a difficult choice to make: should Robin live or die? Fans phoned in and voted for the death of Bats’ sidekick, a decision that still stuns fans and makes them wonder what could have been. Batman: Death in the Family, DC animation’s new interactive Blu-ray, attempts to give us some answers.
In what appears to take place in animation canon with two other DC animated features, after Batman: The Killing Joke and before Batman: Under the Redhood, Batman: Death in the Family starts by sending Batman and Jason Todd, the current Robin, off to Bosnia to hunt down Joker and Ra’s Al Ghul. Batman had previously expressed concerns about Todd in the field, worried that he’s too bent on revenge and wishing for the death of the Clown Prince. The pair head for Bosnia and soon after, Todd is captured by Joker and beaten almost to death with that famous crowbar and left to die, locked in a warehouse with a time bomb.
That’s when viewers are given their first choice; kill Robin, let Robin survive on his own, or send Batman to save him. Each choice will set off varying versions of events that take Batman and Todd through numerous paths. Each path answers the darkest “what if?” questions before then being split by successive decision-making. It’s a disaster of a blast.
The first trip I took through the story was a gut wrenching and fresh story for Todd that had me shrieking and crying in good measure. Replaying my way through was simple, as the Blu-ray has an easy-to-use interface that allows you to skip back to decisions with relative ease versus needing to sit through certain segments multiple times. While each pathway was enjoyable enough to make going back through them all worth it, not all pathways are created equally. Some came with new storylines and killer animation, but some were replays of Batman: Under the Redhood sequences or were carried by narrated exposition as opposed to new dialogue. The best parts of them all are the easter eggs both from canon and other Batman story lines, referencing various Robin successors, Joker’s ‘last joke,’ and even Zur En Arrh. Keen Bat fans will have fun peeking into the background for stills from other stories on screens, and casual conversations referencing older moments.
As a gimmick, the “choose your own adventure” style of the Blu-ray is well done and a lot of fun. It does a great job of dragging you into the story, making you feel culpable for certain outcomes and experiencing “monkey’s paw” regret. Though the Blu-ray comes with the varying choices, the matching digital version includes the more aptly named pre-made version, Under the Red Hood: Reloaded and additional predetermined stories, Jason Todd’s Rebellion, Robin’s Revenge and Red Hood’s Reckoning.
Though named more similarly to the comic book, this animated feature follows much more closely to the story of Batman: Under the Redhood (from Judd Winick), which is a bit of a strange choice for a new feature to be a rehashing of an old. Animated features often borrow story beats from slightly differently named comic books (for instance Batman and Son versus Son of Batman) and this one follows that same tradition but rehashes old animated scenes. The comic book, (written by Jim Starlin and illustrated by Jim Aparo) like this feature, starts with Batman sidelining Todd over concerns of his impulse control. Todd, having learned he was adopted, sets off to track his birth mother in the Middle East. He stumbles across Batman who is also there to hunt down Joker. Todd’s story turns tragic before his eventual death, when his mother sells him out to Joker who takes his life. The story then explores Batman after the death of Todd. It’s unfair to demand the movie do everything the book does, or to expect the film to be identical to its source material, but the slick removal of these larger story elements takes a lot of the weight out of Todd’s various outcomes. The betrayal by his father figure, Batman, and his biological mother before his death support his rise to villainy. Batman struggling with the death of his Robin is a compelling addition to him taking the death of his charge (differently) than that of his parents. For Batman aficionados, it’s easy to read these things into the story which allows the heavy moments to hit incredibly well, but for a casual viewer, a lot of the emotional weight might not be there. To replace that, the film jams in Batman: The Killing Joke continuity, centering the emotional weight around avenging Barbara Gordon.
The animation and voice acting are as exceptional as you expect from DC’ animated features. Bruce Greenwood and John DiMaagio return as Batman and Joker respectively, which is fitting with the Batman: Under the Redhood overlap. Vincent Martella takes over as Jason Todd and brings an emotional flare that takes you into his head.
Though Brandon Vietti’s take on the narrative borrows a bit too much from another animated feature, and not enough from its matching comic book, he has created a compelling story that utilizes the interactive elements well enough to make the whole adventure worth the run time.
Also included with the Blu-ray are four animated shorts from the DC Showcase. Sgt. Rock, directed by Batman: TAS’ Bruce Timm, takes Rock on a mission alongside universal monsters to hunt Nazi experiment generated super soldiers. The Phantom Stranger, also by Bruce Timm, sets the titular character up against a version of the devil who is compelling lost young people in the 1970s. Adam Strange, by Butch Lukic, brings a non-chronological story of Strange being lost on a mining colony hoping to find his way home. Death, by Sam Liu, borrows from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman for a short about an artist taking on his inner demons with the help of a mysterious woman who has hints of Eyptian patron of lost souls, Anubis. This was the strongest of the four. The shorts are fine, and are created by many DC heavyweights, but they’re forgettable enough that I can’t imagine firing up a Blu-ray to re-watch them. They’re most certainly a bonus, and not the main event.
This interactive Blu-ray in an incredibly entertaining way to burn through an afternoon. It never lets you zone out of the film, forcing your attention onto a story that’s worth your interest. Though it often feels like a replay of dusty old assets, there is enough new material to take with you to other stories of characters like Red Hood, Red Robin and Hush, finally allowing you to see what would happen if Jason Todd had been spared.