Ok, I’ll admit it, I went into this latest DC original animated movie with lowered expectations. A lot of their recent original films have been lacklustre to say the least, and this one is meant as a sequel to their Son of Batman film (a film I didn’t really care for). Add into that the fact that this is an adaptation of the Court of Owls story arc from the comics (which in my opinion is one of the best Batman arcs in recent years), and all of that awesomeness has to be compressed into about 80 minutes? Yeah, my hopes weren’t exactly high.
So what did I have against Son of Batman? Apart from the excessive violence, the lack of any emotional weight and the fact that Damian Wayne came across as an annoying brat who made me want to drive a pencil into my ears? Not much really, but it was more a film I tolerated than enjoyed. I know Damian Wayne is a very hard character to write, I understand that. He’s arrogant and unfortunately has the skills to back up that arrogance, but he’s also tormented, trying to find his own path somewhere between the way his father (Batman) does things and the way he was raised by his grandfather (Ra’s al Ghul). Damian Wayne is one of my favourite Robins (only coming in second to the original Dick Grayson), and Son of Batman just didn’t do him justice.
So how does this film fare? Well let’s see. First off, what’s the story?
For those not in the know, Damian Wayne is the son of Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul. Damian was raised as an assassin by his grandfather Ra’s al Ghul, until the last film where Batman discovered Damian’s existence and took him in as his new Robin. Batman vs. Robin picks up several months later with Batman struggling to control his son, while also failing to foster any kind of trust between them. Matters aren’t helped by Damian constantly sneaking out to fight crime on his own. Damian comes across a mysterious figure called Talon. Talon wants to take Damian under his wing (heh, owl pun) and the offer is certainly tempting. Talon has a lot more faith in Damian than Bruce ever did, and even goes so far as to praise him! Meanwhile Batman is being confronted by the Court of Owls, a secret society of rich people that rule Gotham from the shadows. This group actually has a personal connection to Bruce, as after his parents were killed he believed the Court of Owls to be behind it and tried to track them down, to no avail. Once it is revealed that Talon is working for the Court of Owls though, Damian must make a decision as to where his loyalties lie. While Batman must come to terms with how he’s supposed to be a father to a boy who was never really a boy. Things get complicated though as Talon reveals that he has plans of his own.
I actually really enjoyed this film, ok it’s not perfect, but it certainly did impress me. First off there were a lot of little moments that I really like. I like that they had Dollmaker as our opening villain. The film gets points for using a lesser known villain, and even more points for making him incredibly creepy, yet a touch sympathetic. You only meet the guy for a few minutes, but you know that something has gone terribly wrong inside. He’s clearly insane, but he’s partially a victim too, just like all the best Batman villains. I liked the stuff about Bruce trying to officially adopt Damian, having to keep him a secret for the moment (yeah explaining where he came from to the outside world might be a tad problematic). It shows that the writers are thinking about this situation and I appreciate that. I also like the fact that the Court tries to recruit Bruce Wayne, it’s a diversion from the comics, but I think it’s a fun idea. It’s these little moments that shows the writers have put some thought and effort into this, not feeling constrained to the source material, but making the story their own.
The characters fair a lot better in this film too. You feel the emotions a lot more. The tension between Batman and Robin feels genuine, though I do admit that their titular fight does feel like it’s pushing it a bit (I’m not sure how dramatic it is watching Batman beat up a ten year old). Damian is still a little annoying, but there’s more of a tortured soul to him, a few shades of young man trying to find his way. I particularly like a scene at the end of the film where Damian goes on about all of the voices in his head, telling him what to do. It’s quite a powerful little scene. A few more like that and we might just have the Damian I know and love from the comics.
I also really love Talon as well. He’s not just a powerful foe, or a badass, he has an actual back story. Sure it’s not the most original back story, but it lets you sympathise with the character and see his side of things a little bit, though it is disappointing that he kind of descends into just pure villain mode by the end. The only real disappointment I have with this film is the Court of Owl (which is kind of what I was expecting). In the comics they are a great villain, a massive threat that pushes Batman beyond his limits, a foe that knows Gotham city better than he does, and rocks his belief in himself. In the film? They’re just another adversary who wants to take control of Gotham. They never really feel like anything that Batman hasn’t dealt with before. Outside of their army of refrigerated zombie ninjas (because what kind of secret society doesn’t have a few of those knocking around?) they’re not much of a threat to Batman. Like I said I was kind of expecting this. Fitting the Court of Owls story arc into 80 minutes would be a challenge, and that’s without attaching on a plot about Batman and Damian bonding as father and son. Still, the Damian plot is clearly the focus here, so the ball had to drop somewhere. At least Talon made for a likeable villain.
The fights scenes are amazing. They are beautifully choreographed and expertly animated. You pretty much feel each hit, and the motions are fluid yet easy to follow. This is really DC animation on top of its game. I’m also pleased that they’ve toned down the gore for this film. I mean sure I still wouldn’t let little kids watch this, there’s still a fair amount of blood and at one point a dude gets his heart ripped out, but it doesn’t feel as excessive as other recent films.
Overall this film is huge improvement over Son of Batman. There’s more emotional weight to the story, Damian comes across a lot better, and even the gory violence has been toned down a touch. The villains may not be the most threatening or unique, but they’re enjoyable enough. The animation is fantastic and there are lots of little moments that raise this film just above your average Batman tale.
Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday.