Son of Batman, the latest direct-to-video offering from Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment (now available for purchase on iTunes and in DVD/Blu-ray), is ostensibly an origin story for, well, Batman’s preteen son. But let’s get this out of the way: this is not a film for kids. Just like Under The Red Hood, that other recent movie about a Robin, Son of Batman contains more than its fair share of blood and violence.
Only very loosely based on the Batman and Son comics storyline by Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert, Son of Batman follows the journey of Damian Wayne (Stuart Allen), as he seeks vengeance for the death of his grandfather, Ra’s al Ghul (Giancarlo Esposito) — and later, the kidnapping of his mother Talia (Morena Baccarin) — by the villain of the piece, Deathstroke (Thomas Gibson). Along the way, he works together with his biological father (Jason O’ Mara, reprising his role from Justice League: War), taking on the mantle of Robin as he learns what it means to fight crime alongside the Dark Knight.
Finding his place in Batman/Bruce Wayne’s family is a key component of Damian’s journey here, and it occurs in parallel to his growth into a hero worthy of the Robin legacy. This makes for some fun moments, like Damian wanting to drive the Batmobile, and Bruce being impressed with the boy’s sword skills, even as he demonstrates it by destroying Wayne Manor’s shrubbery. As Jason O’ Mara himself said, “It’s always interesting when Batman’s lone wolf status is challenged,” and it’s really in the scenes like these, which explore the fledgling father/son dynamic, that the film shines.
Unfortunately, there is just too much gratuitous action weighing down the rest of the story. The mass battle in the beginning, for example, is twice as long as it needs to be, and too overwrought for an introductory prologue. And some of the other fight scenes are plain just illogical – such as a moment in the extended battle sequence between Damian and Deathstroke, where the latter pins the former to a wall by stabbing a knife through one arm, and then a sword through the other. Damian escapes this by yanking his hands, and the weapons, out of the wall by the sheer strength of his young body. If this wasn’t implausible enough, he proceeds to have a sword fight with Deathstroke, using both of his hands with no problems whatsoever. One doesn’t need a medical degree to figure that Damian should have gaping holes in both his arms, or should be losing blood, at the very least. Sure, the kid has been raised to be an assassin since birth, and adrenaline can do a lot keep a person going — we all know of Batman’s reputation for pushing through major injuries and difficulties, no doubt — but this was just incomprehensible.
In fairness, there are some cool bits interspersed with the ridiculous, such as when Damian runs over the flat blade of Deathstroke’s sword to gain leverage for a flip-kick. And overall, the animation ensures that even the nonsensical parts feel dynamic and realistic (viewers who have watched Justice League: War, the previous DC Animated original film, will recognise the overall set-up and aesthetic here). That said, while the visuals are beautifully designed and composed, and do well to bring the script to life, the animation quality still doesn’t quite match up to other DC offerings – such as Young Justice, the sadly departed television series.
Between that and the inconsistent script, the voice actors have their work cut out for them to try and sell the story. And they do succeed, for the most part. I’ve always imagined Damian to have a European accent, given that he was raised by his mother outside of the US, so the American one here was a bit of a throw-off. But that’s a minor quibble, and perhaps not relevant given that this is a loose adaptation of the original material. Damian does retain his signature formal inflection in his speech, though, and Stuart Allen capably captures the warring duality of childishness and homicidal aggression in the young boy’s dialogue. Similarly, Jason O’ Mara seems to have gotten his Bat-voice down pat, along with the softer, less grizzled Bruce Wayne voice. There’s probably a lot of lingering nostalgia out there for the legendary Kevin Conroy, but with the DC Animated Universe entering a new phase just as the comics have done, it’s perhaps time for a new voice beneath the cape and cowl as well.
Meanwhile, Morena Baccarin does well to imbue her Talia with a dual sensuality and fragility. The character’s vacillation between femme fatale and damsel-in-distress is annoying in its inconsistency, but Baccarin can’t be blamed for that, and there’s an argument to be made that Talia’s portrayal in the comics is not much different. For my part, I was bothered more by the animators’ need to constantly have her cleavage on display, even during stealth missions into an enemy stronghold.
Another pitfall of the script might be that Sean Maher’s Nightwing is a bit too serious for my liking, though he commendably straddles the fine line between experienced and youthful. Comic fans might be disappointed that he effectively replaces Tim Drake here, but it was fun seeing Dick Grayson, the first Robin, in his time-honoured role as one of Batman’s oldest and most important allies, and to see how he plays off against the bratty, arrogant Damian. Similarly so for steadfast butler Alfred Pennyworth, who is delightfully voiced by David McCallum. His delivery of such hilarious lines as “A sleepover? oh goody,” is pitch-perfect in how deadpan and utterly British it is. In contrast, Thomas Gibson’s performance here as the villainous Deathstroke is stiff and unconvincing. This is a character who needs to be a credible badass, even if (and especially since) this film has him basically picking on a 10 year old. Gibson seemed to warm to the role towards the end, but he is easily the weakest link in the cast.
All in all, however, this a decent movie for viewers who don’t know anything about Batman, and also for long-time fans of The Dark Knight and/or Damian Wayne. Aside from a slow start and unnecessary violence, Son of Batman is an engaging and neatly plotted exploration of an unusual boy, and his equally unusual father. The animation won’t win awards, but it’s still a mostly fun watch, albeit not a very kid-friendly one. Despite the wasted opportunity on DC/WB’s part to develop interest from younger fans in this gritty new Robin, Son of Batman is a worthwhile watch for anyone with even the slightest interest in Gotham’s caped crusader.
Rating: 7 out of 10