Any adult in Fresno or anywhere else in the world can tell you that being a parent is not easy, but I have to imagine that being both a parent and a superhero is a substantial handful, especially if the child's mother and grandfather just so happen to be supervillains. That's what Bruce Wayne discovers in the last DC Universe Animated Original Movie, Son of Batman.
Based on the 2006 "Batman and Son" story arc from the comic books by Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert, the film tells the story of Damian Wayne, the illegitimate son of Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. the Batman, and Talia al Ghul, daughter of eco-terrorist and leader of the League of Assassins Ra's al Ghul. The result of Bruce and Talia's night together during the 1987 Elseworlds story "Son of the Demon," Damian's introduction into Bruce's life brought a brand new dynamic into the comics as this pre-teen boy trained by assassins all his life to be a ruthless killer now becomes the latest to don the mantle of Robin, the Boy Wonder. Naturally, the decision to make Batman a father was a very controversial one when the story first came out, Damien's snotty attitude and reckless behavior didn't help matters. But since then the character has been allowed to grow into the Robin role and fans more accustomed to him; in fact during the brief time when Bruce Wayne was supposedly dead and Dick Grayson took over as Batman, in resulted in a unique role reversal where Batman was the more lighthearted one and Robin was the stern and cold one.
The film opens up in the mountain of the far east in the stronghold of Ra's al Ghul (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito), who, along with his daughter Talia (played by Morena Baccarin), is training his young grandson Damian (voiced by Stuart Allan) to take over for him one day as the leader of the League of Assassins. But one day, the stronghold is attacked by rogue assassins led by Ra's's former apprentice Slade Wilson, a.k.a. Deathstroke (voiced by Thomas Gibson), who murders Ra's by burning him so severely he is not able to make to the fabled Lazarus Pits that have kept Ra's alive for centuries. For this horrific betrayal, Damian swears vengeance against Deathstroke, and Talia that decides that now is the time to introduce the boy to his father.
In Gotham City, Batman (voiced by Jason O'Mara) is engaged in battle with his enemy Killer Croc (voiced by Fred Tatasciore), who has recently undergone genetic enhancement from a mysterious benefactor. Croc is unexpectedly defeated by Talia, who then takes Batman somewhere private where she reveals to him her father's fate...as well as introduce him to his son. At first Bruce and Damian have a very antagonistic relationship, mostly because, despite his incredible skill and intelligence, Damian's reckless and overly violent behavior that falls in direct conflict with Bruce's vow of not killing. The boy's attitude also puts off the rest of the Bat Family, including Bruce's trusted butler Alfred (voiced by David McCallum) and Batman's ally and former Robin Dick Grayson, a.k.a. Nightwing (voiced by Sean Maher).
Meanwhile, Deathstorke means to retake what he believes to be his birthright until Damian was born by claiming control of the League of Assassins. To do this, he plan to take control of a plan concocted by Ra's to genetically enhance his ninja assassins with animal DNA, a job he puts on the former Man-Bat himself, Dr. Kirk Langstrom (voiced by Xander Berkeley), under threat of murdering his wife and daughter. It is soon up the Batman to stop Deathstoke's plans, with the aid of his revenge-obsessed son, now donning the mantle of the new Robin. But can the Dark Knight reach out to his long-lost son and sway him from taking revenge and instead guide him down a righteous path, in order for the pair to truly acknowledge each other as family?
This is the second film in the DC Universe Animated film franchise to be based on what is mainly seen now as a DCnU concept; okay, the original story came out in 2006, well before the New 52 launch of rebooted comic titles began, but Damian was still the fourth and latest to bear the Robin mantle when the reboot launched. The first DCnU film in the series was Justice League: War, and while I definitely enjoy this film better than that one, I still do not consider it my favorite in the franchise.
As IGN pointed out in their review, if you are a fan of the original story that the film in based on, then you are likely to be disappointed because it only borrows the basics of that four-issue arc. Certain elements like the ninja Man-Bats are still present, but other elements that appeared during Damian’s early storylines are dropped. Some scenes that you will NOT find in this adaptation include Bruce taking a vacation, Tim Drake (the third Robin and currently Red Robin) getting beaten up by Damian, Jezebel Jet, the three ghosts of Batman, The Black Casebook, seeing future Damian as Batman, or England's Knight and the Club of Heroes. All of this is a shame to see go, but I don't mind so much because at least the story remains very focused and it plays out like the twisted family drama that it is.
Like most of the films in this franchise, the content gets quite adult at times, such as seeing Ra's traitorous right hand Ubu getting a room with a couple of prostitutes, drug use, and since this is a story about a grown man learning he has a son for the first time, premarital sex is openly discussed and in some cases mocked. There is one scene where Nightwing is in the Batcave after his fight with Damian protesting how Bruce, the man who always warned him to use protection, would then go off and impregnate Talia out of wedlock. There is a lot of adult language too, like when Damian refers to Ubu's escorts as harlots and when Deathstroke calls Damian Talia's bastard child and Bruce her "sperm donor." Talia herself is presented very sensual for a woman with a ten year old son, especially during the scene when she reveals Damian to Bruce. Sure, as a male in his late twenties I can't complain about Talia's sensuality, but to openly come onto the man who got her pregnant just before revealing a son to him, wearing such an alluring dress the entire time...I hate to use such a derogatory term, but this kind of stuff is where the phrase MILF originates from. Oh yeah, and spending so much time around your young son while in a skintight jumpsuit with so much well-endowed cleavage exposed...yeah.
But the main reason this film deserves it's PG-13 rating is for the sheer amount of blood. This story focusing on the al Ghul family and the League of Assassins, their is a lot of swordplay and stabbing here and blood just pours out graphically. A lot of it is in the opening scene as Deathstroke's forces attack Ra's compound; All three members of the family--Ra's, Talia and Damian--ruthlessly cut people up and shoot people down with no remorse; but it makes perfect sense because they are the leaders of the League of Assassins and it highlights the kind of training that Damian has bee put through his whole life, and what kind of murderous mentality he has be nature. I was really surprised that in this version, Damian was the one who stabbed out Deathstroke's eye, which is shown onscreen in full glory and is not at all the case in the comics, but here, again, it works well for the story as it makes the rivalry they wish the create between Damian and Deathstroke more personal than it already is.
The sheer level of violence and blood may shock some viewers, but after seeing so many of these films I cannot say I am surprised anymore, especially not after Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox. However, the stuff that did shock me is the kind of severe wounds Damian, a little boy, suffers through during his final battle with Deathstroke. I realize that they are both trained to be master assassins and that neither of them is going to hold anything back during this fight, but still, we see a little kid get a knife and a sword through his arms pinning him to a metal container, which he only get out of by ripping his arm straight through the knife with sheer willpower alone. Whoa!
Since his creation, the character of Damian Wayne has only received limited representation in non-comics media, including an episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold (albeit in a significantly different and lighter portrayal), and as a playable character in the video game Injustice: Gods Among Us, in which he was an older, more violent incarnation that was that game's alternate dimension's version of Nightwing. This film marks the biggest and most definitive adaptation of the character to date, and even though he is not my favorite character in the Batman mythos (a sentiment I know is shared by some other fans), I still think that the film captures Damian's spirit pretty well. IGN summed it up pretty well by saying that Damian is not as much of an a-hole as he was in the comics, but he's still comes across as quite the tactless little jerk. But in the comics, it is that same attitude that generates much of the humor. Stuart Allan captures Damian's intellect and superiority complex, not to mention his fixation of vengeance, in his performance, and the relationship that forms between Damian and Bruce is both combative and funny as Batman contends with the fact that the apple didn't fall very far from the tree, a fact that Alfred takes no shame in pointing out.
In speaking of Alfred, I also love the comic relief he provides here. Okay, Alfred is always a terrific source of comic relief in Batman stories, but that classic dry wit is a fantastic opposition to Damian's tactlessness and lack of respect. Seriously, Bruce and Dick have always treated this man as the father figure and friend he is and always gave him the respect he deserves, but now this kid comes around and treats him like nothing more than a manservant, only referring to him by his last name...Yeah, you go ahead and take that boy down a peg Alfred!
As with most films in the franchise, the story is driven by the performances. Jason O'Mara reprises his role as Bruce Wayne and Batman from Justice League: War, and as with that film his voice has a younger sound to it than I normally associate with Batman, but it still has all the seriousness and brooding that we expect, To this day I still prefer Kevin Conroy as Batman's voice, but O'Mara's performance is distinctly his own and was still great to listen to. As I mentioned earlier, Stuart Allen captures Damian Wayne's intellect and superiority complex in his performance, selling the audience on the fact that, much like Bruce was at that age, this is a kid that has matured way to much for his age. His performance in the main thing that drives the film, and it is great to see a child actor pull off something with this level of anger, dry sarcasm, and ruthlessness with only his voice. Morenna Baccarin is kind of unique as Talia al Ghul, having less of an accent and more of a mature, sexually liberated approach to her performance, while at the same being a very stern and no-nonsense mother. I know that IGN has criticized her performance for never sounding quite as dialed into her character as everyone else, and while I don't mind it as much as they do, I certain see where that opinion comes from. I will agree with IGN that for a character who is supposed to be such a femme fatale and who kicked so much butt earlier in the film, it is a real shame to see her reduced to a damsel-in-distress in the third act. Sean Mayar is a lot of fun here as Dick Grayson, a.k.a. Nightwing, bringing a youthful levity to the story while also highlighting a uncomfortable dynamic as the surrogate son to the Batman's legacy now coming face-to-face with the real blood-son of his mentor, who just so happens to be such a psychotic little punk. Xander Berkeley appears as the voice of Dr. Kirk Langstrom, but while there isn't a whole lot to say about him, I do like that they are trying to play him up like a family man who is only doing terrible things under pressure from evil men, and only under threat to his family, he seems like he really wants to put his days as Man-Bat behind him, but fate won't allow that to happen. Thomas Gibson is the voice that bothers me the most as Slade Wilson, a.k.a. Deathstroke. He plays the part very calculating and ruthless, as the character is meant to be, but while I do enjoy the richness and fluency texture of his voice, it just seems a little bit too loud and pronounced to me; I don't know, maybe I'm just too used to the more eerie and cold approach that Ron Pearlman gave Slade on Teen Titans. Again, Gibon is is no way bad, I just prefer something a little different sounding for this character instinctively, that's all. Giancarlo Esposito appears as the voice of Ra's al Ghul, and while he is in no way a replacement for David Warner's performance from Batman: The Animated Series, Esposito is certainly cool in the role...too bad his appearance has to be so short-lived. David MacCallum reprises his role as Alfred Pennyworth and as stated earlier brings a much needed dry wit and levity to this otherwise very twisted and dark family drama; seriously, some of his retorts to the young and condescending Damian are so so classic they crack me up. Other performances include Dee Bradley Baker as Man-Bat and the Joker, Diane Michelle as Francine Langstrom, Andrea Romano as Suit #2, Bruce Thomas as Commissioner James Gordon and Ubu, Fred Tatasciore as Killer Croc and Dusan al Ghul, and Kari Wahlgren as Rebecca Langstrom.
Special features on the DVD and Blu-ray include two featurettes: "The Fang and the Demon Head: The League of Assassins", detailing the history of Ra's al Ghul, Talia, and the League within the Batman universe, and "Strange Blood Ties: Damian Wayne", which focuses on the character himself, from his creation and beginnings in Batman comics, to the role he plays in the DC Universe today. There is also "Designing the characters with Phil Bourassa", in which the film's lead character designer takes us on a journey of how these characters were translated from the printed page into animation. Rounding out the special features are four bonus episodes from previous DC Comics cartoons, and a sneak peak at the next DC Universe Animated Original Movie, Batman: Assault on Arkham.
Overall, Son of Batman is a solid animated film that will please many older Batman fans. It may get awfully adult and violent at times, especially if you are sensitive to violence being done to children, but it has a strong focus on family dynamics, in this case very awkward family dynamics, and chronicles a young boys journey from ruthless, revenge-obsessed killer to strong and noble hero who is worthy of bearing the mantle of Robin and of standing beside his father, the Batman. Is it my favorite film in the franchise? No, but that in no way makes it bad, in fact, it is probably one the best I've seen in a while. So, I'm giving it a high three out of five stars.