Review: Deathstroke: Knights & Dragons Doesn’t Quite Cut It

Now that we’re 19 years on from 9/11, animated movies aimed squarely at teenage male viewers clearly have no compunction about frivolously and gratuitously invoking imagery of that day. For those of us who do remember firsthand, perhaps a throwaway scene involving a passenger jetliner suicide-bombing the Golden Gate Bridge would work if it signified either an irreverent, South Park kind of tone or just a general eff-it-all tastelessness. Alas, Deathstroke: Knights & Dragons, out now on digital and Blu-ray, does neither. It’s just a middling antihero origin story that eliminates most of what makes Deathstroke interesting.

Fans of DC DTV animated features anxiously awaiting the continuity reboot promised at the end of Justice League Dark: Apokolips War won’t find any answers here. Expanded from a series of CW Seed shorts, Knights & Dragons seemingly exists in its own continuity. The only major crossover character from previous features, Bronze Tiger, definitely differs from the one seen in Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay. And nobody makes any reference to the Teen Titans. Michael Chiklis takes over the vocal role of Slade “Deathstroke” Wilson, and like every other voice actor here, he sounds like a posturing adolescent making threats in the schoolyard, or on social media. Never has it sounded clearer that none of the cast actually interacted whatsoever with one another when recording their lines.

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This could just about fit into Mortal Kombat continuity (“Kontinuity”?), given what’s shown of Deathstroke’s first major mission to depose a dictator. Blood gushes, as fatalities that involve Deathstroke slicing guns apart and going human Cuisinart on victims he tosses into the air are ludicrous fun. But the escapism comes to an end when Wilson’s young son gets taken by a masked villain named The Jackal, who slashes the kid’s throat. Fans will recognize this as the origin of the Jericho storyline. And question why it leaves out the moment of Deathstroke losing his eye. That’s a pretty crucial origin point that this movie just omits (he’s already one-eyed), without offering an alternate explanation. Working for a villainous organization known as H.I.V.E., Jackal wants to recruit Deathstroke. And he’s too morally pure to accept it, even to save his son. Which, to anyone who knows Deathstroke, isn’t really accurate.

Flashbacks to Deathstroke’s origin go on too long. We’ve seen this kind of “secret experimental military program” origin in too many superhero movies already. Sure, Deathstroke came before Weapon X, Deadpool, Bloodshot, and many more. It’s not the filmmakers’ fault that the tropes he had first have become predictable. But if they’re going to cancel the origin of his eyepatch, they clearly had the freedom to get creative.

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Discussing the plot in any further detail would spoil the few surprises in store for anyone not up on their Deathstroke. Suffice it to say that H.I.V.E. seem to take more than a little inspiration from classic James Bond villains. Also, Deathstroke walks around naked showing his butt more than once, including in a sex scene. This, along with multiple f-bombs thrown in just for fun, clearly ensured the film’s R-rating just in case cartoon blood didn’t cut it. But it never exactly feels like “mature” content; this is the kind of thing that even Frank Miller would accuse of too much posturing.

Deathstroke should have a lot more potential than this. The Teen Titans: The Judas Contract animated movie, featuring the late Miguel Ferrer as Slade, did much more with Deathstroke as a villain than Knights & Dragons does as a hero. The target audience appears to be teens who have grown up on PG superhero cartoons. Those who might get a thrill out of suddenly seeing sex and blood with those characters. At least the animation is decent. And if that’s enough, this movie works. If it isn’t, everyone else can still pine for the supposed Joe Manganiello live-action movie. That will probably come out sometime after Avatar 5.

The only extra on the unusually sparse (for DC) disc is a featurette on the origins of Deathstroke. It features creators George Perez and Marv Wolfman, CW actor Manu Bennett, and Chiklis sharing their thoughts on Deathstroke. They paint a picture of a far more interesting character than the one headlining this film.

Grade: 2/5