Review: Batman: Death in the Family Is Mostly a Gimmicky Repack
Comic book characters rarely stay dead, but for a while it looked like Jason Todd might. As part of a general backlash to the notion that Batman even needed a Robin during the grim and gritty ’80s, fans voted via phone for Todd’s death in the comics. The second Robin wasn’t entirely to blame. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Tim Burton’s then-in-the-works Batman film recontextualized Batman as a brooding nutcase. And Robin just reminded the general public of Burt Ward, in an era when the Adam West Batman was definitely not cool in fan circles.
All of that has since changed, with the 1966 Batman now generally appreciated for what it was, and Jason Todd back as Red Hood. So it’s weird to get a modern take on the storyline that asked fans to vote for Jason’s life or death. Death in the Family as an animated film, now out on digital and Blu-ray, feels like an oddball outlier…and a cynical way to repackage old material.
Interactive movies have been something the entertainment industry attempts whenever the technology provides for it, but they rarely catch on. With video games sufficiently advanced that they feel like immersive movies, fans don’t need actual movies to offer them limited branching choices. Still, it’s one way to creatively try and duplicate the original comic’s voting option. Though it happens a lot sooner. Rather than serving as the climax of the story, Robin’s possible death happens early on, with three options given to the viewer this time. (Note: these options only occur on Blu-ray; the digital copy does not allow such interactivity.)
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If Robin dies, as in the comic, that path allows no further choices; ditto the one in which Robin miraculously recovers. But if you opt for Batman saving Robin, several further choice points present themselves.
Alas, most of this material is not new, but repurposed footage from Batman: Under the Red Hood, in which Jason died and got resurrected by Ra’s al Ghul’s Lazarus Pit. Choose Robin’s death, and rather than getting anything like the original Death in the Family comic, you get that story again. Albeit one where Batman incessantly adds voice-over narration to everything to recontextualize it. That’s something that can work in comic book panels, but is damn near fatal for an animated film. Especially considering Batman isn’t usually so loquacious.
Choosing life for Robin can result in him still becoming Red Hood, or perhaps Hush, the first comics fake-out at a Todd resurrection. Joker, Black Mask, and Talia become involved, and Jason may or may not turn to evil. In one alternative, the virtual camera lingers on the burned corpses of major characters for some nightmare-inducing imagery. Regardless of the choices made, the movie never runs longer than 31 minutes, which doesn’t feel like much. The longer a story goes, the more ramifications different choices would have, and this keeps things fairly basic.
Of the voice cast, John DiMaggio’s Joker stands out the most, for not trying to just imitate the Cesar Romero/Mark Hamill archetype. It’s particularly funny when echoes of Futurama‘s Bender come through. But it’s refreshing to hear Joker played as just a regular guy gone nuts. Bruce Greenwood is fine as Batman, but he talks way too much, as cynically necessitated to repurpose the existing footage.
Bonus features include four previously released animated shorts, now with a bonus commentary track. They vary in quality from one featuring Neil Gaiman’s Death in a short story that’s more legitimately tear-jerking than any other DC DTV animation, to an Adam Strange adventure that’s essentially an excuse to stage a Starship Troopers-stye bug fight. In between we get Sgt. Rock fighting versions of the Universal monsters, and the Phantom Stranger taking on a supernatural Manson-esque cult.
Sadly, the commentary on these and Death in the Family doesn’t involve filmmakers. Instead, it’s given by former DC Daily contributors Amy Dallen and Hector Navarro, who will likely irritate the hell out of anyone who actually knows their comics. They gush about everything, and at one point, they compare the Sgt. Rock short to both Saving Private Ryan and James Bond. They also act like none of the storytelling techniques involved have ever been used before on film by anyone.
Anyone who has collected DC animated movies thus far absolutely does not need these warmed over rehashes with scant new extras. Kids may find the interactive aspect fun, but some of the places the story goes will definitely not feel appropriate for younger viewers. So who is this made for? The most naïve casual customer, one must assume. Though if you’ve never seen a DTV DC movie before, this might be fun for a while.
In the end, however, the fans deserve better than this.
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