I was of two minds going into the latest DC Universe straight-to-video animated feature, Son Of Batman — on the one hand, I’m a tremendous fan of Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert’s sprawling, multi-year epic upon which this movie is based , and why not? It’s supremely good stuff. On the other, well — when you condense a story that took that long to tell down to roughly an hour and 14 minutes, something’s bound to be lost in the translation, right?
As it turns out, my concerns were pretty well-founded. To put things as succinctly as possible, director Ethan Spaulding’s adaptation isn’t just hopelessly truncated, it’s also hopelessly messy.
It’s not entirely — or probably even primarily — his fault, of course : this was definitely a pretty poor choice of “source material” from the outset, given that it relies so heavily on audiences warming to Batman’s heretofore-unknown son, Damian Wayne, over time. And time is one thing these DCU flicks don’t have a lot of. So I think I’ll give Spaulding a pass for his role in this debacle — after all, at the end of the day, he was tasked with a pretty thankless job. I’m less forgiving when it comes to some other folks, though, so let’s get into that — as well as the requisite plot synopsis — now, shall we?
For those unfamiliar with the essentials, the basic set-up for Son Of Batman goes as follows : some years ago, Batman/Bruce Wayne (voiced here by Jason O’Mara, who’s no Kevin Conroy by any stretch and never manages to be very convincing either in or out of the cape and cowl) was drugged by Talia Al Ghul (Morena Baccarin, who does serviceable work here) and basically functioned as a one-night-stand sperm donor. The result of that less-than-blessed union was a baby boy, Damian (Stuart Allan, who does what he can with a lousily-written part), who was raised from birth to eventually take over the League of Assassins from his grandfather, Ra’s Al Ghul (Giancarlo Esposito, who sounds like he’s mailing it in), but this little family plan goes astray when Ra’s is killed by Wilson Slade, a.k.a. Deathstroke (Thomas Gibson, who also turns in less-than-inspired work), who has his sets set on usurping control of the League from the Al Ghul dynasty. Sensing things are probably getting a bit too hot for Damian (especially after he takes out Deathstroke’s eye in combat), Talia decides to unload the murderous little tyke on his old man for awhile, and it’s up to Batman to essentially “de-program” the junior psychopath and turns his — what shall we call them? — talents toward the cause of good.
All that’s probably more than enough material for a movie right there, but Son Of Batman makes the mistake of lumping in various other storylines Morrison had going in and around this time, as well, and that’s where things get messy. The subplot involving Kirk Langstrom (Xander Berkeley, whose work stands out noticeably from the rest of the pack here) becoming Man-Bat and being strong-armed into creating an army of similar creatures never really manages to engage viewers, nor does its attendant “mystery” as to how and why established Bat-villains like Killer Croc have suddenly become steroid-pumped super-monsters. It’s all just too damn much.
The real tragedy about shoe-horning all this excessive material in, though, is how the filmmakers are consequently forced to give short shrift to Damian’s character development. Morrison’s original story had our little Bat-tyke slowly transform from being an unlikable, untrustworthy little shit into a semi-responsible, even-more-semi-mature youngster who earned his way into taking on the role of Robin. In the movie version, he just flips a switch after fighting Dick Grayson/Nightwing (Sean Maher (who does reasonable enough voice work, but dear God — what’s with that horrible costume?) and assumes the mantle of his daddy’s masked sidekick more or less instantaneously. To say this sudden shift doesn’t work so well would be the understatement of the century.
Obviously, a tighter (and frankly less ambitious) focus would have benefited the proceedings here to no end, and while biting off more than you can chew can sometimes make for one of those overly-sprawling, but agreeably risky, ventures we all know and love, in this case that’s just not in the offing. Son Of Batman (which I caught on DVD from Warner Premier — picture and sound are both quite nice, but apart from a trailer for another forthcoming animated Bat-flick extras are non-existent ; perhaps the Blu-Ray offers a bit more) plays out like a poorly-researched, unevenly-performed Cliff’s Notes take on a monumental, character-defining work that ends up feeling depressingly small and hopelessly abridged. Think of an animated version of one of those old Reader’s Digest condensed books performed by a cast who’s only marginally interested in what they’re doing and you won’t be too far off the mark.
Still, if you’re new to this story, on the off-chance that this flick doesn’t totally put you off the material bastardized to make it, might I humbly suggest picking up either the Batman And Son and/or Batman : The Black Glove hardcover or trade paperback collections by Morrison and Kubert — they’re infinitely more satisfying, and, who knows ? You may even walk away from them liking Damian Wayne — something this movie never really gives you the chance to do.