Warner Bros. Home Entertainment and DC Entertainment previewed an early screening of Batman vs. Robin for fans and attendees at WonderCon 2015 at the Anaheim Convention Center. As a huge fan of the Damian Wayne version of Robin, as well as The Court of Owls storyline from the Batman comics, I was excited to see the latest DC Animated Universe feature brought to the table. For the most part, I enjoyed Son of Batman, which introduced Damian Wayne as Robin for animation. Batman vs. Robin is actually a direct follow-up, with the same voice-cast. That is one of the changes I have enjoyed for some of the recent DC animated features. The storylines generally seem to be part of a larger, continuous and cohesive universe. At the same time, the producers are still willing to explore different stories and takes on the material, with releases such as Batman Unlimited or Batman: Assault on Arkham.
Batman vs. Robin is not a straight-up adaptation of The Court of Owls story from the comics by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo. Director Jay Oliva, producer James Tucker and writer J.M. DeMatteis definitely take a lot of broad strokes and events from that story. Elements are also lifted from the Batman and Robin New 52 comic series written by Peter J. Tomasi, where Batman and Robin had to face Tomasi. In Batman vs. Robin, Batman is trying to train and impart his knowledge to his biological son, Damian. Of course, Damian was recently revealed and came into his life during the events of Son of Batman. Damian is only a young boy, but he is trained as a lethal assassin from the League of Shadows. Damian does not share the same pragmatic sensibilities as Batman. He tries to follow Batman orders not to kill, but struggles to do so. Batman has difficulty coming to grips with Damian. The other issue is that, in Damian, Batman sees his worst fears of what he could become: a bloodthirsty vigilante without limits and one who does not mind killing criminals.
After a rather grim prologue where Batman and Robin track down the Dollmaker’s hideout, Robin corners the sociopath, a monster who mutilated and abused children, on his own. Robin stops short of killing the culprit, but he is soon dispatched by Talon of the Court of Owls. Talon seems to be a presence who is there to tempt Robin to go to the dark side. He is ready to give Robin the answers he wants instead of the constant frustration Robin experiences in the shadow of Batman. Meanwhile, Batman gets wind of the Court of Owls, a secret society among Gotham City folklore, that traces back to centuries. Unfortunately for Batman, the Court of Owls is very real, and has some dark designs for Gotham City and putting an end to Batman.
In terms of a Batman story, Batman vs. Robin is a tight, solidly paced and dark action thriller. I really enjoy stories involving Bruce Wayne and Damian, so I like how the staff appropriated story beats from the Batman and Robin comics into a scenario involving the Court of Owls. It makes sense in many ways. There was a great issue from The Court of Owls where Batman is drugged and goes through a hallucinated nightmare world conceived by the Court. This sequence is adapted for the film, but the filmmakers tweak it to reinforce Batman’s fears and paranoia regarding Damian. That was an effective choice. Other moments and sequences are lifted from The Court of Owls story and are satisfying to see onscreen.
Batman vs. Robin is a very dark, grim and gritty story. For this story, that was fine. The Batman comics this film adapts explore some dark places and themes. So, the format for this film makes sense. The sequence involving the Dollmaker is quite dark and unsettling when one sees the results of what the Dollmaker did to innocent and defenseless children. However, the story addresses it in a serious and grave way. Robin appears to exhibit a greater empathy for the victims who were closer to his age.
However, the film does have its issues. First of all, the Batman vs. Robin title is very misleading. The media materials make it seem like there is going to be some knockdown drag out fight between Batman and Robin. That is somewhat disingenuous. This is really a Court of Owls story. The issues between Batman and Robin are prominent, but I would not call it Batman vs. Robin. I realize DC Entertainment sometimes makes bizarre title decisions for marketing reasons, but it still comes off as somewhat goofy and lazy.
Another problem is that Batman is wounded and injured throughout the film. I do not see Batman experience vulnerability. Those are important elements from The Court of Owls story. However, Batman suffers some pretty grievous injuries, and he really should not be able to recover so quickly. I believe the filmmakers got a little too over-zealous with how dark and violent this story could be. As a result, the film goes a bit overboard at times. I get that this a comic book story, but due to the compressed timeline, too many liberties are taken with Batman’s injuries.
Overall, the voice cast does a good job. I really enjoy the repartee between Jason O’Mara’s Batman and Stuart Allen as Robin. It builds off of Son of Batman. David McCallum has some strong, understated moments as Alfred Pennyworth. Jeremy Sisto shines as the central antagonist for the story as the Court of Owls assassin, Talon.
The resolution was a letdown. Without giving too much away, the ending was a bit awkward that does not sit very well after viewing. One can understand why the filmmakers opted to go that route for the plot, but the outcome was still a letdown. It simply leaves events in an awkward state.
Batman vs. Robin hits DVD and Blu-ray on April 14.