In and of itself, Batman vs. Robin is a fairly entertaining new entry in the DC Original Animated Features series, and as a sequel it actually improves upon its predecessor, 2014’s Son of Batman. But as an adaptation of the critically acclaimed “Court of Owls” storyline featured in issues of Batman in 2011, it falls woefully short and does a terrible disservice to the work of those who created the Court for the comics, writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo.
The feature’s story picks up a few months after the events of Son of Batman, with 10-year-old Damian Wayne (voiced by Stuart Allan) having fully assumed the mantle of Robin in Gotham City, though kept on a very short leash by Batman/Bruce Wayne (voiced by Jason O’Mara), as the two still struggle with their father/son/partner dynamic. Batman’s most consistent message to Damian is “Justice, not vengeance”, and it’s a message Damian continues to struggle with thanks to his years of training as the future leader of R’as Al Ghul’s League of Assassins. The tension between the two is made worse by Batman’s efforts to keep Damian’s presence and identity a secret from the public eye until he can finalize adopting the boy as his ward, just as he did with Dick Grayson years before, and Damian finding ways to escape the confines of Wayne Manor in order to get out into the city and be Robin.
The conflict comes to a head when a new antagonist, Talon (voiced by Jeremy Sisto), appears during one of Damian’s “escapes” and actively encourages the boy to follow his more bloodthirsty inclinations. Talon offers Damian a place at his side rather than at Batman’s in order to fight crime in Gotham the way it should be fought — with lethal force. Considering how poorly he’s been getting along with his father, it’s an offer Damian takes seriously, and one he keeps secret from the Dark Knight.
But Talon’s agenda isn’t entirely his own. He acts on behalf of the mysterious Court of Owls, which apparently has existed for hundreds of years, since the founding of Gotham City, and from the shadows has steered the path of the city thanks to its members being among the city’s wealthy and influential elite. Led by its current Grandmaster (voiced by Robin Atkin Downes), the Court has set its sights on Bruce Wayne and his new vision for modernizing Gotham City for the new century, and naturally sees Batman as an obstacle to its grand designs. What better way to occupy the Bat’s attention, or even destroy him entirely, than to have him dealing with Talon and a suddenly rebellious partner?
Where Batman vs. Robin most clearly improves upon its predecessor is in the performances of its voice cast, all of whom are just a little more experienced and comfortable playing these roles. The winner of the “Most Improved” award in this regard is young Stuart Allan, whose line reads and inflections don’t sound nearly as forced or stiff as they did in his first turn as Damian Wayne. A big help to the voice performances improvement all around is a stronger, more natural-sounding script from veteran comics scribe J.M. DeMatteis (DC’s Justice League Dark and Justice League 3000) and a couple of newcomers to the cast who themselves have provided the voice of Batman in other DC animated features. Jeremy Sisto (“Law and Order”), who in 2008 gave voice to Batman in Justice League: The New Frontier, and the man whose voice is perhaps most often associated with Batman, Kevin Conroy, both turn in compelling work here; so compelling, in fact, that they inadvertently reinforce the reality that Jason O’Mara’s Batman voice is serviceable, but hardly exemplary.
In terms of the animation, Batman vs. Robin stays consistent with the look and feel of the previous features based on stories coming out of DC’s “The New 52” — there’s some overuse of computer animation versus hand-drawn for car chase scenes and larger set pieces, but this is a cost-cutting measure that’s certainly not new to WB Animation efforts. If anything, the film’s numerous fight scenes don’t quite measure up in terms of creative choreography and energy to the ones seen in Son of Batman, but that’s more on director Jay Oliva than it is on the animators themselves.
But where this feature most significantly and memorably disappoints is in its treatment of the Court of Owls storyline, which truthfully deserved its own feature if WB Animation and DC Entertainment meant to give the source material its due. Here, the concepts built into the landmark work of Snyder and Capullo, which made the launch of Batman as part of “The New 52” easily one of the most compelling reads in the entire line, are reduced to playing a supporting role in the story of Bruce and Damian’s growing pains as father and son. The mind games, the psychological warfare that the Court wages upon Batman as he painfully discovers that their power and influence might be more than he and his allies can overcome, is relegated to a handful of scenes which lack any sense at all that the lives of Batman or Bruce Wayne are affected in any meaningful way in their aftermath. It all comes off as a cheat, a gimmick meant to serve marketing purposes, and perhaps an indication that the folks at Warner Bros. didn’t or don’t believe that a feature based solely on the Court of Owls would sell well, as opposed to something as straightforward as something titled “Batman vs. Robin.”
All that said, completists who have invested in all of these direct-to-video DC Animated Features will no doubt wish to own Batman vs. Robin, anyway, and may even fork over the premium to have the collectible Batman figure included in the deluxe edition. Buyer beware: this figure is slightly larger than any of those included in the previous editions, which were also only available through Best Buy stores, and thus will look strange up on that shelf where you’re keeping all the other figures in the line. And don’t bother with the special features on this blu-ray, either — aside from the sneak peek at the next feature in the series, Justice League: Gods and Monsters, there’s little worth your attention. In fact, if you attempt to watch the overly lengthy featurette “Gotham City’s Secret: The Mythic Court of Owls”, which includes interviews with the Court’s creators about all that went into creating the mythology, symbology, and methodology of the Court of Owls, you’ll realize even more just how much more they could have done with the concept had it gotten its own stand-alone Batman feature, and how much more satisfying that effort might have been than what audiences actually got.
Batman vs. Robin
Starring the voice talents of Jason O’Mara, Stuart Allan, Sean Maher, Jeremy Sisto, David McCallum, Grey Griffin, “Weird Al” Yankovic and Kevin Conroy. Directed by Jay Oliva.
Running Time: 76 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense action and violence, suggestive images and thematic elements.