The latest in the string of recent DC Universe Animated Original Movies, Batman Vs. Robin, starts off pretty much where Son of Batman left off,1 with Damian Wayne (voiced by Stuart Allan) now firmly established as the new Robin.2 Damian, who continues to clash with Batman (Jason O’Mara) over his ‘never kill’ mantra, finds solace in an Owl Lieutenant (Troy Baker) who seeks to train someone to take over his position in the Court of Owls – a shady Illuminati-esque criminal organization that executes criminals to maintain order.3 DC has been pumping out these straight-to-video iterations of their famous superheroes for about eight years, with varied results. While we’ve seen how good these can be (Under the Red Hood and The Dark Knight Returns Parts 1 & 2 are, arguably, better than the majority of live action Batman outings), recently audiences have been stung time and time again with significantly lesser works. In fact, it is very fitting that this particular outing is just a word away from the worst cinematic release in the Batman franchise, Batman and Robin, as this installment marks some of DC’s worst work within their Universe Original Movies to date. Thankfully, it never fully reaches the level of Joel Schumacher’s disasterpiece – Batman Vs. Robin still firmly resides within a logical Batman universe and functions sufficiently enough as an animated Batman story even if it doesn’t reach the benchmark set by other, better installments and feels a little phoned in overall.
It’s puzzling that some of these films are coming out of the same studio (and a lot of the same creative team) that gave us the fantastic Batman: Under the Red Hood. Damian Wayne is an annoying and insufferable character whose previous outing, Son of Batman, was an extremely nothing film; I was hopeful that DC would be smart enough to change focus in their next project. Much to my dismay, this film goes one step further, focusing nearly exclusively on Robin, presumably so that they could close the ‘Robin wants to kill criminals’ arc – an unnecessary move as his prior DC Universe film already did this proficiently. By the end of Son of Batman Damian Wayne was firmly cemented as Bruce Wayne’s protégé and it’s not a big jump to assume this meant that he had accepted Batman’s code, especially because doing so would lead to much richer plotlines.
For a series that is aggressively trying to carve itself out as ‘adult’ – there is far more violence and mayhem in these than any of the theatrical outings, even Burton’s in which Batman actually killed criminals – it seems completely counter-productive to place focus on a pre/early-adolescent child. For that matter, his issues aren’t even broadly relatable teen struggles; the film fails to make the connection between real life teen rebellion and Robin’s disagreement with his father. How are we meant to relate with an adolescent’s struggle to not senselessly murder people, especially when it doesn’t even function as a veiled metaphor?
I appreciate that DC is trying to do something different with their properties – and the effort that goes into the animation should be applauded – but if they want to pitch this as adult aimed comic entertainment they’re going to have to start treating their franchise with a little more maturity. Since they’ve already demonstrated their capacity to put out really great stuff within this film universe it seems a shame to not be reaching for groups beyond their core, comic-book reading audience who are much more likely to be accepting of (and even apologists for) sub-standard content. It is because I know how good these can be that I will continue to chase that Dark Knight Returns dragon – hell, I’ll even settle for another Assault on Arkham because at least it was fun – but it’ll only take a few more Batman Vs. Robin‘s from DC for me to abandon all hope.