Passable 'Batman vs. Robin' Tackles Parenting, Court of Owls

Directed by: Jay Oliva; Runtime: 80 minutes
Grade: B-

During conversations about the writers behind Batman's comic-book runs nowadays, two names that'll frequently pop up in a positive light are Grant Morrison, responsible for Batman: Arkham Asylum and a new take on the dynamic between Batman and Robin, and Scott Snyder, the Black Mirror author who spearheaded the DC Universe's "New 52" rejuvenation of the character with the Court of Owls. Both writers have had numerous ups and occasional downs among the comic community, naturally, but they've both introduced fresh, enduring elements to the Dark Knight's mythos, from a controlling conspirator organization embedded in Gotham's history to a worthy, unlikely voice against Batman's no-killing policy in the form of his son. DC's latest animated film, Batman vs. Robin, attempts to merge the innovations of Morrison and Snyder into a direct continuation of the studio's last film, the lackluster Son of Batman, and while it's easily a step in the right direction in the hands of Assault on Arkham's Jay Oliva, its blunt articulation and cluttered reworking of established stories clash into an eventful, engaging, yet uneven entry into this canon.

Written by graphic novelist and Brave and the Bold alum J.M. DeMatteis, Batman vs. Robin picks up shortly after the events of Son of Batman, where Damian Wayne (Stuart Allen) -- son of Talia al Ghul and Batman/Bruce Wayne (Jason O'Mara), grandson of nemesis Ra's al Ghul -- has fully taken on the responsibilities of the next Robin. After a conflict of opinion over whether their current villain, child kidnapper and manipulator The Dollmaker ("Weird Al" Yankovic), deserves to be killed despite Batman's policy on the matter, Damian's rebellious streak gets the best of him, driving him away from Wayne Manor at nights in search of what defines his personality. What he finds, not by coincidence, is an offer from a shadowy individual, Talon (Jeremy Sisto), who understands Damian's inclination to kill where necessary, a man who also happens to be the key enforcer for the Court of Owls, a clandestine society pulling Gotham City's strings for much of its existence. Damian's given a choice that'll have bigger repercussions than he realizes.

Considering he began as the spawn of what was first considered one of DC's non-canonical "Elseworlds" stories, Damian Wayne's perseverance throughout the Batman narrative comes as a bit of a surprise, largely on the steam of Grant Morrison's fondness for the character. While his knowledge-base, combat skills, and general capabilities can be polarizing as a child character -- justifiable wunderkind progeny or unbelievable Marty Stu? -- Damian's lineage and ruthless perspective add a dose of ideological conflict to the Batman formula that works towards justifying those misgivings. Getting that info across in the short timespan of Son of Batman proved to be problematic, emphasizing his unrealistic nature in quick fashion, but Batman vs. Robin doesn't make a big fuss out of his prowess, instead allowing him to simply do his thing like a more-than-capable, unbridled sidekick with a merciless streak. Suspicions won't go away, but this take on Damian's story goes a long way to focus on the stronger attributes of his presence for the sake of something morally complex and emotionally intriguing.

The key aspect of Batman vs. Robin comes, obviously, in that conflict between this volatile assassin-trained Robin and the life-preserving Batman, feeding into the rocky father-son relationship between the Waynes. This brings out a different, vulnerable side to Batman that frequently goes unexplored (or avoided), resulting in a predominant parental angle that's ... well, something that the Caped Crusader doesn't wear all that well. While Jason O'Mara and Stuart Allen reprise their roles as Batman and Damian Wayne respectively following their middling turns in Son of Batman, they've marginally improved in giving their characters distinguishing energy and emotional tempo, which certainly helps those abnormal scenes where Batman displays hints of patriarchal concern. As a result, the Grant Morrison-inspired side of the story works slightly better than expected at the start, with a tolerable rendition of the hot-headed Damian struggling between his instincts and his guardian's creed.

There's another side to Batman vs. Robin in the form of the Court of Owls, and, by extension, their key enforcer Talon, which has been considerably reworked to accommodate for Damian Wayne's elevated significance. Fans of Scott Snyder's comic-book arc hoping for the same kind of satisfaction will find a skeletal reinterpretation here, stripping away some of what makes the Court intriguing to make way for a nonsensical conspiracy and a cluster of hollow action beats. Much of what defines the underground society remains intact -- their general purpose and appearance, their morbid method of creating assassins, Bruce Wayne's interest in them at a young age -- but they've been streamlined and distorted to a point where few of their machinations make a whole lot of sense beyond giving their head assassin a reason to exist. Instead, that energy has been directed into bequeathing this continuity's Talon with a defined personality that differs from Snyder's run, one of a sympathetic vigilante with a curious interest in Robin that creates a muddled connection between the two narratives.

Batman vs. Robin crams a lot of material into its 80-minute runtime, resulting in obligatory stretches of clunky exposition, close calls, and shallow dialogue necessary to drive the story forward, yet it mostly holds together at first as an invigorated take on the relationship between the crime-fighting Waynes. Around the halfway point, however, director Oliva and writer DeMatteis lose control of its already waning sensibilities, coming in hard and fast with references to the comics and vigorous action -- cue more vulnerability for Batman -- that ultimately cannot hide the absurdity of its connected dots. Despite the briskness of the animation's violence and its accompanying mature-leaning tone, the product of the film's buildup is chock full of bizarre choices and inconsistencies that lead into a head-scratcher of a final act, one that tries desperately hard to keep intertwined the ideas from both Snyder's and Morrison's stories while telling its own tale. Batman vs. Robin might hold one's attention and own up to its premise, but as a convincing narrative in DC's animated universe, it doesn't quite hit the mark.

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