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‘Batman: Death in the Family’ (review)

Produced by Amy McKenna, Brandon Vietti
Based on Batman: A Death in the Family
by Jim Starlin and Jim Aparo

Written and Directed by Brandon Vietti
Starring Bruce Greenwood, Vincent Martella,
John DiMaggio, Gary Cole, Zehra Fazal,
Nick Carson, Nolan North

 

Last week we gave you a peek inside the NYCC Metaverse panels for Batman: Death in the Family interactive film with some key insights from the actors and filmmakers.

The disc arrived in for a full review which follows.

DC’s first interactive film references not only the 2010 DC Animated Movie Batman: Under The Red Hood, but also great comic book stories of the last 20 years and beyond.

Blu-Ray vs. Digital Copy

As a fair warning right off the bat, the purest way to enjoy the interactive features, written by Young Justice‘s Brandon Vietti is to shell out for the Blu-ray disc.

The disc comes with a digital copy, but the digital version is lacking all of the story forks, and just gives you one version of the story to complement the Jason Todd story told in Batman: Under The Red Hood, combining shots from that movie with new footage. Vietti confirmed this on Twitter, the disc has 7 additional minutes of choose-your-own adventure options.

When we finally remembered that the PS4 remote has more than just a trigger button, the Blu-ray looks great and we are treated, in various forms, to cameos from just outside of the usual suspects for a Batman animated film. Expect to see Clark Kent, Red Robin, Nightwing, Oracle, Damian Wayne, Black Mask and many more.

Truth be told, had I not received the disc, I would have been disappointed.

Not because the included digital story is bad, it is great, but the options are really the selling point here.

I could see this as an intersection of technology being possible to release on a platform like Netflix with a proven track record for interactive storytelling from Black Mirror to The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but difficult (if not impossible) to have a cross-platform experience to release a digital version for release. The included digital shorts which appear are pasted in a linear fashion after the included Batman story, one after another.

The digital copy acts as a prequel/sequel to the Batman: Under the Red Hood storyline after the ‘Amazo Heist’ scene in that film.

Batman: Death in the Family

Much like the 1988 comic, DC lets you decide the fate of Robin. He can live and die at your hands! Or, a surprise to me without spoiling too much, is a third option, “Robin Cheats Death”.

Writer/Producer/Director Brandon Vietti pays homage his work on the 2010 Batman: Under The Red Hood with references and cut scenes where appropriate in this short. In film, the magic is in the editing. With animation, you don’t get the luxury of having a ton of coverage footage laying around, but what this interactive film does best is remixing concepts and scenes from the original movie and Judd Winick’s 2004 comic storyline.

Bruce Greenwood returns to his roll as Batman/Bruce Wayne and patriarch of the Bat-family, Vincent Martella (Phineas and Ferb) dons the Red Hood (taking over for Jensen Ackles), John DiMaggio returns as The Joker, and introducing Zehra Fazal as Talia al Ghul. Nolan North returns as Clark Kent. Many of the actors are fluid enough to provide voices for other roles in the film as well.

My favorite options reference story arcs from the pre-Scott Snyder and Tom King Batman runs, like Grant Morrison’s “Son of Batman” and “Batman Incorporated” days on the book as well as Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil’s history with Ra’s Al Ghul, There’s plenty of history, including Marv Wolfman’s Tim Drake, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (also a movie in this ‘continuity’), Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, and a lot of easter eggs for discerning DC fans to dig around.

Some choices, while binary, may lead you down a path to nearly a half hours worth of story, with more and more choices and menus awaiting your fateful choices. Most choices end with some extra material but what feel like dead ends.

After you watch each choice, you are able to return to the scene of the crowbar (or Gotham’s Arcade) and see what the other choice would have landed you. While credits roll, the menu appears again. Fair warning, you have to ‘unlock’ each choice so we suggest trying each option as you are able to.

Hopefully, and not to beat a dead Jason Todd here, DC responds to negative fan feedback on Twitter and Amazon to deliver these choices to digital fans as well.

Perhaps the menus will work in the HBO Max app? If not, we encourage Warner Bros. to do so. I feel like streamers will be missing out here, especially after paying nearly the same price for the digital copy.

We really enjoyed this one and the format is fun. Did we expect to see The Batman of Zur-En-Arrh on screen? The answer is no. No we did not!

The Shorts

Included on all versions of the film are three DC Showcase Animated Shorts, a series usually included, or used to be, with each DC Animated Universe films. The approximately 15 minute long shorts showcase lesser known, or not as popular DC heroes and villains in an opportunity for creators to explore these characters in a stylistic way.

Past favorites include Green Arrow, The Spectre, Jonah Hex and Superman/Shazam: The Return of Black Adam.

  • Sgt. Rock (originally included with Batman: Hush)

Karl Urban, who’s comic book and nerd credentials are too lengthy for print, stars as Sgt. Rock in a short where he is in command of the Creature Commandos in WWII. Louise and Walter Simonson wrote this Bruce Timm directed episode, just in time for Halloween. Expect your usual ragtag group of soldiers underneath command of the war’s greatest Sergeant, but with a supernatural element. This was great fun and a big treat as the creator’s names slowly revealed themselves over the opening scenes. Is it ethical for a vampire to eat a Nazi? Rock has some ideas about that!

  • Death (originally included with Wonder Woman: Bloodlines)

Jumping from Vertigo in her first non-comics appearance is Death. This is directed by frequent DC Animation director Sam Liu and written by J.M. DeMatteis. The comics and television writer most worked on Deathstroke: Knights & Dragons and Constantine: City of Demons. This wasn’t my favorite of the additional material, but wasn’t bad. Death seems best served by her creator, in my opinion.

  • Adam Strange: The Expanse (originally included in Justice League Dark: Apokolips War)

Here’s an great example of short form storytelling from DeMatteis. Strange is stuck waiting for the Zeta-Beam on a mining colony for years. He drowns his sorrows trying to calculate the beam’s return after returning from the mines each day. His boss is fed up with him, as is the bartender who has run out of patience for Strange’s antics. When a common threat attacks his adopted home, will Adam Strange be able to sober up to save his new home? How to Get Away with Murder‘s Charlie Weber stars as the titular displaced archeologist.

  • The Phantom Stranger (originally included with Superman: Red Son)

Peter Serafinowicz stars as The Phantom Stranger in this Scooby-Doo styled animated short masterfully directed by Bruce Timm wacky-tobaccy 70s psychedelic trip that is way groovy. The story was written by Ernie Altbacker and let’s just say the gang doesn’t escape from the old movie actor’s house unscathed, man. And no pigs pulled over their mysterious multi-passenger van! Timm had fun with this one. As did Serafinowicz.

Final Thoughts

To wrap things up, this is a great companion piece to anyone that enjoyed Batman: Under The Red Hood and wants some gravy with their mashed potatoes.

The choose your own adventure format is best exploited and not ignored. The DC Showcase shorts are fun and a great way to expose fans to DC characters that may not ever star in feature films.

Kudos to Brandon Vietti for the great stories and forks, each one different than the last in an entertaining and insightful way. I played along, like I did in 1988.

Can you guess what fate I chose for Robin each time?

I voted along party lines!

Batman: Death in the Family is now available On Demand and Digital HD.
The full interactive features are available via the Blu-ray Combo Pack.

 

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