For all his high-tech gadgetry and countless millions, Batman (Jason O’Mara) forgot the one thing that was sure to guarantee him a comfortable, stress-free life: Condoms.
Yes, after a late-night tryst – which, it’s implied, involved Batman being date-raped – with Talia al Ghul (Morena Baccarin), the daughter of Ra’s al Ghul (Giancarlo Esposito), the Caped Crusader went and made a sprog. Raised by Talia and Ra’s to be the eventual head of the League of Assassins, Damian Wayne (Stuart Allan) is an arrogant, worryingly competent little twerp who finds himself dumped unceremoniously in Batman’s lap after another of Ra’s students, Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke (Thomas Gibson), assaults the League’s headquarters.
This is all loosely adapted from Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert’s 2006 storyline Batman and Son, with plenty of liberties taken with the source material – some necessary, some less so. As always, the editorial scissors have snipped away good chunks of plot and character development that some fans would have liked to see intact, with credit (or blame) for that falling at the feet of comic-book scribe James Robinson, who adapted the story, and prolific genre author (and martial arts expert, funnily enough) Joe R. Lansdale, who wrote the screenplay. The whole thing clocks in at around 75 minutes, which makes it short even by the standards of DC’s usual animated fare, and it feels like the slightest project to plop off the conveyor belt in quite a while.
It starts off well, at least. Atypically for a superhero story, Son of Batman’s action is on a refreshingly human scale, and Deathstroke’s assault on Ra’s isolated mountain fortress is impactful thanks to its immediacy and brutality. Sure, it’s a little overlong and a bit too gleefully gratuitous, but it also includes a ninja army fast-roping from assault helicopters and a Gatling gun that spews arrows, so fair’s fair. Of course, when you open a 75-minute movie with a 10-minute action sequence, your storytelling priorities are laid bare; Son of Batman doesn’t have many objectives, but chief among them is to never be boring.
The film accomplishes this, despite stiff opposition from its second, less pressing mandate, which is to introduce the character of Damian Wayne as a pint-sized mirror of Batman’s moral values. Here, Son of Batman falls flat on its face. As portrayed by Stuart Allan, Damian’s an off-putting, whiny brat in the best of circumstances, but the narrow confines of the film’s length and structure only ever leave room for the two most extreme ranges of his personality; he’s either a bloodthirsty maniac, or a lost little boy in need of guidance, sometimes in the same scene. What we’re expected to buy into are the parallels in Damian and Bruce’s upbringings. Both were born into privilege, but there’s a distinct difference between being the golden child of moneyed high-society, and the destined inheritor of a fabled warrior caste. Unfortunately this only manifests in the sloppiest, most ham-fisted ways, such as Damian being incredulous that Bruce only has one “servant” (David McCallum’s Alfred), and his natural response to any perceived slight or injustice being to immediately murder the perpetrator.
This can be partially blamed on director Ethan Spaulding, stepping for the first time into a DC animated feature in place of mainstay Jay Oliva. Spaulding’s growing pains are most evident in how ineptly he arranges the film, allowing already-lengthy action sequences to run still longer, and neglecting scenes of important character development. All these films have this issue to varying extents, but the better directors (Oliva, Lauren Montgomery, Sam Liu) have a knack for utilizing every second of a sparse running time, which is a skill Spaulding lacks.
You have to wonder, though, if even a better director could have lent anything to a story that distances itself from its intriguing array of secondary characters – Talia, Ra’s, Nightwing (Sean Maher), Man-Bat (Xander Berkeley) and Killer Croc (Fred Tatasciore) – in favour of a ludicrous super-soldier plot that sees Deathstroke meddling with genetics. An otherwise-strong voice cast renders Allan’s central failure as Damian especially noticeable, deflating what might be well-written scenes, and for all the film’s bombastic action, the richer core of the story feels neglected.
The character of Damian – and, really, DC’s New 52 as a whole – was never a slam-dunk with fans, especially shortly after it was introduced, but since then pockets of the continuity have amassed fervent supporters. They might well enjoy Son of Batman, which, if nothing else, continues the action-oriented tradition of DC’s animated offerings, and rents some space to underutilized fan-favourite members of Batman’s extended family and rogue’s gallery. For anyone else, though, expectations should be tempered. This is one son that might be better off being put up for adoption.