An ungainly script brings Deathstroke: Knights & Dragons down, but its near-constant bloody action and focus on underserved characters help it to be a solid outing for Deathstroke and a nice change of pace for DC’s animated line.
This review of Deathstroke: Knights & Dragons is spoiler-free.
Since Justice League Dark: Apokolips War recently detonated the New 52 continuity to which these Warner Bros. Animation films have been shackled for much too long, Deathstroke: Knights & Dragons is a nice change of pace. An enthusiastically R-rated outing for Slade Wilson, otherwise known as the gun and sword-wielding mercenary Deathstroke, this lovely-looking and action-packed affair benefits a lot from being about someone other than Batman – even if a noticeably clunky script and an early life as a series of animated shorts prevent it from rising to the lofty heights of the line’s best efforts.
Still, there’s a good chunk of never before seen content that helps to round out an anti-hero story with a strong family focus, delving into the troubled history and fractured family of the titular hired gun. Michael Chiklis voices Slade Wilson, who we meet early in Deathstroke: Knights & Dragons living a double-life as both a successful businessman and a notorious costumed killer. This alter-ego is kept a secret from Slade’s wife Adeline “Addie” Kane Wilson (Sasha Alexander) and their young son, Joseph (Griffin Puatu). But the arrival of the Jackal (Chris Jai Alex) and the terror group H.I.V.E. exposes Slade’s secret and results in a bloody mistake that forces Slade and his wife apart for several years.
A fanciful children’s fantasy story is used as a framing device in Deathstroke: Knights & Dragons, which helps to give an overall shape to a story that, in its early portions, which include the setup sequence described above and some backstory on the origins of Deathstroke’s abilities, betray their episodic origins. Once things coalesce a little and Slade reunites with Addie in order to go after a more grown-up Joseph, who has fallen in with the H.I.V.E. Queen (Faye Mata) and now goes by Jericho, the film builds to a chaotic climax that is all new material and delivers a decent payoff.
Sung Jin Ahn directs the film from a script by J.M. DeMatteis, and it’s in the script that most of the problems can be found, including a preponderance of clunky expositional dialogue and a fairly pat examination of Deathstroke’s headspace. The family-first themes are welcome if a little surface-level, exploring how trauma can drive a wedge between loved ones while a shared purpose can bring allies together; it doesn’t build to a simple resolution, but a fairly predictable one nonetheless, especially for those with even a cursory knowledge of their Deathstroke lore.
Still, lots of pleasantly kinetic action and a refreshingly bright color palette, especially after years of New 52 drudgery, help to bring Deathstroke: Knights & Dragons to life and the 87-minute film earns its rating with some serious brutality. The film could have cut a fight or two in favor of more character drama, but that’s only a downside if you’re coming to a Deathstroke movie looking for character drama – most won’t be, and for those who aren’t, they’re well-served by a near-constant string of bloody set-pieces. This might not set a high-water mark for DC’s animated stable, but it’s a good reminder of how much fun they can be.