Hot on the heels of Justice League Dark: Apokolips War’s epic conclusion to the former DC Animated Universe, Deathstroke: Knights & Dragons has more humble ambitions, seeking to carve out its own piece of relevance amid unclear goals for a rebooted animated universe. Despite having a clean slate, Knights and Dragons feels familiar despite its cast of lesser utilized characters. However, there’s an edge here in the character motivations and genuine interpersonal drama that delves deeper than general platitudes of heroism and sacrifice.
For anyone unfamiliar with Slade Wilson aka Deathstroke, the film does a great job of filling in his backstory without slowing the film down with an excess of exposition. In fact, the film starts without much set up at all besides some marital squabbles between Slade and his wife, Adeline Kane, as he’s out on a “business trip”. Immediately, the film flexes its R-rating with some light male nudity in a frank depiction of Deathstroke’s infidelity early in their relationship. Unsurprisingly, their argument comes to an end when their son, Joseph, interrupts to ask his dad to read him a bedtime story to quickly display Slade’s softer side. This is where the title of the movie comes into play as Slade reads a bedtime story that deals with a lone knight who fights hordes of dragons alone for the good of his people. It’s the film’s blatant attempt to create parallels with Slade’s own profession. This beginning is filled with tropes, almost an absurd amount, but it does give a good idea of Slade’s sense of morality. He’s trying to be good, but can’t help being bad.
Fortunately, solid voice acting across the board helps this less than original material work. Michael Chiklis’ Slade is actually one of the weaker links as he never wanders too far from his lower register, creating an impression of a tortured man more than a fully fledged personality. On the other hand, Sasha Alexander’s Adeline is extremely potent and she handles the thankless role of the scornful wife with more grace than was afforded in the writing, at least in the early scenes. Once Adeline’s own set of fighting skills is revealed, Alexander’s voice acting imbues the character with the most range of the entire cast. There’s an argument to be had that she’s the more compelling character as she finds herself continually drawn to Slade despite his flaws as a father and husband.
Even with its reliance on familiar tropes, the script by J.M. DeMatteis is very well structured, particularly in comparison to its DC animated brethren. After establishing Slade’s struggles at home, the film quickly shifts to a very impressive action sequence as we follow him on a routine mission to settle some political upheaval in a foreign country. While the quality of animation is par for the course for DC, the choreography of this opening sequence is well done and feels like it cribs from the John Wick franchise at times. The ultra violence can be a bit much at times with Slade able to chop up soldiers into several pieces before they ever hit the ground. Once again, it all feels familiar and safe, but the execution is high enough that it skates by without any major hiccups. Thankfully, the movie ups the stakes once the true villain of the movie is introduced when The Jackal arrives and kidnaps Slade’s son. A few more dismemberments later, Slade’s reckless nature and inability to separate his violent profession from his home life crashes down on him when Jackal slices open Joseph’s throat, making him permanently mute. This first act is incredibly well done, balancing exciting action scenes while eventually indulging in some flashbacks that establish exactly how Deathstroke acquired his self-healing powers and fighting prowess via military experiments.
Ten years later, Slade’s sins come back to haunt him in the form of an embittered ex-wife, an illegitimate daughter, a son who hates him, and the return of Jackal. Under Sung Jin Ahn’s direction, the film does a fantastic job of pacing these reveals to make the odds feel increasingly staked against Slade as he’s made himself the lonely knight of his son’s bedtime story. Even the music by Kevin Riepl features some serious minded synth soundscapes that deliver appropriate mood and tension to the house of cards ready to fall on Slade. There’s fun and games as Slade takes on odd jobs and tracks down old enemies to bring him closer to Jackal, his son, and the entire H.I.V.E. organization behind it all. However, the film quickly realizes its true strength is with the unique Frankenstein of a family Slade has brought together via several bad decisions. Without getting too specific with spoilers, Slade’s absence as a father figure to both Joseph and his illegitimate daughter, Rose, puts him up against an enemy force he cannot fight alone. In that sense, the film hits a high point when Slade’s rescue mission goes sour when he realizes his son, now going by Jericho, may not want to be saved at all. The clear cut heroics Slade is capable of isn’t enough to overcome his past indiscretions, which is a perfect obstacle for a pure solider like Deathstroke to overcome. At the film’s lowest point, Slade directly states the themes of the importance of family and how his self isolation has dug his own grave. DeMetteis’ script makes sure no viewer is left confused as to the message he’s trying to get across, but at least there’s a degree of depth to the plot beyond end of the world machinations.
Therein lies the obstacle the film never quite overcomes. Slade’s fractured relationship with Adeline, Jericho, and Rose is the most compelling part of the movie. Unfortunately, Jackal and Lady Shiva take up a large amount of screen time to mostly espouse grand speeches about harnessing Jericho’s power to take over the world. This results in a rather mundane hijacking attempt on Air Force One in the third act, hardly worth the amount of time setting up this plot line. A silver lining is that Chris Jai Alex’s voice work as Jackal is stellar, with his charismatic bravado making the exposition easier to stomach. Better off are the scenes between half-siblings Rose and Jericho as they bond between their mutual hatred of their father. That’s an interesting relationship, especially given that Rose herself is being manipulated by Jackal. Both Rose and Jericho’s voice actors (Faye Mata and Griffin Puatu) do good work, especially Mata as she manages to instill Rose with equal parts confident malice and innocent naiveté. Once family matters are settled, there isn’t much meat to the story and the final conflict between the Wilsons and Jackal plays out predictably, without much visual flair to spruce up the inevitable. I hope superhero movies start to realize that the interior of military aircraft isn’t the most interesting backdrop.
Most striking of all is how likable this rendition of Deathstroke is, despite the sheer amount of violence he inflicts on his enemies. His moral code comes off fairly standard and borderline heroic from the start despite his bad parenting skills. There’s never a moment where Slade crosses a line that would make him into a truly intriguing anti-hero, much like he is in the comics. This Slade Wilson is a strangely approachable “anti-hero”, whose violent tendencies never feel like a true threat to his mission to reunite with his family. There’s a missed opportunity to really embrace the dysfunction of the Wilson household and Deathstroke: Knights & Dragons surprisingly settles for the “lite R” version of the character.
- You want to see Deathstroke earn an R-rating by chopping off innumerable limbs.
- Soap opera level family dysfunction appeals to you as long as they’re all murderous psychopaths.
- Interpersonal conflict appeals to you more than villainous end of the world plotlines.
Deathstroke: Knights & Dragons serves as an effective origin for Slade Wilson and also sets up a compelling family for him to take care of. While this version of Slade Wilson is a little softer than expected given the R-rating, the bloody action more than makes up for a pulled punch in regards to Deathstroke’s morality. Strong action aside, the healthy dose of high stakes family drama and complex allegiances is more than enough to satisfy even the most casual Deathstroke fan.
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Batman News was provided a copy of this film by WB for the purpose of this review.