Batman: Death in the Family is now available everywhere from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment — on Blu-ray Combo Pack and Digital. Batman: Death in the Family, WBHE’s first-ever venture into interactive storytelling, allows fans to choose where the story goes through an innovative navigation guided by the viewer’s remote control. Batman: A Death in the Family is the centerpiece of this anthology of five animated shorts inspired by characters and stories from DC’s robust portfolio. The 2019-2020 series of shorts – which have been individually included on DC Universe Movies releases since Summer 2019 – include:
- Sgt. Rock
- Adam Strange
- The Phantom Stranger
I’m going to do my best to make it through this whole review without calling the film Death OF the Family, but I’m not making any promises. I’ve written too much about Scott Snyder’s 2012 story arc to shake it, I’m cursed to forever flub the title of whichever tale I’m talking about, and I’m sorry. Now, let me pitch this movie to you:
Do you love the film Under the Red Hood? Of course, you do. Who doesn’t? It’s one of the best DC Animated films. What if I told you that you could watch it with a worse ending? Does that entice you? What if its runtime was cut down to like 30 minutes and you had the ability to choose what the worse ending could be? Still nothing? Okay, I guess this is going to be a hard sell.
Look, when I first heard about Warner’s idea for the first interactive DC Animated picture being based on A Death in the Family, I found the concept terribly clever. After all, the original story arc concluded with fans getting to vote on Jason Todd’s fate. Making an interactive feature out of that is *chef’s kiss*. So what went wrong? You’ve probably even heard that the folks at WB even brought back the cast from Under the Red Hood and the animation style is the same as well. What gives?
The problem is that Batman: Death in the Family is a half-baked execution of an objectively neat idea. See, there’s precious little that’s new to be found here. The film is mostly comprised of repurposed footage from Under the Red Hood and there are many moments in new segments in which we see no animation at all, but instead a still image with voice-over narration. I wondered if my Blu-ray player was messing up or something, but no, it was simply that lazy of a scene. And when we do get animation, it’s often not all that polished, and you’ll find it rather to easy to distinguish the original Under the Red Hood footage from the new simply at a glance. Also, Jensen Ackles didn’t come back to voice Jason Todd, which is a pity.
But perhaps the worst offense of Batman: Death in the Family is that the few alternate paths we’re provided are not all that imaginative. The fun of different endings is the emphasis on them being different. Showing me scenes from Under the Red Hood but now Jason is dressed like Hush for no good reason… sucks. It sucks! Sure, yes, we all remember the misdirect from Loeb & Lee’s HUSH where we were first teased by a possible resurrection of Jason Todd, but wasting a viewer’s entire choice on what amounts to nothing more than a reference to that shocking splash page isn’t enough to make the decision feel worth it. At all. And no other branching narratives are provided by this option. Still… It’s not as exhausting as that over-narrated recap of Under the Red Hood that choosing “Robin Dies” will get you.
Yes, one of the “7 different endings” (you’ll need to select “Batman Saves Robin” if you want to get these extra endings) is simply a recap of Under the Red Hood but with downright incessant voice-over narration by Bruce Greenwood’s Batman. And while I like Greenwood’s Batman, he shouldn’t be this verbose. It all plays out like a Cliffsnotes version of a film that’s already quite brief. I guess if you have a hankering to hear Greenwood read the Wikipedia plot synopsis of Under the Red Hood, this might appeal to you, but it ain’t for me. And, no, there are no other branching narratives by choosing “Robin Dies” — you’re just listening to Greenwood drone on and on. For the experience we were advertised to get from this project, the film offers only one choice that delivers. One selection that feels like genuine effort went into it, and that’s “Batman Saves Robin.”
If you choose “Batman Saves Robin” you’ll actually be confronted with additional decisions and an honest-to-goodness branching narrative! And there is some good stuff that salvages an experience that, up until this point, I would only describe as “insulting.” All of the creativity and passion is hidden behind this choice. The other two don’t matter. I won’t spoil what you get. I’ve already said that there’s so little new material in this movie that whatever is new is precious. Do we still get scenes that are just stills with voiceover narration? Unfortunately, yes. But there are also some fully animated and skillfully acted bits that are truly excellent. Whether you’re looking for action with real stakes or dialogue with an emotional punch, you’ll find something in these branching narratives that will stick with you, be it a haunting image or a particularly heavy speech. I can honestly say that I had a good time watching the “Batman Saves Robin” portion of the film.
I’m not going to go into much detail about the entire voice cast, because as I said, this is mostly clips from Under the Red Hood, and you already know those performances are all special. Especially DiMaggio’s Joker who, thankfully, does get some new and terrific scenes to work with here. And while it’s a shame to lose Ackles, Vincent Martella does a decent job portraying both the downfall and redemption of Jason Todd (whichever you choose). And the score by Christopher Drake is quite foreboding and consistent with the great work he’s composed for far, far more Batman movies and games than anyone else. Go look him up. His Dark Knight Returns score is fan-freaking-tastic.
Do not buy the digital version of this film. Don’t. While the Blu-ray is fully interactive, the digital distribution is a non-interactive format, pre-assembled version of the story, entitled “Under the Red Hood: Reloaded.” So you’ll see a rehash of Under the Red Hood that’s about 30 minutes long and then you’ll get the four Showcase Shorts. To see the other three alternative “paths” you’ll need to visit the bonus features but here’s the catch: not all digital retailers offer bonus features with your purchase. And no matter where you buy the digital version, there will be approximately five minutes of additional content that remains Blu-ray exclusive. So DO NOT BUY THE DIGITAL VERSION OF THIS MOVIE.