A Little Light On New Content
Tripwire’s contributing writer Laurence Boyce casts his eye over Batman: Death In The Family animated series of shorts, out from today from Warner Bros…
Batman: Death in the Family
Director: Brandon Vietti
Cast: Bruce Greenwood, Vincent Martella, John DiMaggio, Gary Cole, Zehra Fazal
Jim Starlin’s 1988 A Death in the Family still remains one of the most iconic Batman stories in the history of the character. While much of it is now seems dated – including a bizarre sub-plot about The Joker working for Ayatollah Khomeini – it’s still remembered for doing what, at the time at least, seemed unthinkable: it killed off Robin.
The second iteration of the Boy Wonder had proved unpopular with fans. Dick Grayson – who had left Batman’s side to become Nightwing – was a charismatic and dashing hero. The new Robin – Jason Todd – was seen by many as a whiny, annoying and brooding teenager. So legendary Batman editor Denny O’Neill decided to put Todd’s popularity to the vote.
A Death In The Family followed Todd’s search for his birth mother which – via a convoluted set of circumstances – crosses over with the machinations of The Joker. In full Robin regalia, Todd finds himself locked in a warehouse, suffering a beating at the hands of a crowbar wielding Joker and waiting for a bomb to go off.
And that’s how Batman #427 ended. Fans were given two numbers to vote for. One for Todd living. And the other for him dying.
In Batman #428 Todd died. The death of Todd became one of the benchmarks for the Batman character over the next few decades. His guilt and grief added to the complexity of the psychologically damaged vigilante as well as adding extra impetus to the Batman / Joker dynamic.
Todd’s death stuck around for an incredibly long time – by comic book standards – but in 2005 he was brought back in Under The Hood where Todd is now revealed to be the murdering vigilante Red Hood, angry at Batman for not avenging his death and – with various times phases of being both a hero and a villain – is now a part an established part of the Bat family.
This latest DC Blu-ray is less a new movie and more a collection of assorted odds and sods that uses 1988s A Death in the Family as a jumping off point – both in its narrative and in offering the viewer the chance to decide on whether Robin lives and dies.
Death in the Family is the main feature here and utilises a large amount of footage from 2010’s DC Animated Movie Under The Red Hood (an adaptation of the comic which brought Todd back, and still lauded as one of the better films in the DCAU). Dispensing with a large amount of exposition, we begin with Batman in a race against as Robin is beaten by The Joker and locked in a warehouse, his demise determined by comic book history. Or is it?
Death in the Family is an interactive movie which allows us to choose the ultimate fate for the Boy Wonder and – at crucial moments – you can control which direction the story goes in. Does Robin die? Does he live? Or maybe he cheats death?
If you choose the former option then you get to see a truncated version of Under The Red Hood in which Bruce Wayne narrates the story to add a little bit of different context from the original film. But if you decide to let Robin live then the story takes a new and intriguing direction, as his life means another character’s sacrifice. Will his life be one of fulfilling a heroic ideal? Or will bitterness lead to a more villainous path. Along the way you can make more choices as to Jason Todd’s journey (including one that includes the spin of a coin associated with one certain villain) and guide him to his ultimate destination.
Death in the Family is ultimately a product of its own gimmick, where the fun is not only discovering the different endings but also how each one plays with comic book lore. There’s references to a myriad of Batman stories (from the Batman of Zur-En-Arrrh, from Grant Morrison’s run, to even a sly reference to Neal Adams’ bonkers Odyssey storyline) and it certainly revels in going all out with messing around with continuity, with a few endings being gloriously downbeat and bloody. And while much of the footage is re-used , not only from Under The Red Hood but from other storyline ‘branches’ (sometimes to funny effect – poor Black Mask seems to meet a different bloody fate no matter which choice you you make) there’s enough here to keep you vaguely entertained. And the cast from Under The Red Hood are brought back for the new footage, such as John Di Maggio’s version of The Joker which is wonderfully violent and unhinged though it’s sometimes difficult to not think of Bender when he delivers his lines.
The film also comes with four DC shorts from the ‘DC Showcase’ range featuring The Phantom Stranger, Sgt. Rock, Adam Strange and Neil Gaiman’s Death. They are all of various quality – with Death possibly being the best – all taken from previous DCAU Blu-rays. There are also commentaries on the shorts provided by DC Daily hosts Amy Dallen and Hector Navarro, which is high on fan enthusiasm but low on any real insight into the creation of the films.
The central ‘interactive movie’ of a Death in the Family is fun enough, and its central conceit is a nice hark back to the original classic story. But this is ultimately a collection of (mostly) already released material. Those who haven’t got many of the DCAU films may find this an excellent way of collecting some of the shorts. Die-hard collectors may find it a little too light on new material to be worth it.