The painful irony of DC Comics’ stumbles at the box office is that Warner Bros., the entity which has been making the film and TV adaptations of DC’s comic properties for decades, already had this stuff in the bag. They invented the modern superhero movie with 1978’s Superman, then utterly conquered the nation’s imagination a decade later with 1989’s Batman, which was so successful that Hollywood’s been chasing it ever since. In the wake of Batman’s success, WB’s animation division gave birth to the cartoon to end all cartoons, Batman: The Animated Series, which in turn brought us the most popular new character the mythos has spawned in decades.
If you’re disappointed with the movies based on DC characters that have hit theaters in recent years, there have still been no shortage of options for watching Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and all your other favorite costumed heroes punch ninjas, get cloned and reboot the whole universe when the Flash runs really fast. Warner Bros. Animation has been producing direct-to-video and direct-to-streaming films about DC superheroes for years. You might not have known this, though, because they’ve largely been absent from the more popular streaming services. Most of the time, if you wanted to see a take on Red Son or Flashpoint, you’d need to either rent the movies or buy them outright.
With the emergence of HBO Max and its exclusive deal on all things Warner Bros., however, it’s now finally possible for people to view this extensive catalogue easily—and in one place. In particular, it’s finally possible to watch one of the more interesting portrayals of Batman in recent years, starting with the quartet of animated movies that began in 2014 with Son of Batman.
Every portrayal of Batman since the early ’90s has been under the shadow of Tim Burton’s 1989 movie and the Animated Series. If you’re going to adapt the Dark Knight to animation, there needs to be some interesting new take on the material. Son of Batman comes with a compelling take that hadn’t been explored in animated adaptations before: Focusing on Damian Wayne, who readers of the comics will recognize as Bruce Wayne’s son by his on-again, off-again love interest Talia, daughter of his longtime nemesis Ra’s al Ghul. It helps that, like so many latter-day Batman projects, these movies draw heavily on Animated Series alums: Alan Burnett produced and legendary voice director Andrea Romano worked on a couple of the films before her retirement in 2017.
Damian Wayne is a compelling character in his own right, and has served as the jumping-off point for some really great story arcs in the comics. The idea of the character has been around since at least 1987, when the graphic novel Batman: Son of the Demon introduced the concept of Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul having a child whose existence brings Batman and Ra’s al Ghul’s League of Assassins into conflict. In a different alternate timeline, the debonair Ibn al Xu’ffasch sits beside Talia in Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ celebrated Kingdom Come story—as the name translates literally to “Son of the Bat,” it’s not hard to guess at the character’s parentage. Grant Morrison brought the character into the mainline continuity of the comics and named him Damian Wayne in 2006, and since then the character has become another Robin.
Son of Batman kicks off with Damian (Stuart Allen) and his mother (Morena Baccarin) fleeing the destruction of the League of Assassins at the hands of Deathstroke. We learn (disturbingly) that Talia roofied Batman and spent a night with him, and that he’s been unaware that he’s a father for 10 years. (This is sexual assault.) Determining that her son is safer with his father than with her, she leaves Damian in his care, where the two quickly find themselves at odds.
Much of the series’ heart comes from Jason O’Mara’s stoic portrayal of Batman and Sean Maher’s Dick Grayson, who has already moved on to become Nightwing as the series begins. These stories leave the various intermediate Robins out of the picture, leaving us with a core family of Bruce, Dick, Damian and a bone-dry Alfred (the venerable and insanely prolific David McCallum). In Son of Batman, the Bat-family struggles to adapt to Damian, whom Allen portrays perfectly as an utterly un-self-conscious edgelord who can eviscerate foes with a katana but doesn’t know what to do when any kind of emotion overcomes him. The chief conflict of the film is believably the tension within Damian between his kill-absolutely-everything upbringing by Ra’s al Ghul and his grudging admiration for his father’s unshakeable belief in the sanctity of life.
Batman vs. Robin picks up that emotional throughline, following Damian as he continues to chafe against Batman’s uncompromising nature. The story begins with the two busting up a kidnapper’s hideout—the disturbing Dollmaker (Weird Al Yankovic…really!). When a mysterious vigilante in an owl costume kills the villain in front of Robin, Batman at first suspects his son has returned to his old methods. It’s only a momentary misunderstanding, but it drives a wedge between father and son that the sinister Court of Owls seeks to exploit. Damian must ultimately choose between the owls’ lieutenant, Talon—who promises him the freedom to truly wipe out criminals—and his father’s code.
Being that they’re a secret society of bluebloods dedicated to entrenching themselves at the top of Gotham’s social order, the Court of Owls don’t actually want to fight crime to help anyone, just to keep their own playground clean. Naturally, they’ve gotta go down. Accordingly, while the emotional struggles Damian and Bruce face form the internal conflict of the movie, the external conflict is the action, which all the movies ably deliver. If you want to see Batman and Robin wreck armies of assassins who have been dosed up with Kirk Langstrom’s man-bat formula, unstoppable revenants revived by Court of Owls techno-necromancy or “nun-jas,” in Batman: Bad Blood, these are for you.
Batman: Bad Blood seemed as if it was setting up the series for a much wider Bat-family in future installments, bringing in Batwoman (Yvonne Strahovski) and Batwing (Gaius Charles), another Grant Morrison creation who first showed up in the pages of Batman Incorporated. It also more or less brought the central conflict of the movies—where does Damian Wayne truly belong?—to a distinct conclusion, as the young Robin goes toe to toe with a clone of himself aged up to adulthood, with a head full of League of Assassin conditioning under the control of his mother (she’s more evil now) and the Mad Hatter.
Unfortunately, the series didn’t run with much of it. Batman: Hush came out in 2019, and in addition to largely abandoning Damian (who makes a quick cameo via Zoom), that movie didn’t do a whole lot with the actual story arc from the comics that it gets its name from. The Hush arc was a whirlwind tour through Batman’s rogues gallery in the comics, culminating in the reveal of a compelling new villain bent on revenge against both Bruce Wayne and Batman. In the movie version, well…
In the movie version, he’s just the Riddler on steroids. The movie even includes the character who is actually Hush in the comics, Tommy Elliot, and he just dies. (And stays dead, unlike in the comics.)
It’s a disappointing endpoint to the series thus far, and it’s not clear if Warner Bros. Animation has any plans to revisit the continuity—O’Mara and Allen have returned to voice the characters together in at least one other feature, 2020’s Justice League Dark: Apokalips War, but it doesn’t appear as if it’s strictly part of the same continuity.
Still, they’re good fun aimed at the older kids in the house, with some great portrayals and a spotlight for a character who brings everything about Batman’s fraught psychology—from the underlying trauma of losing his family to his insistence on fighting his battles alone to his internal struggle between justice and vengeance—into sharp relief. For some fans, it’s well worth it to give them a look now that it’s become easier to do so.
Kenneth Lowe is vengeance, the night, etc. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.