‘Batman: Death in the Family’ Review: The Interactive Film Is WB Animation’s Most Ambitious in Years

     October 14, 2020

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Batman: Death in the Family is one interesting Bat-beast from both storytelling and production points of view. It’s an interactive animated feature, a first for Warner Bros. Animation / Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, that ambitiously adapts the 1988’s four-issue “Batman: A Death in the Family” comic arc, written by Jim Starlin and illustrated by Jim Aparo, with iconic cover art by Mike Mignola. The landmark DC event allowed fans to vote by telephone to determine the story’s ending, a chance that modern audiences now get to repeat through the feature’s interactive elements. Batman: Death in the Family goes a step further by also folding in existing and new, original content from writer Judd Winick‘s comic / animated adaptation Batman: Under the Red Hood to revisit that story from an all-new perspective. And it’s not the only DC Universe Animated Original movie it pulls from. But wait, it gets even more complicated!

The feature itself isn’t technically part of the DC line of animated movies, which was given a soft reboot recently with Superman: Man of Tomorrow. Instead, it’s part of the DC Showcase, a series of boundary-pushing short films that includes Sgt. Rock, The Phantom Stranger, Adam Strange, and Death (all of which are featured in this Blu-ray’s bonus features). But Batman: Death in the Family is a feature-length collection of shorts, some of which are longer than others depending on how you, the viewer, choose to continue the story. And that’s both the most ambitious part of this project and the most exciting aspect of this particular adaptation.

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Image via Warner Bros. Animation, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, DC

Batman: Death in the Family allows fans to choose where the story goes next thanks to an innovative navigation guide activated by the viewer’s remote. These “Choose Your Path” points show up a few times while you watch, usually at pivotal life-or-death moments. The navigation is seamless and very easy to use, as is the menu options to go back to various checkpoints along the path in order to revisit them and choose another option. (Visually, these choices are also cleverly designed, especially the one that opts for a, shall we say, a flip of a coin motif rather than directional arrows.)

It’s worth mentioning that Batman: Death in the Family leans harder on the interactive, choose-your-own-adventure aspect of the story rather than 100% faithfully adapting the source material. Like, way harder, to the point that the early issues of the comic that set up the big Bat-family character death (or life, in an alternate universe) are lightly summed up in the movie’s 2D-styled intro credits animation:

If you’re a fan of the comics, you should get the references here; if you’re not, you can still understand the broad strokes. What Batman: Death in the Family concerns itself with, however, is cutting to the Joker’s torture of a captured Jason Todd. That’s where the branching story really begins and where Death in the Family separates itself from its source material.

Except that it doesn’t do that entirely. There’s the kernel of “A Death in the Family” in the beginning, which soon transitions into Winick’s Batman: Under the Red Hood with a dash of Batman: Hush thrown in for good measure. This feels partially like a revisiting of existing stories from different perspectives or with different context, and partially like padding out the animation production pipeline with existing assets. It works though, for the most part: There’s the occasional chronological inaccuracy. The differences in animation style between old and new content are noticeable but not jarring. Instead, it feels more like opening the pages of a classic comic book you haven’t touched in decades; the characters are instantly recognizable and relatable, even if they look a little different.

So the fun part of Death in the Family (if you can call it “fun”; it’s all rather depressing with some endings going to a grisly extreme…) is in re-watching segments after making different choices. Should Jason Todd live or die? If he lives, should he save himself or should Batman save him? And what of the Joker’s fate? And Batman’s? There are lots of questions and it’s a blast to see how various answers play out, usually in ways you won’t expect. (I’d imagine the writers had a lot of fun trolling / baiting viewers with most of these choices.)

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Image via Warner Bros. Animation, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, DC

For example, the Blu-ray features the main extended-length short (titled “Under the Red Hood: Reloaded” in the Digital version), along with the other versions of the story (entitled “Jason Todd’s Rebellion,” “Robin’s Revenge” and “Red Hood’s Reckoning.” The commentary track features former DC Daily hosts Amy Dallen and Hector Navarro providing context and backstory for the main short, if you’d like a little extra trivia.) That’s right, you basically get to see what happens if Jason Todd dies, becomes the Red Hood, the Red Robin, or “Hush”, or just continues fighting the good fight as Robin, more or less.

For example, here’s a clip that finds Jason Todd (Vincent Martella) as Red Robin coming face to face (to face) with Two-Face (Gary Cole) in one of the branches of this interactive animated short:

While you can opt to let the Blu-ray take its own hands-off path and tell a default story, you’ll be missing out on a lot of Easter eggs if you don’t go back and make all the available choices. Some of which range from the sly nods and references (like Judd’s Arcade, a nod to Winick, I’d imagine), to comic book lore drops (like Winick’s other comics featuring Todd).

Want to see Batman monologuing about the death of Jason Todd to a surprising Superfriend? You can do it. Want to see the extremes to which a surviving Jason Todd will go to after surviving his ordeal? Oh boy will you see that. Want to see some bizarro Batman Easter eggs like Zur-En-Arrh? You’ll get that, too, along with surprising twists and appearances from other Bat-family members and even tongue-in-cheek namedrops like Batkid and Jailbird. It’s also loaded with philosophical thematic material for the dedicated Bat-fan to chew on, the better to occupy your mind while you watch the scenes play out again and again.

Batman: Death in the Family is easily Warner Bros. Animation’s most ambitious animated Bat-film in years and it’s absolutely worth your time and attention. Just be sure to keep an open mind when diving into the branching story and you’ll have a grand time watching the drama unfold.

Batman: Death in the Family is now available everywhere from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment on Blu-ray Combo Pack and Digital. There’s more fun coming soon, like Batman: Soul of the Dragon, and a robust 2021 DC Universe Movies slate. Stay tuned!

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Image via Warner Bros. Animation, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, DC

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