Batman: Death in the Family

BLU-RAY REVIEW:  

Street Date 10/13/20;
Warner;
Animated;
$24.98 Blu-ray;
Not Rated;
Voices of Bruce Greenwood, Vincent Martella, John DiMaggio, Gary Cole, Zehra Fazal. 

For this fun experiment in interactive storytelling, the Warner Bros. Animation team has taken a cue from one of the most seminal stories in DC Comics history, as well as revisited one of the more popular movies inspired by the same source.

The short film Batman: Death in the Family, based on the infamous 1988 “A Death in the Family” storyline from the Batman comics, serves as a companion to 2010’s Batman: Under the Red Hood, featuring most of the same voice cast as well as director Brandon Vietti at the helm.

The most notable aspect about “Death in the Family” in the comics was that the editors held a phone poll to determine whether Batman’s sidekick, Robin, would die at the hands of the Joker. This, however, wasn’t the original Robin, Dick Grayson, who had moved on to become Nightwing in the comics, but his replacement, Jason Todd, a streetwise but hotheaded kid who had grown unpopular with fans. So, by a slim margin, they voted to kill him off, and the writers of the comic obliged.

And since hardly anyone stays dead in comic books, Jason Todd eventually returned in a 2005 storyline that served as the basis for Under the Red Hood, a movie that began by briefly touching upon his death in the earlier storyline, when Joker abandons him in a warehouse filled with explosives.

The Death in the Family short, however, is not so much an adaptation of the precursor storyline to Red Hood as it is an expansion upon the death of Robin elements already used by that movie. In fact, after a striking opening title sequence, the first scenes of Death in the Family offer reused footage from the opening of Red Hood, interspliced with some newly created flashbacks to show how Jason Todd ended up being tortured by the Joker, with Batman speeding to try to save him.

So, for about five minutes, Death in the Family serves as the prequel to Under the Red Hood a lot of fans might have been expecting. Then, however, it gets to the point where, just like the comics, fans can choose to see whether Jason lives or dies.

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The movie is only interactive on the Blu-ray, and through various branching points can arrive at seven different possible endings. The digital presentation of the short offers four pre-assembled versions of the story. And here’s where things get tricky.

The primary version of the Death in the Family short would seem to be based on the version where viewers allow Jason to die, just as he did in Under the Red Hood. This version is dubbed Under the Red Hood: Reloaded, and is basically just a half hour of Bruce Wayne narrating the events that unfold in Under the Red Hood, with a nice surprise at the end involving who he’s telling the story to.

In the interactive version, the other options viewers have at the first decision point are to have Jason merely survive the explosion, or to have Batman save him at the last moment. The more interesting “what if” scenarios come with having Batman save him, as that leads to more alternate possibilities down the pike, and take advantage of a lot of references to various developments in the comics that happened in the wake of Jason’s death. This is the aspect of the short that comic book fans are likely to derive the most enjoyment from, rather than just the rehash of Under the Red Hood.

In its digital presentation, these alternate realities are represented by pre-edited shorts called Jason Todd’s Rebellion, Robin’s Revenge and Red Hood’s Reckoning.

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To round out the presentation, the Blu-ray includes four additional DC Showcase animated shorts that were originally released as extras with other recent DC animated movies.

These include Sgt. Rock, an Army hero battling Nazi zombies story that came with 2019’s Batman: Hush; Death, which came with 2019’s Wonder Woman: Bloodlines and is based on the character from Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman”; the 1970s mystery The Phantom Stranger that came with 2020’s Superman: Red Sun; and Adam Strange, a tale of a space adventurer remembering his heroic past, which came with 2020’s Justice League Dark: Apokolips War.

Interestingly, while a plot thread of the comic book version of “Hush” inspired the “Under the Hood” story to resurrect Jason Todd, the movie versions of each are not related and are set in separate continuities.

The only extras on the Blu-ray are enthusiastic commentaries on all five shorts by a pair of former hosts of the DC Daily talk show that used to be presented by the DC Universe streaming service. They’re essentially fans reacting to seeing the adaptations of the source material and providing a bit of comic book history for the benefit of viewers. For their Death in the Family commentary, the Blu-ray plays it with the Under the Red Hood: Reloaded version of the short.

Warner Releasing Animated ‘Batman: Death in the Family’ Interactive Movie Oct. 13

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Oct. 13 will release Blu-ray Disc and digital editions of Batman: Death in the Family, a compilation of animated shorts based on DC Comics characters that includes the studio’s first interactive film presentation.

The centerpiece of the compilation is the extended-length Death in the Family, based on the landmark 1988 Batman comic book storyline in which readers were given a chance to vote via telephone poll about whether or not to kill off the second Robin, Jason Todd.

Produced, directed and written by Brandon Vietti, the interactive Blu-ray presentation allows viewers to guide the storyline through their remote control, with numerous plot twists and several possible endings. Viewers can also choose to allow the story to tell itself, as there is an option to let the Blu-ray decide its own path.

Batman: Death in the Family

Batman: Death in the Family is essentially a comic book come to life,” Vietti said. “We’ve paid homage to the 1988 interactive experience of DC’s ‘A Death in the Family’ comics release by giving fans a unique opportunity to craft their own story through a branching tool that can lead in multiple directions. The viewer gets to choose these characters’ paths, and each choice paves an alternate future for all of the characters and, ultimately, the story.”

The animated Death in the Family short is based not only on the original comic book run, but also Vietti’s 2010 Batman: Under the Red Hood animated movie, which is based on a comic book storyline in which Jason Todd returns.

“From the very first navigation card, we wanted to give the audience an impression of what they’re getting into, but then also give them something unexpected — maybe even something they’ll regret, so they have to think twice about every future choice they make,” Vietti said. “Branched storytelling has to be stronger than just the gimmick of the choices — it has to be rewarding and offer new and worthwhile insights into the characters. It needs to involve you, and keep you searching for the next twist. So we sought to subvert expectations and do something very different.”

‘Batman: Death in the Family’ interactive menu

The digital version of Death in the Family is presented in a non-interactive format pre-assembled under the title Under the Red Hood: Reloaded, and three other non-interactive versions as bonus features: Jason Todd’s Rebellion, Robin’s Revenge and Red Hood’s Reckoning. Considering the various configurations, the Blu-ray also offers approximately five minutes of story content not included in the digital version.

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The Death in the Family Blu-ray and digital editions will also include four additional “DC Showcase” animated shorts that were previously released in 2019 and 2020 as bonus material with earlier DC Universe animated movies: Sgt. Rock, Adam Strange, Death and The Phantom Stranger.

Originally attached to Batman: Hush, Sgt. Rock finds battle-weary Sgt. Rock (Karl Urban) thinking he has seen everything that World War II can dish out. But he is in for the surprise of his life when he is assigned to lead a company consisting of legendary monsters into battle against an unstoppable platoon of Nazi zombies.

Inspired by Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman,” Death tells the story of Vincent, an artist with unresolved inner demons who meets a mysterious girl who helps him come to terms with his creative legacy and eventual death. Death was originally included with Wonder Woman: Bloodlines.

Attached as a bonus feature on the release of Superman: Red Son, The Phantom Stranger finds the enigmatic DC mystery man (voiced by Peter Serafinowicz) simultaneously playing both omniscient narrator and active character in a story of supernatural comeuppance for evil doers set in the 1970s.

Adam Strange, originally released with Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, tells the story of a rugged asteroid mining colony where the town drunk turns out to be legendary space adventurer Adam Strange, whose heroic backstory is played out in flashbacks as he struggles to save the very people who have scorned him for so long.

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The ‘R’-rated Blu-ray Disc will include audio commentaries by “DC Daily” hosts Amy Dallen and Hector Navarro on Sgt. Rock, Adam Strange, Death and The Phantom Stranger, plus the Under the Red Hood: Reloaded version of Death in the Family.