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.

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Warner;
Animated;
$19.98 DVD, $24.98 Blu-ray, $39.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘R’ for some violence.
Voices of Bruce Greenwood, Jennifer Carpenter, John DiMaggio, Grey DeLisle, Scott Patterson, William Salyers, Yuri Lowenthal, Anthony Head, Tara Strong, Kari Wuhrer.

The idea of exploring familiar characters in alternate realities has become a staple of storytelling. This is especially true in comic books, where characters must constantly be updated and often re-defined for new eras and generations.

The medium of comics naturally lends itself to presenting “what if” stories that shed new light on the characters without subjecting them to situations that would hinder or alter their ongoing storylines. Decades ago, they were called “imaginary stories.” In 1989, DC Comics started calling them “Elseworlds.”

The first of the Elseworlds brand was that year’s Gotham by Gaslight, which re-imagined Batman as a vigilante detective at the turn of the 19th century confronting Jack the Ripper. That was the conceit of Elseworlds: to put superheroes and their supporting cast in alternate timelines, either by exploring them in different eras, or changing something in their own personal history to create a ripple effect (a later story that often gets mentioned for potential adaptation found Superman raised as a hero of the Soviet Union).

The latest entry of the animated DC Universe is loosely based on the Gotham by Gaslight on-shot graphic novel, while also drawing heavily upon its sequel, 1991’s Master of the Future. In deconstructing the original story, the filmmakers have given the concept a new life, presenting a satisfying mystery that plays out quite differently from the book. This lets the film stand quite well as its own thing while honoring the spirit of the books, allowing longtime fans to watch without any fear of spoilers.

The animation is distinctive and beautiful, and the screenplay is filled with fun nods to Batman lore that fans should appreciate.

The Blu-ray includes a 20-minute featurette about the original graphic novel, as well as a nice audio commentary from the filmmakers. Both delve into just why Gotham by Gaslight has become an iconic Batman story.

The Blu-ray also includes an eight-and-a-half-minute preview of the next DC Universe animated movie, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay, plus some bonus cartoons from animated Batman TV shows.