It's been nearly a decade since DC Comics and Warner Bros. launched their series of DC Universe Animated Original Movies (an ungainly franchise title, but it is what it is). These straight-to-video features have been inconsistent in terms of quality, but they're generally above-par in contrast to both the similar features Marvel has released (most of which are unwatchable) and straight-to-video features in general. It's no surprise that the ever-popular Batman has played a prominent role in many of these features (he's either been the star or a supporting player in a whopping 15 of the 25 features released so far), and in recent years good ol' Bats has been given his own sub-series: first there was Son of Batman, then Batman vs. Robin and now we have Batman: Bad Blood. Unfortunately, his new features represent some of the weaker work DC has done.
Our story begins with a familiar premise: a group of Gotham city villains are creating havoc, and Batman (Jason O'Mara, Terra Nova) determines to stop them. After dealing with pesky regulars like Firefly (Steven Blum, The Legend of Korra), Blockbuster (John DiMaggio, Futurama) and Killer Moth (Jason Spisak, Young Justice), Batman encounters the leader of the group: a mysterious, muscle-bound figure who introduces himself as the Heretic (Travis Willingham, Fullmetal Alchemist). Heretic sets off a series of explosions, and Batman disappears in the chaos. Because none of the other characters in the movie have ever read a comic book before, everyone assumes he is dead.
Despite the fact that Batman's name is in the title, the Dark Knight remains offscreen for a pretty sizable portion of the film's running time. Instead, we watch as Robin (Stuart Allan), Nightwing (Sean Maher, Firefly), Batwoman (Yvonne Strahovski, I, Frankenstein) and Batwing (Luke Fox, Aquarius) team up to investigate the Heretic and figure out what he's up to.
Like all of these DC animated features, Batman: Bad Blood is on the short side. This has been a consistent hurdle for these films to overcome, as the filmmakers have occasionally given into the temptation to stuff a long, complicated story into a mere 70-something minutes. That certainly happens here, and it doesn't take long at all for Bad Blood to transform into a rushed, messy sea of heroes and villains that struggles to give anyone the screen time they need to make an impression. The film also suffers from the usual need to stuff a certain quota of action sequences into the mix, leaving even less time for smoothing out the wrinkles of the plot or offering compelling characterization.
To be sure, the film depends on viewers having seen the two previous installments or at least having a basic knowledge of modern DC comics continuity. If, for example, you aren't aware of the fact that Damian Wayne – this film's Robin – is actually the son of Bruce Wayne and Talia Al Ghul (and more importantly, if you aren't aware of the specifics of Damian's childhood), you might be left awfully confused by some of the stuff that goes down in the third act. Still, even DC junkies are likely to be left unsatisfied by how poorly-sketched the characters are this time around. Almost everyone is limited to a quick, shallow interpretation: Robin's a brat, Nightwing is insecure, Batwoman likes guns and women, Batwing likes fancy gadgets, The Mad Hatter is kooky, Batman is grim, Black Mask is angry... agh, let's just let 'em fight! Not even the “death” of Batman manages to make much of an impact, because the film just doesn't have time to dwell on it.
The anime-style animation employed for this sub-series has been pretty underwhelming from the beginning, and that certainly continues here. The character design tends to be on the bland side and evidence of corner-cutting is all over the place. It's a shame, because the actual action choreography is actually fairly exceptional, and the film might have managed to churn up some actual thrills if it looked a little slicker. The dialogue feels similarly clunky: on multiple occasions, characters utter proclamations to no one after the person they're speaking with has left the room. The film's most laughably terrible moment comes late in the proceedings, as a PG-13 threesome turns into yet another flashback to the death of Bruce Wayne's parents.
DC/Warner Bros. are certainly capable of far better than this (as evidenced by their surprisingly strong two-part adaptation of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns), but if this film's ending is any indication, they seem determined to press on with this particular version of the Batverse. Unfortunately, the foundation remains entirely too shaky, and everyone involved still seems determined to pack entirely too much plot into the proceedings. My recommendation for the next installment? Dump 2/3rds of the cast, find a spare, focused tale to work from and move forward from there.
Batman: Bad Blood
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 72 minutes
Release Year: 2016