SON OF BATMAN: Review & Cast Interviews (Wondercon '14)
Author: Mark Hughes (Follow @MARKHUGHESFILMS)
April 20, 2014

SYNOPSIS: Based on the comic BATMAN AND SON by Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert, this animated film features Jason O'Mara as the voice of Batman/Bruce Wayne, Stuart Allan as Damian, Morena Baccarin as Talia Al Ghul, Giancarlo Esposito as Ra's Al Ghul, David McCallum as Alfred Pennyworth, Xander Berkeley as Kirk Langstrom (AKA Man-Bat), and Thomas Gibson as Deathstroke.

DC’s animation division has developed a well-deserved reputation for producing the best cartoon comic adaptations, and Batman in particular has been the star of several of the genre’s finest animated releases. That tradition continues with the latest offering, “Son of Batman,” which I rank among the top five Batman animation efforts (along with “Sub Zero,” “Mask of the Phantasm,” “Year One,” and the emotionally brutal and brilliant “Under the Red Hood”). I had a chance to see “Son of Batman” at Wondercon this weekend, and to interview many of the folks involved in the production.

With “Son of Batman,” mainstream audiences get their first introduction to Batman’s son, Damian, in a film adapted from Grant Morrison’s “Batman and Son” comic book story arc. This was an interesting choice for a story to bring to the home market. Damian is of course a controversial but popular character among readers of the monthlies, but this will be the first time average viewers have heard of Batman’s son, since a lot of the audience for the cartoons aren’t necessarily regular comic book readers. Batman celebrates his 75th anniversary this year, so introducing Damian into the animated films is a statement of a somewhat new direction for Batman on animated film.

But if the choice is unexpected, it’s also a strong move and turned out to be an excellent choice. The controversial nature of Damian’s persona -- his excessive use of violence and homicidal tendencies, and his generally less than sunny personality -- are the secret to what makes this film such a success. This is a different side of Batman, and his treatment of -- and expectations for -- Damian are different than any relationship he’s had before. Batman at once must develop a softer edge in some situations, but a harder edge when it comes to trying to restrain Damian and reacting to threats against the boy. There’s also a lot of fun conversations between them -- an exchange involving Damian insisting on driving is particularly enjoyable.

Dick Grayson’s reaction to learning of Damian’s existence, and the repeated confrontations and disagreements between the two, is the start of a great sibling rivalry that has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments (Dick’s almost-profane answer to one of Damian’s insults, and Alfred’s “save,” is an instant classic of the genre).

These relationships are what really drive the story. There are also relationships between Damian and his mother, Talia as well as a combination of relationships and feelings between Deathstroke and Talia, Deathstroke and Ra’s, and Deathstroke and Damian. But it’s Batman, Damian, and Dick Grayson who provide the strongest emotional arcs in the film.

The plot itself -- taking liberties with much of Morrison’s original story, but I won’t do spoilers here -- is one of revenge, as most of the best Batman stories seem to be, and the themes are all about choosing the right path in life. Damian must choose between everything his mother taught him, and everything his father is trying to teach him, and it’s a choice that inevitably leads to another more fateful choice (for him, and for his parents) about his future. Batman must choose between the life he’s led so far and everything he’s taught and trained himself to be, and the role of father to a son he never knew he had. But it’s not as simple as choosing to be in Damian’s life -- that choice inevitably leads to fateful choices about Damian’s role in ALL of Batman’s life, including the most dangerous aspects where Damian’s own tendencies will test both their limits in their relationship.

But the film doesn’t get bogged down in heavy-handed approaches to any of this, the implications are clear and everyone involved knows the risks and consequence, as do we because it’s pretty obvious what the stakes are. The other stakes -- involving saving Talia, stopping Deathstroke, and trying to control Damian or stop him from realizing his worst intentions -- weigh on the story of course, but not so much as the deeply personal ones.

There’s a great deal of humor in this movie, which might seem odd since it’s also very violent. But there’s an edge to the humor that fits the situations and characters, and it adds to the sense of “family dynamics” at play.

I’m a big fan of the Bat-Suit design in this film, particularly the cowl. Likewise, Deathstroke looked great, and Damian was rendered in a way that captured the smarmy aspects of his personality without making him appear to just be frowning and smirking all the time. One of the complaints I sometimes have about animated superhero films is that the characters’ faces can often seem interchangeable, aside from their hair, but DC does a good job with the Batman animated films of avoiding that, and with Damian and Dick in particular I was pleased at how much personality came across in their rendering.

The voice actors all do great jobs. Jason O’Mara is my favorite Bat-Voice besides Kevin Conroy, and his tone fits this story better than even Conroy’s would have, frankly. Stuart Allan’s Damian is remarkable and is what I always imagined Damian sounded like -- and when you meet him in real life, Stuart even looks like Damian and has the sort of energy and tension to him that the character needs (indeed, I dare say if they by some chance decided to put Damian into the live-action films, Stuart Allan should be at the top of their list of actors to call). Sean Maher as Dick Grayson does such a good job shifting from mildly amused and wanting to tentatively reach out to Damian, and furious to the point he wants to dropkick Damian off a bridge, that I hope everyone involved here returns for future films to explore their relationships as they change over time.

The review continues after the jump!

I got to speak with O’Mara, Allan, and Maher about the film at Wondercon, as well as the film’s director Ethan Spaulding, and dialogue director Andrea Romano.

O’Mara talked about the balance between light and dark in Batman. “To much light and he’s kind of dull, too much dark and it doesn’t feel true to the character,” he said, “because he is heroic no matter how badass he can be at the time.” Having voiced Batman previously in “Justice League: War,” O’Mara noted that finding a unique voice for Batman was important to his take on the character. He also noted the interesting twist to Batman’s relationship with Damian, in light of the boy’s deadly skills from having been trained by Ra’s and holding some radically violent opinions contrary to what Batman believes in and represents: “They know each other’s moves. In any other circumstance, this kid would be a worthy adversary for Batman and it would be a fight to the death. But this is his son.”

I asked him about the distinction between his performance in “Justice League: War” and this newest film, where Batman would necessarily face emotional turmoil and a different emotional reaction to someone (Damian, of course) than he’s ever had before. “That was the fun of it,” he replied, “playing the Darkness of The Dark Knight but also at times having to [soften his reaction]... You kind of feel like there’s a part of him that wants to turn around and close line this kid, but he can’t because it’s his kid.”

The review continues after the jump!

Stuart Allen dig deep to get into his character. Besides reading the source material, he did additional research online about the character’s personality and background. After initially having the impression that Damian was “a brat,” he came to see Damian differently. “He’s not a brat, he’s just a lone wolf,” Allen said. “He likes to do things on his own. He’s very smart, very sophisticated, he’s very strong. He knows how to get things on his own, he’s very persuasive. And he’s also smart-alecky and has to work on his manners.” He also admitted being nervous at first due to how popular and important the character is in the mythos, but that he grew comfortable with the character and it became “like putting butter on toast.”

In the comics, Damian and Dick begin with the sibling rivalry, but over time they grow closer and Damian ends up looking up to Dick in a way that perhaps exceeded his affection for Batman. However, Allen told me that while he was aware of the changes in the dynamics over time, for this film he concentrated entirely on the early feelings and reactions between the characters. Allen explained, “At this point, they’re starting off in the relationship. [Damian’s] very rough with him... Nightwing, he was with Batman and was taught justice...whereas Damian was taught by mentors to do what you want, and if killing was necessary you can do that. It’s basically like, there are no rules to the game. Being with [Dick] more, and being in new surroundings, it had an influence on Damian and obviously he looked up to Dick like an older brother.”

Sean Maher mirrored Stuart Allen’s points about the relationship between Dick and Damian being focused on the early stages in the film, without much hint about how their relationship would change down the road. “I wasn’t thinking that far in advance to project into what we were doing. But there certainly was a sibling rivalry which I felt, and which I loved playing.” Having been on the popular TV series “Arrow,” Maher has worked in DC superhero entertainment for both live-action and animation. Asked about the distinctions between the two, one key difference was that Maher performed his work for the animated film alone, without the other performers present. In addition, he remarked, “There are so many difference, and they are so similar in so many ways. To me, it’s like just be a kid, use your imagination. Which is kind of an actor’s job anyway, or the way I think of it.” He continued, “And that’s why I sort of love all of the genre work -- because you truly get to imagine. Like, you cannot get on a spaceship without your imagination; you cannot fly around and be a superhero without your imagination.”

Director Ethan Spaulding grew up loving Batman, as most of us did. Speaking about the film’s depiction of Morrison’s source material, Spaulding pointed out, “The source material is great. When we got the script, it’s not a straight-up adaptation, so it’s taking those elements and kind of blending them. So this is our version of it. Hopefully fans will agree with it.” One really fascinating point the director mentioned is in regard to Damian’s self-image. “He’s a mini-Bruce Wayne. He’s like a man; he doesn’t know he’s a kid. He’s grown up with the League of Assassins, which is so different from how everyday kids grow up. So he has a lot of life experience.”

I brought up the point that most viewers aren’t familiar with the comic stories and probably didn’t know Batman had a son, and I wondered what was the motivation to bring this story out now about Damian and a more familial approach-- especially during Batman’s 75th anniversary -- for the audience of these animated films? “I think the decision was made because of the comic books. He’d become so popular in the storylines, and I think the screenwriters we have picked up on that and adapted that series of stories...for me, this was something I could sink my teeth into, because it is different. We haven’t seen Batman act as a dad.”

Fans will be interested to know that, when asked about the potential for a Nightwing animated film, Spaulding mentioned that there have indeed been discussions and an actual Nightwing pitch was made a few years ago. Hopefully that will come to fruition at some point.

Mark Hughes (right) with Jason O’Mara (middle) and his son (left)
at the SON OF BATMAN presser at Wondercon 2014

Dialogue director Andrea Romano has worked on animated Batman films for many years. When I asked if she had a favorite, she replied, “I like ‘Under the Red Hood.’ There are others that I love as well... but that story was just so terrifying... It is one of the most violent films I’ve ever worked on. Before we run the main title, we’ve killed a character. Like, the very beginning of the story.” The emotional impact of that particular film is obvious, and that’s why I personally rank it as the best of the Batman animated films. On the casting choices, Romano proudly stated she’s a big fan of the show “Firefly” and that she has sought to include as many actors from that show as possible in the DC animated films (indeed, many of them worked on this film, of course). Sean Maher was her first choice for Nightwing, for example, even though he’d never done voiceover work before. - Mark Hughes

Mark Hughes is a LONGTIME BOF reader and contributor to the site. Professionally, Mark writes about film -- especially comic book/superhero movies -- on his FORBES.COM blog, REEL ESTATE WITH MARK HUGHES. He's also a screenwriter for film and TV and, in a former life, was a media specialist and campaign ad writer. He's also a good friend and one of the biggest Batman fans I've ever known!

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