'Batman vs. Robin' presents fans with some weighted options: improved action and thrills at the expense of even worse vocals.
Batman vs. Robin continues the other serialized thread of DC's shared animated movie universe, which alternates between Justice League and Batman films. Following the events of Son of Batman, Damian Wayne (Batman's son with Ra's al Ghul's daughter Talia) now holds the mantle of Robin, patrolling the streets of Gotham with Batman.
Of course Damian (who was trained to be the ultimate assassin) hasn't smoothed out all of his rough feathers, yet; that makes him perfectly susceptible for recruitment by Talon, the master assassin of the mysterious cabal known as The Court of Owls. As Talon (and his brethren) bring the machinations of The Court to Gotham's streets, Damian finds himself in a compromising position that leads the Talons right to the doorstep of Wayne Manor.
As the latest entry on the weaker end of DC Animation's shared movie universe (the Batman thread), Batman vs. Robin is still not as big or epic as the Justice League animated features. Within its own lane, though, Batman vs. Robin has better storylines, production values and character designs than Damian Wayne's debut film, Son of Batman. Unfortunately, forward momentum is tripped-up by voice casting that returns Son of Batman's odd-pairing of Jason O'Mara and Stuart Allen to the ill-fitting slots of Batman and Robin, respectively.
The storyline by writer J.M. DeMatteis (Justice League) actually makes a smart remix out of the Batman and Robin late-2000s comic by Grant Morrison, and the "Court of Owls" storyline by Scott Snyder in Batman's 2010s "New 52" relaunch. The former storyline did great work fleshing out the Damian Wayne character's relationship to Batman (albeit Dick Grayson's Batman); the latter story opened up the world and mythos of Gotham city and Bruce Wayne's family, while offering mystery and thrilling action by way of fearsome villains like The Talons.
In all honesty, the street really only goes one way, as far as the Batman vs. Robin animated feature is concerned. While the rich comic book source material totally enhances the core of the animated movie, the movie simultaneously cheapens the depth and resonance of the source material, giving only broad brushstrokes and leaving much by the wayside. As some hardcore fans will no doubt argue: putting both of these storylines into the span of one film might've been overly ambitious.
Thankfully, veteran (and skilled) DC animation director Jay Oliva (Assault on Arkham, Flashpoint Paradox, Justice League: War) manages to capture the strong focal point of the "Court of Owls" storyline: thrilling fight sequences. With a rogues gallery as extensive as Batman's, it's often hard to find good new villains to build a story around; The Talons were good enough to get an entire crossover event - "Night of the Owls" - dedicated to them, and this film shows why.
While it is almost criminal that The Talons and their mythos get so little in the way of development or explanation in the film (with the exception of "Talon Prime"), as plot devices the villains are still effective as frightening adversaries for Batman and Co. - ones able to go toe-to-toe with Cape Crusader and do real damage. That turns what are usually cannon-fodder bad guys into foes with real intrigue and menace; it also results in some of the most high-octane Batman action and fight sequences seen in these animated features. A climatic battle for Wayne Manor provides some pretty epic payoff.
Had the voice acting been on point, we would be praising Batman vs. Robin as a superior Batman animated feature. Unfortunately, casting veteran Andrea Romano seems to be losing pitch, because everything about Batman vs. Robin's vocal composition and mix sounds... off.
With the vocals so far from the mark, the central dramatic thread (Batman and Damian's strained relationship), does not come through at all. Many of the pivotal scenes between the two sound like the hollow dramatic readings of a soap opera. Voices like Subgatory star Jeremy Sisto as Talon only compound the problem, and none of the main players sounds right on his own, or sequenced with the others as an ensemble. In terms of performance, this one just didn't come together in the editing room.
In the end, Batman vs Robin presents fans with some weighted options: improved action and thrills at the expense of even worse vocals. In terms of review / recommendation that leaves things in an obvious middle ground, so consider your own preferences and decide which side of the path you stand on - and how much time there is to wait until that next Justice League animated feature arrives.
Batman vs Robin will be available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Download on Tuesday, April 14th, 2015.