Adventures In Streaming – Batman: Bad Blood (Netflix)

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An objective truth about Batman is that he is also a Bat Dad. Especially in the realm of cinema, this key element of the character is largely shunned by fans who want to see Bruce Wayne unencumbered by the rest of the Bat Family. Seriously, it’s crazy that Robin has only figured into two of the eight movies that have Batman’s name on the marquee (to say nothing of Batgirl and the rest of her peers). Batman takes on proteges as a part of his larger mission statement to always be there for people who find themselves in the same dire situation as he found himself in as a child. It is a key part of his character and, while this may not be a big live action tentpole, a large part of what works about Batman: Bat Blood (director Jay Oliva) is that it finally gives Bat Dad his cinematic due.

The micro Bat family that makes up our main cast is Batwoman (Yvonne Strahovski), Nightwing (Sean Maher), Robin (Stuart Allan) and Batwing (Gaius Charles). We are introduced to Batwoman as sort of the new kid in town, wearing the costume and roughing up criminals in Gotham with no prior connection to the rest of the team. She’s a Bino (Bat in Name Only). Nightwing, on the other hand, has moved on from the Batcave and has a nice little setup in Bludhaven. We meet him in a familiar crime fighting situation with an unfamiliar spin. He’s chatting with Starfire during the fight, underlying that with his departure from Gotham came a departure from the isolation that came from working with Batman. This isn’t one of the strictly business chats we see Bruce have with Alfred. This is loving banter that puts a smile on Dick’s face. Batwoman and Nightwing get the most substantial character arcs in the movie and right from their introductions we get exactly what they are about. Robin and Batwing don’t fair as well. Robin isn’t a reluctant newcomer like Batwoman or a old hand getting dragged back into a life he was happy to leave behind. He is just there because he wants to know why Batman is missing. It’s not a terrible reason but his character is noticeably lacking in conflict relative to his siblings. Ditto for Batwing, who says some stuff about wanting to go down his own path that doesn’t really make for strong character motivation.

So, what’s going on with the big guy himself? Batman has been captured by Talia al Ghul (Morena Baccarin), literalizing his distance from his family unit. Batman’s urgent need of rescuing causes the rest of the team to reluctantly come together, as they realize that the bat symbol isn’t just good superhero branding, it is a symbol of resilience in the face of trauma. Kate uses it to cope with her dead mother and sister, Dick with the death of his parents and Luke with the recent attack of his father by Talia’s henchmen. The finale all comes together in the way that you might expect, with the team having to work together to save the day. The clever bit is that their antagonist is a mind controlled Batman. This development allows the film to take on two thematic stances with regards to Batman. Firstly, the Bat family is able to save Batman from his mind control. This victory proves that an isolated Batman is not as powerful as a team that works together with the same end (Nightwing takes the mantle of Batman explicitly in the film to make the comparison clear). Second, Bruce’s freedom from the mind control comes from his family appealing to his better nature. Here we see that in saving others, Bruce has actually saved himself. This is the Batman mission statement in microcosm and it is great to see play out here.

The villains are also thematically coherent with the rest of the story. Talia uses a clone of Damian named The Heretic (Travis Willingham) as a henchmen. This clone wears the Batman costume as well which allows the viewer to see that the iconography is hollow without the right philosophy guiding it. Also, The Heretic is functionally Talia’s Robin, which makes her a foil for Batman. She looks at her relationships as pragmatic associations rather than emotionally substantive connections and, in the end, this directly leads to her downfall as Heretic’s lover strikes her down in vengeance for her own careless murder of her would be son.

There is a lot to like about Batman: Bad Blood but there are significant barriers keeping it from being a Batman animated classic like Under the Red Hood or The Mask of Phantasm. As I gestured towards earlier, the character work for Damian and Luke is lacking in substance. Especially Luke, whose initial aversion to working with his Dad at Wayne Enterprises begs for an explanation. There is also a distinct lack of visualization when it comes to the Bat family working together. They have a real tendency to break off on their own during their act 2 and act 3 missions. If the team had been showing working together by strategizing or even via the film’s fight choreography then it would have cemented that their working together had value (recall that awesome tracking shot from The Avengers that depicts the various heroes playing off of each other in creative ways). The action in general looks nice enough but it all feels pretty samey. Batwoman uses guns and Batwing is basically Iron Man but they don’t do enough fun stuff with these differences for them to register. Again, the different flavors and fighting styles mixing up with one another would be more visually and thematically compelling then the generic punch-fests they cooked up for the movie.

There are other small details that bug me. For example, the Bat Family manages to accidentally kill more than one person over the course of the movie, which doesn’t seem to phase the characters at all. Also, Batman himself is depicted as a little too callus and cold for him to fully match up with the understanding patriarchal figure that the film suggests he is in the end. He muses about whether he should “take Batwoman under his wing…or take her down” and I can’t help but wonder why, if the movie is ultimately about the virtue in Batman as father figure, he would consider the latter option at all. Still, Bad Blood is head and shoulder above other recently released DC animated efforts and, as a huge fan of the characters involved, I really dug it. Now, if we could just get a sequel that brings in the rest of the squad from James Tynion IV’s run on Detective Comics.

 

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