Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 11, 2020)
Tragedy sells, and comic books with major dramatic events tend to become big ticket items. DC learned that in 1992/1993 with The Death of Superman, a multi-issue arc that sold massive numbers of copies.
Though not as hot a property, a similar effort arrived in 1988 via a Batman tale called A Death in the Family. This story gets adapted into 2020’s direct-to-video animated affair with the slightly altered title Batman: Death in the Family.
When Batman (voiced by Bruce Greenwood) thinks that Robin’s (Vincent Martella) behavior gets out of control, he takes his younger partner off active duty. Despite that decision, Robin decides to go after Joker (John DiMaggio).
This doesn’t go well, as Joker captures and tortures Robin. Will this lead toward the Boy Wonder’s demise?
Infamously, DC left that decision in the hands of fans back in the 1980s. They set up a 900-number so readers could vote whether Robin would live or die.
A bloodthirsty lot, Batman buffs gave Robin the thumb’s down, albeit by a tremendously narrow margin. Rather than offer a direct adaptation of that tale, the Family Blu-ray gives viewers their own options.
Ala the Choose Your Own Adventure franchise, Family comes with a few points at which the viewer selects the story’s path. At the eight-minute, 45-second mark, we get these options:
“Robin Cheats Death”;
“Batman Saves Robin”;
If you select “Cheats” or “Dies”, the tale follows one narrative path without additional options. However, if you go for “Saves”, you get many more selections.
Eventually, “Saves” branches to “Catch the Joker” and “Kill the Joker”. “Catch” subsequently splits into “”Spare the Joker” and “Kill the Joker”, each with more options.
“Spare” breaks to “Life” and “Death”, whereas “Kill” goes with “Surrender” and “Attack”. “Surrender” comes with no more options, but “Attack” goes to “Heads” and “Tails” eventually.
Note that none of these offer a faithful version of the original 1988 comic. This Family brings aspects of that work, but it tends to only use its predecessor as a general inspiration, so don’t expect a true cinematic representation.
In theory, the branching options make this a fun experience, but in reality, this turns into something of a chore, and one that leads to a disjointed experience. Face it: no one will watch each of the potential versions in its entirety.
That’s because the viewer seems much more likely to go one path on first screening and then mix and match the options on subsequent viewings. Happily, the Blu-ray makes this fairly easy to do, as the menu allows us to go back to various branching points.
For me, the closest I came to a “pure” straight-through experience occurred when I went with “Cheats”. I picked that option immediately after I took in the initial 8:45, so it’s the only one I followed in a complete manner.
After that, though, I simply flipped back to the various break-off points. Of course, one could restart and work through each of the options to create a coherent story every time, but I can’t imagine many will do that.
Whichever way you choose, you’ll find a less than smooth tale since you’ll encounter at least one interruption along the way. Obviously “Cheats” and “Dies” offer the most coherent versions since they pause only once to allow for a selection, but even that brief break harms the narrative flow.
Of course, “Saves” turns into a massive mess. It comes with so many split points that it becomes impossible to enjoy anything that vaguely approaches a smooth viewing experience.
Could the Blu-ray’s producers have allowed viewers to “pre-select” options so these pauses don’t occur? I would think so.
Granted, as I noted, I don’t know how many viewers would want to sit through each permutation of Family in its entirety. Probably most would still choose to pursue one path on initial viewing and mix and match the rest later. Still, like I noted, even if you do that, your first screening will offer a less than fluid experience.
Not that I feel convinced any version of Family would prove particularly satisfying. I get the impression that the movie’s producers became so intoxicated by the gimmick behind the Blu-ray that they paid too little attention to the stories being told.
As mentioned Family mixes and matches nuggets from the 1988 tale and other Batman adventures. In particular, Under the Hood - adapted as Under the Red Hood in 2010 – contributes a bunch of plot/character information.
Indeed, Family even reuses some of the animation from Hood. Brandon Vietti directed both the 2010 film as well as this one.
Why rely on a bunch of sources and not just stick with the 1988 Family? I don’t know.
Granted, Family needed to deviate from the 1988 comic if it wanted to fulfill its “Choose Your Own Adventure” style. Though DC offered readers the chance to select Robin’s overall fate, fans didn’t spell out the details.
Instead, readers selected “live” or “die” and DC made up the specifics. Apparently the comic’s writers came up with potential stories if the vote favored Robin’s survival, but it seems unclear whether those notes influenced aspects of Family.
Whatever the case, those behind Family enjoyed theoretical carte blanche to envision these alternate paths on their own. While it made sense that the basic set-up of the tale would follow the 1988 comic fairly well, after that the stories could go anywhere the filmmakers chose.
Like I noted, even the “Robin Dies” version doesn’t hew especially closely to the source. Since we get narratives that veer away from the 1988 comic anyway, why then lift the “new” segments from other already existing tales?
This feels lazy, to be honest. Perhaps it picks nits to criticize a version of a well-known comic for a lack of originality, but I don’t feel that way.
Basically, if Family faithfully adapted the 1988 story where logical, I’d be fine with that, and obviously it could do what it wanted with the “new” parts. However, it perplexes me that the movie didn’t even get the source “right” and took so many liberties.
None of these criticisms makes Family a bad cinematic experience. Also, it delivers such a short tale that it never threatens to wear out its welcome.
The cast does well, and DiMaggio improves on his work as Joker 10 years ago in Hood. I wasn’t wild about his take on the iconic part back then, but he seems more at home with the role now.
Whereas Mark Hamill’s much-praised Joker gives the part a cartoony, maniacal tone, DiMaggio goes darker and deeper. His Joker seems less broad and more malevolent, a combination that works well in this tale.
Ultimately, I can find enjoyable aspects of Family, but I still think it favors its gimmicky concept over quality storytelling. This becomes a disappointment.