Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 10, 2020)
In an unusual twist, the newest DC Comics animated release revolves around a character normally used as a villain. 40 years after he debuted as an opponent for the Teen Titans, Deathstroke becomes the lead of 2020’s Knights & Dragons.
A study in contrasts, Slade Wilson (voiced by Michael Chiklis) lives his life as both a super-assassin named Deathstroke and as husband to Adeline (Sasha Alexander) and father to young Joseph (Asher Bishop). When a terrorist group called HIVE recruits Slade, he declines.
Rather than take no for an answer, HIVE leader the Jackal (Chris Jai Alex) attacks his family and abducts Joseph. Deathstroke rescues his son and takes out HIVE, but the mayhem results in an injury that leaves Joseph scarred and mute. Adeline leaves Slade and takes Joseph with her.
Ten years later, Slade remains estranged from his family, but a reunion occurs when HIVE again kidnaps Joseph. When Deathstroke goes to save him, he discovers a mess of secrets and new challenges.
Though the character got a big part in 2018’s Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, Dragons may represent an introduction to Deathstroke for many viewers. A lot of those folks seem likely to say “hey – this guy sure reminds me a lot of Deadpool!”
Which one should expect, since Deadpool exists as an overt ripoff of Deathstroke. When I say “overt ripoff”, I mean it – not only do the two share similar costumes and powers, but also Marvel gave Deadpool the name “Wade Wilson”!
Poor Deathstroke gets the short end of this stick, as Deadpool headlined two enormously successful live-action movies whereas his inspiration winds up in this lackluster direct-to-video animated tale. I don’t know enough about the comics’ Deathstroke to say he deserves better, but I suspect he does, for Dragons becomes a wholly forgettable adventure.
Part of the problem comes from the attempt to pack in too much during this 87-minute tale. The prologue fills a good one-fourth of the narrative, and given the film’s relative brevity, that doesn’t leave it much space to pursue alternate goals.
Dragons simply can’t find room to develop its cast of characters well. We get Slade and the rest painted in broad strokes, and we never find them especially rich or compelling.
Instead, Dragons attempts to compensate with action, and it does pour on plenty of violent battles. Unfortunately, these never come across as particularly exciting.
Rather than develop visceral, involving fights, Dragons takes advantage of its “R” rating to pour on the blood. Liberated from the usual “PG-13” accorded these DC animated flicks, it goes for the gusto and paints the walls with gore.
I don’t mind that choice from an aesthetic POV. Indeed, a movie focused on a character like Deathstroke should depict the graphic nature of the violence.
However, Dragons tends to substitute gore for good filmmaking. Rather than find exciting ways to show the action, it hopes that the blood and goo with convince us we get a vivid experience.
We don’t, and the narrative’s frequent descent into cheap soap opera melodrama doesn’t help. Maybe further Deathstroke adventures will satisfy, but Dragons never gels.