Batman: Death in the Family is an interactive “choose your own adventure” style movie, similar in structure to the “Bandersnatch” episode of Black Mirror that streams on Netflix. While this structure is disruptive from the point of view of a straightforward narrative, it makes a certain amount of sense when it comes to this particular story. When DC Comics ran A Death in the Family back in 1988, it was a four-issue comic book series in which readers were given the option of voting on whether Robin would survive an attack by the Joker or whether he should die. Two 900 number lines were set up that fans could call into with one for votes in favor and another for votes against. The final vote was close but it was decided that Robin should die. With the original story being one whose outcome was determined by readers, Death in the Family would appear to be a property ripe for adapting to an interactive format today.
Having stated that, the reality is it’s almost misleading to give this movie the same title as that four-issue comic series. Little of the original story, written by Jim Starlin, is preserved and the decision whether to kill or save Robin is one viewers make shortly after the movie has begun. Most of this story is about the aftermath of Robin’s death, or survival as the case may be, as opposed to the comic that has more focus on what happens in the lead up to, and immediate wake of, the Jason Todd version of Robin dying.
Again, this is an understandable decision on the part of the filmmakers. Over time, in the comic books, the Jason Todd character returned, resurrected by Talia al Ghul in the Lazarus Pit. Whereas A Death in the Family the comic was about Robin dying and left the narrative for Batman open after that, the comics have had continuing stories where Jason Todd returns as a character known as the Red Hood. To end the movie where the original comic ends would be to tell an incomplete tale from the point of view of adapting Batman lore. It may, however, make for a somewhat frustrating viewing experience for anyone hoping to see the Death in the Family comic series adapted faithfully to the screen.
Overall, Death in the Family is an entertaining novelty. Unlike Netflix’s “Bandersnatch”, that annoyingly makes you go back and rewatch whole scenes before you can make a different choice in the narrative, the Death in the Family Blu-ray provides menu items that make it mercifully easy for viewers to work their way backwards and see how the story changes if they make different choices. There are a few instances where it is off putting how little difference the choices make, but at other times the choices made lead to significantly different stories being told. It’s interesting seeing how the different ways things play out can lead to Jason Todd emerging as more of a heroic or more of a villainous figure. The decisions made don’t always lead to the outcomes one would expect, and the storylines where Jason returns on a murderous rampage certainly do their share to earn this disc its R-rating. This is a fun interactive story, though it must be said it isn’t anything more than that. The multiple choice approach is novel but is not a substitute for a well scripted and well told feature film. Whereas other movies in the DC animated canon call for repeat viewing, this is more one night’s amusement that viewers will enjoy and will be unlikely to want to go back and revisit afterward.
The disc comes with four animated shorts. Sgt. Rock is shown leading a band of vampires and werewolves against Nazis during World War II. Adam Strange is transported to an alien planet and tries to find his way home. The Phantom Stranger emerges to try saving a young woman from the clutches of a murderous hippie cult. And the Sandman character Death shows kindness to a drug addicted artist. I personally enjoyed Adam Strange the most of the four, while also finding the Death story worthwhile though tonally out of place with everything else on the disc.
Overall, for a one-time view, I’d give this disc 3.5 out of 5 stars
Produced, directed and written by Brandon Vietti, Batman: Death in the Family offers an inventive take on the long-demanded story. In the new animated presentation, the infamous murder of Batman protégé Jason Todd will be undone, and the destinies of Batman, Robin and The Joker will play out in shocking new ways as viewers make multiple choices to control the story. And while Batman: Under the Red Hood provides a baseline, the story also branches in new directions and features several characters previously unseen in the original film.
"Batman: Death in the Family" makes alternate timelines fun
This is a fun interactive story, though it must be said it isn’t anything more than that. The multiple choice approach is novel but is not a substitute for a well scripted and well told feature film. Whereas other movies in the DC animated canon call for repeat viewing, this is more one night’s amusement that viewers will enjoy and will be unlikely to want to go back and revisit afterward.