A Death in the Family is a 1989 DC comic book storyline that follows the death of Batman’s second Robin, Jason Todd. It ran for four issues and was later compiled into a collection. The 2011 reprints included a bonus alternate ending in which he survived. Jason Todd received an influx of criticism during his stint as Robin. He was brash, impulsive, and fans called him “whiny” and “petulant”; a refreshing but unwelcome contrast to Dick Grayson, the first Robin. In the lead up to his death, fans were given the option to vote whether he live or die. Ultimately, a majority of just 72 votes called for his execution.
Seemingly inspired by this same concept, DC released Batman: Death in the Family on October 13, 2020. The interactive film, under the guise of a prequel to director Brandon Vietti’s 2010 film Batman: Under the Red Hood, gives the audience the same power to once again choose the fate of Jason Todd. Each scenario has its own ending, with several different choices providing varying outcomes. Altogether, there are seven endings to choose from if you buy the Blu-ray/DVD copy. However, the digital version lacks the interactive feature. Instead, it provides four endings, one of which is basically a recap of the events of Under the Red Hood. While that in itself is already an alarming problem, this particular film has a lot more issues beyond just that.
The film is heavily riddled with exposition through Jason’s narration. The visual presentation of the animation moves at an extremely fast pace. This presents an almost breathless speed at which the events pass by. In one instance, the plot is just coming together, and then the next the voting period is back again. It leaves the viewers no room to fully comprehend the consequences of the choices they’ve made. There are no characters and world-building; no matter which path is chosen, the events that follow assume that viewers will have watched Under the Red Hood. Jason’s character development is heavily stunted by that same overwhelming narration and lack of relationship dynamics.
Some of the story beats chosen for the paths are not in-character and offer no compelling storytelling. While some of them make sense from a narrative point of view, there’s no further indication of nuance to Jason’s actions and motivations so they just fall flat. This lack of build-up heavily disarms even the most exciting of scenes within the film. They then become a chore to get through. The ending scenarios also come across as lazy and lacklustre. While it is understandable that the length of the main story will suffer because of the different scenarios, that does not excuse the absence of depth in the main story.
Both physical and digital copies of the film include a bundle of four other short films which have nothing to do with Death in the Family at all. This makes it feel like there was very little effort in the making of Death in the Family. It’s a shame because ultimately, this is what people would be paying for, not the four short stories. And this becomes even more so apparent when taking into account some story paths as rehashes of previous DC animated material, such as plot traces from Batman: Bad Blood. Moreover, the constant replay of scenarios to achieve all the endings makes each and every next replay a dull experience.
While I enjoyed Vincent Martella’s performance as Jason Todd better than Jensen Ackles, watching this mess of a film just reaffirms how far-superior Under the Red Hood is. The action sequences are exciting and extremely fun; though heavily reminiscent of Under the Red Hood’s clean-cut style of animating fights, specifically the diner scene in one of the new scenarios. Unfortunately, some of these action sequences are scarce and have very little build-up to them, which undermines its otherwise faultless execution.
There are a lot of things lacking in this film. There’s no alternative storyline to Jason dying aside from what occurs in Under the Red Hood. Characters like Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon are just accessories and offer nothing of use to progressing the plot. The ending scenarios are not at all worth it; some of them are even too short and further disservices the film. In some ways, the digital version, even with its limitations, is more cohesive in its storytelling. The digital showcases four endings with more length and nuance to them. Meanwhile, the exclusive endings in the hard copy version are just a couple of minutes in length and aren’t impactful in the slightest. But as a film, no matter which path one chooses, Death in the Family leads back to that same tang of disappointment.
Words by Mae Trumata