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Batman: Death in the Family Reveals the Challenges of Choice

Batman: Death in the Family Reveals the Challenges of Choice

By Tim Beedle Friday, October 16th, 2020

We’ve all made choices that we’ve come to regret. Decisions that either didn’t work out the way we’d hoped or expected, or that were made in such haste that we didn’t fully understand what was at stake. Sometimes the results of these choices are an inconvenience, other times they’re profound, and on occasion they may be life shattering. In all cases, however, we think the same thing—if I could do it again, I’d make a different choice. As they say, hindsight is 20/20.

But is it really?

Batman: Death in the Family is DC’s latest animated feature and it boasts a unique twist. The Blu-ray release is interactive, allowing you to decide how certain events are going to turn out. It’s a 21st Century update to the original “A Death in the Family” comic storyline, in which DC fans were given the choice to call two phone numbers to determine whether Robin lived or died at the hands of the Joker. Infamously, they chose death, forever altering the direction of Batman comics and the DC Universe and creating a pop culture moment that’s still discussed and debated to this day.

That decision, along with several others, is once again yours to make in the animated adaptation, giving you the chance to reverse that decision and let Robin survive the Joker’s attack. Doing that creates a sort of alternate continuity of what might have happened if fans had made that choice back in 1988.

As someone who came to comics after the 1980s, I’ve often wondered what I would have chosen if I had voted on Jason Todd’s fate. I probably would have wanted him to survive—I’ve never been a big fan of death as a gimmick in comics. The fact that Jason’s demise didn’t stick and resulted in a new Robin who has contributed to a current overabundance of Boy Wonders suggests to me that everything would have been a whole lot cleaner if we’d just stuck with Jason in the first place.

The Death in the Family interactive movie makes a pretty good case that you should be careful what you wish for. Much like we’ve been told by every time-travel movie or TV show we’ve seen over the past 35 years, you never know what might result from going back and changing something in the past, even something innocuous. And the death of Robin definitely isn’t innocuous. It had far-reaching effects that extended beyond comics into other media. Batman and the Bat-Family were never the same after Jason met his end.

Yet, Batman: Death in the Family reminds us that even if Jason had survived it, the Joker’s brutal attack on him was still a shocking, traumatic event. It was bound to have some profound impact on Jason’s life, even if it didn’t cut that life short. Discovering those possible outcomes in Batman: Death in the Family is undeniably shocking—and also a lot of fun.

One thing that’s worth knowing is that while Batman: Death in the Family stands alone, it’s set firmly in the continuity of the 2010 DC animated movie Batman: Under the Red Hood. If you’ve seen and enjoyed that movie, you’re probably going to love this one. If you haven’t seen it, you might want to check it out first. Batman: Under the Red Hood gives us our baseline—it’s what’s “supposed” to happen with Jason Todd. Part of the enjoyment of Death in the Family is seeing how the interactivity subverts a lot of those events, something that lands better if you’re already familiar with them.

Batman: Death in the Family is also arriving at a fortunate time. With the world entering its eighth month of a global pandemic, audiences are hungry for something fresh and different to be entertained by at home, and Death in the Family is certainly that. When watched start to finish, the movie isn’t long—the lengthiest variations run about thirty minutes. However, the point is to explore and make different choices, seeing what might result.

I can tell you that my first result was…not good. While entertaining in a sinister way, it was so opposite of what I was hoping would happen if Jason survived that in my second attempt, I chose to let him die just to see some things play out in a way that I was familiar with. My third attempt is where things got interesting. It opened up further choices, none of which were easy to make, and landed me my favorite of the movie’s seven different endings. (I’m not going to spoil it, except to say that it plays like a Grant Morrison-inspired take on Citizen Kane’s “rosebud.”) Credit to writer, director and producer Brandon Vietti for making sure the endings each feel authentic and believable, while remaining dramatically different from each other.

Does giving audiences the ability to choose which way the story plays out make for a better movie? It’s certainly different, but I’m not sure I’d say better. There’s still a lot to be said about a singular story told well. However, “A Death in the Family” is the perfect source material for an interactive movie like this. For all of the comic’s notoriety, the story’s not really anything special. It’s infamous entirely because of the gimmick at its center. Batman: A Death in the Family largely gets rid of the story and fittingly doubles down on that gimmick, putting poor Jason’s fate in the hands of his fans again…and again and again.

I’d like to think they’ll treat him a bit better this time. Only, after experiencing Batman: Death in the Family myself, I’m no longer sure that treating Jason better is better for Gotham and the Bat-Family as a whole. Batman: Death in the Family reminds us that it’s impossible to predict what might happen if you could go back and make a past decision differently—there’s just no way to foresee all the possible outcomes. And if your eyes are closed to something like that, 20/20 hindsight isn’t going to do you much good.

Batman: Death in the Family is now available on Blu-ray and DIgital (note that the movie's interactive experience is only available on Blu-ray).

Tim Beedle covers movies, TV and comics for, writes our monthly Superman column, "Super Here For...", and is a regular contributor to the Couch Club, our weekly television column.