In 1988, DC Comics’ A Death in the Family allowed people to decide the fate of the second Robin, Jason Todd, with a telephone poll. It was a gimmick that became wildly successful, and the result drastically changed Batman as a character.
This is to say that, when DC and Warner Bros. decided to jump on the recent interactive storytelling bandwagon by making a Death in the Family interactive movie, it made total sense. Why not update the story and gimmick to modern times, all while providing a sort of follow-up or alternate version of the popular Under the Red Hood film from 2010? If only that was what we got. Sadly, the final product is just a half-baked experience you can’t even fully experience unless you purchase the right version of the film.
The first thing you should know is that Death in the Family is little more than a re-telling of Under the Red Hood. We start with an added prologue and credits sequence that summarize the events of the A Death in the Family comic, and then it’s mostly reused footage from the 2010 Under the Red Hood, where Joker kills Jason, who is resurrected with the Lazarus Pit and vows to clean up Gotham by killing criminals, and then finally get revenge on Joker himself. Or is that what really happened? See, when Batman realizes that Joker’s captured Jason and is about to kill him, the film stops and you’re asked to decide whether Jason Todd lives, or if he’s doomed to die over again.
It is here that your experience with Death in the Family is vastly dependent on how you acquire the film. If you buy the Blu-Ray or DVD, you get the usual interactive film treatment, with the viewer getting to choose certain things at key moments, and about 7 different paths to choose from. The actual interactive aspect is one of the better ones in recent times, with seamless navigation and cleverly designed choices that are more than a simple pause button while the movie waits for you to pick a lane.
The alternate paths range wildly, ranging between 10 and 30 minutes. In terms of quality, many are inconsequential (there is a path that is literally just a shorter version of Under the Red Hood, but with added voice over narration). Worse yet, there are many moments in the new segments that are nothing but still images. But when it comes to the small amount of added footage, there are a couple of alternate endings that are powerful additions to the Jason Todd story, particularly the one involving a bleak and shocking twist on the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh. Seeing Jason actually survive the explosion in Bosnia, only to still succumb to a life of violence is heartbreaking and poignant.
The film is interested in showing that, no matter what you do, Joker’s brutal attack took too big a physical and emotional toll on Jason. There are plenty of references and easter eggs for eagle-eyed fans, including some scenarios and characters we’ve never seen adapted before that may make fans of Grant Morrison’s Batman run happy. And despite the 10 years difference between the old and new footage, there are some visually stunning action scenes in the alternate scenes. Though this re-cut version cuts many of the side characters from the original Under the Red Hood, including Neil Patrick Harris as Dick Grayson and Jason Isaacs as Ra’s al Ghul — and Vincent Martella replaces Jensen Ackles as Jason Todd — the voice acting is still solid.
Watching the film offer a touching homage to Bat Kid is great, even if some of the other choices aren’t very substantial — but you won’t see any of that if you buy or rent the film digitally, or watch it through a streaming service like DC Unlimited. The digital version of Death in the Family offers no interactivity whatsoever.
The film is branded “DC Showcase,” because it is technically a short film that gets expanded by the different choices, but the digital release removes all that. What you get is only the re-telling of Under the Red Hood, which is an hour shorter than the 2010 version, as well as three other unrelated short films. To see the actual new content, you need to access the bonus features, which is not included with the purchase on all digital retailers. So even if you buy this film, there’s a big chance you’re simply paying for a heavily reduced version of Under the Red Hood. Even if you do find a retailer that includes the bonus footage with the alternate storylines, there are still about five minutes of content exclusive to the Blu-Ray.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with making Death in a Family a gimmick film, especially when it began as a gimmick story — and the film does a good enough job of providing alternate versions of the Under the Red Hood storyline that expand the Batman mythos and enrich Jason Todd’s character.
The problem is the half-baked execution, where an interactive story amounts to little more than a half-hour short film comprised of mostly recycled footage. Footage that many people won’t even be able to access, even after buying it. Ultimately, and ironically, Death in the Family film makes an argument against resurrecting dead DC characters and stories, not for it.