(CNN)Interactivity has become a bit of an overused gimmick, including “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” to “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” on Netflix. Still, such stunts are only as good as their execution, and the Warner Bros. Animation delivers with “Batman: Death in the Family,” which, with the Robert Pattinson movie delayed, might be the only version of Batman fans see for a while.
This latest choose-your-own-adventure exercise falls into the category of DC’s edgy direct-to-Blu-ray movies (earning, and carrying, an R rating), so the target audience in grown fanboys, not kids. But unlike a lot of these exercises, the viewer’s choices take the story in wildly different directions, to the point where it feels like a distinct experience watching each version and its various forks in the road.
Adapted from a 1988 comic that engaged in its own interactive stunt — allowing readers to call a 900 number and vote on whether sidekick Robin would live or die — this version of the Dark Knight has an older Batman (voiced by Bruce Greenwood) raising that new Robin, Jason Todd (Vincent Martella), who has a particularly nasty, revenge-oriented disposition.
Robin foolishly decides to go after the Joker (John DiMaggio) alone, and promptly gets caught, beaten, and left facing what appears to be near-certain death.
Ah, but the audience has three choices: Robin dies, Batman saves Robin, or Robin cheats death. Depending on which path is followed, the story veers off on paths that yield unintended consequences, and usually leave somebody paying the price.
The luxury of animation is that it allows these films to drill deep into comic-book lore, a point reinforced by the opening credits, as the camera pans through a live-action comic shop before landing on the appropriate title. It’s a not-so-subtle message that these movies let those inner-geek flags fly.
Rarely, however, do interactive stories feel this distinctive, as opposed to funneling the audience back toward preordained outcomes, after the mild kick of dictating wrinkles in the narrative.
Unlike a lot of prior interactive endeavors, it’s actually worth watching all the “Death in the Family” permutations to see the wide variations. To flesh out the package, there are also shorts devoted to more obscure DC characters, including Sgt. Rock, Adam Strange and the Phantom Stranger. (Like CNN, DC and Warner Bros. are units of WarnerMedia.)
Batman has the benefit of being so awash in mythology as to lend itself to this format, with his multiple sidekicks and rogue’s gallery of villains. The superhero genre, moreover, regularly indulges in what-if and alternate-reality scenarios, which makes this a more natural fit than most recent forays into interactivity.
That’s not to say “Batman: Death in the Family” isn’t a gimmick too, but at least it’s a fun, inventive one — and a pretty clever way to kill time on a long, dark night.
“Batman: Death in the Family” is available on Blu-ray or for digital download beginning Oct. 13.