With the recent Justice League Dark: Apokolips War rounding off the main continuity of the DC Animated Movie Universe, it’s intriguing to see DC turn their attention to mercenary Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke, in a refreshing break from a Batman or Superman lead title. Originally a multi-episode web series at CW seed, Deathstroke: Knights and Dragons is a full length feature which brings to life the origins of Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s fan favourite anti-hero. The character has had his fair share of the spotlight on the small screen, most notably with Manu Bennett’s portrayal in the CW’s Arrow and more recently Esai Morales’ take in DC Universe’s Titans, so how does the animated version stack up in comparison?
Directed by Sung Jin Ahn, Deathstroke: Knights and Dragons centres on Slade Wilson, a mercenary for hire and dedicated family man who’s vastly different worlds collide with catastrophic results. Following years of accepting contracts which only follow his code, villain Jackal attempts to lure him into working for terrorist organisation H.I.V.E, using his son as leverage. Leaving behind a number of bodies in his wake, Slade’s rescue attempt causes a number of ramifications for his family, which ripples will be felt years later as a new H.I.V.E. Queen resurfaces. The secrets of Slade’s past will come back to bite him as he once again fights to protect his family.
For fans of the larger DC universe, Deathstroke: Knights & Dragons is a purely standalone instalment focusing on Slade Wilson’s origins, delving into his dual identity, family ties and motivations. Often portrayed as the archenemy of the Teen Titans and Batman, here Slade is more of a morally grey, complex character who will do anything to protect his wife and son. It’s great to see DC shining a light on certain lesser explored characters, particularly following the success of Justice League Dark, and this outing is purely dedicated to the character’s lore. Themes of family, trauma and legacy are explored, as the writers frame Slade as a conflicted man wanting to atone for his sins, as the past comes back to haunt him.
A lot of the runtime is dedicated to cramming in his family’s backstory in order to setup for the main showdown, but this is at the detriment of truly establishing Slade’s inner conflict and turmoil. We’re told he works to a certain code of principles, but we only really see him saving a group of innocents once amongst the many brutal kills. Unlike the characters gradual but tragic descent in Arrow, the writers simply don’t devote enough time to character development, missing the opportunity to truly explore the mercenary’s headspace. There are however a couple of surprising twists and turns along the way that will keep even die hard fans guessing, with certain character’s backstories updated from their comic book counterparts.
Michael Chiklis brings a grizzled portrayed of Deathstroke to the screen, adding a certain new dynamic to the character. It’s intriguing to see the assassin referred to as “the mercenary with a conscious”, as the writers portray the titular character as the protagonist of the tale. Sasha Alexander is the real standout however, stealing scenes alongside her onscreen husband with the two sharing a fantastic dynamic. It was great to see such a strong, kickass female living up to her military combat past, holding her own against the assassin. Another highlight was Arrow and Krypton’s Colin Salmon’s brief turn as former MI:6 operative William Wintergreen. The film also features a great collection of DC antagonists including H.I.V.E, Jackal, Bronze Tiger, Jericho, and Lady Shiva.
Most impressive however is the no holds barred, action packed fight sequences, with blood splatter a-plenty. The brutal violence is deserved of the 15 rating in the UK and R in the US, as the film doesn’t shy away from Deathstroke slicing people in half – at one point it even rains blood! There’s plenty of fluidity in the many fight scenes, with the mercenary’s many distinct styles of swordplay creatively brought to life. The new variation of animation style was also particularly impressive, with the use of Ben-Day dots in the different background elements giving the film a distinct comic book feel, setting it apart from its predecessors.
Featuring explosive action sequences and brutal, no holds barred violence, Knights and Dragons is an impressively animated instalment, culminating in an exciting climax. But unlike the empathetic drive of Jon Bernthal’s recent take on The Punisher, the film fails to really bring new ground to the character, feeling like a bit of a missed opportunity.