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STUDIO: Warner Home Video
RUNNING TIME: 75 minutes
* First Look: Exclusive sneak peek at Superman/Batman Apocalypse
Batman’s past comes back to haunt him… so he punches it in the face.
Bruce Greenwood, John DiMaggio, Wade Williams, Jensen Ackles, Neil Patrick Harris
Director: Brandon Vietti
Writer: Judd Winick
An adaptation of Judd “The Real World: San Francisco” Winick’s “Under the Hood” story arc from the Batman comics, which serves as sequel to the “A Death in the Family” storyline, which itself saw the much hated second Robin, Jason Todd, murdered by the Joker. This DTV film follows Batman’s dealings with a new masked player in town who seems part villain and part hero. The film is top-notch but may not appeal to the casual Batman viewer.
When it comes to superhero adaptations into the moving picture mediums I don’t think there is a character better suited to the transition than Batman. The most nuanced of protagonists, he also has arguably the best rogues gallery to draw from, and easiest “powers” to execute. And between the old B&W serials, the Adam West show, the 60’s cartoon, the 90’s cartoon, the 00’s cartoon, Batman Beyond, the Burton films, and the Nolan films, there are no doubt a lot of different kinds of Batman fans out there too. While the present popular consensus would surely vote The Dark Knight the best Batman film by a landslide, I’m one of those people who will tell you that the best Batman movie is actually the animated Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993). (Though here is not the place to argue why; that’s what message boards are for.)
All superheroes probably work best in animation (though not always most excitingly), but few with as enduring success as Batman has. While The Batman vs Dracula was surprisingly much better than I would’ve expected (thanks Netflix Instant Watch!), it is the Bruce Timm produced films that most interest me. Most recently we got the Animatrix-esque Batman: Gotham Knight, which I found disappointing. Now there is Batman: Under the Red Hood. It is no Mask of the Phantasm, but it is enjoyable and a worthy contender.
The film opens overseas with Jason Todd’s grisly murder from “A Death in the Family,” here ret-conned to involve Ra’s al Ghul (though to what end you don’t yet know). The Joker (John DiMaggio) beats Todd with a crowbar, showing sadistic patience in his violence. Todd is spitting up blood. Then Joker leaves the teen alone with a bomb. Todd is so ravaged he can barely walk, smearing blood along the floor as he hobbles to escape. Batman is speeding to his rescue. But Todd doesn’t escape, too weak to get through the door. Ker-splode! This isn’t your father’s animated Batman. We’re in PG-13 country. For parents out there this sequence should be an indicator of whether or not you’ll let your kids see this film. But don’t be lame, let them see it. There is nothing more gruesome here than in the Nolan films.
We jump five years later to Gotham, where Batman (Bruce Greenwood) is still haunted by his failure to save Todd; he still has the Robin costume set up in a display in the Batcave. Gotham’s crime world is lorded over by the Black Mask (Wade Williams), until a new player arrives in town. Gathering all the local crime bosses in a scene reminiscent from Dark Knight (though Winick’s comics predate that film), new player, Red Hood (Jensen Ackles) informs the thugs that he’s the new boss in town – now they sell drugs for him, but not to kids. Red Hood has principles.
I won’t go into the story any further than that. Fans of the comics will already know the details, and those who don’t won’t want to know much more going in other than that the Joker plays a major role in the film, and we’re also treated to a bit of Ra’s, Riddler and the ridiculous super android, Amazo.
I’m hard pressed to think of many other recent examples of a single artist who has had such an enduring and widespread impact on animation as Bruce Timm, who co-created Batman: The Animated Series (1992) and established the show’s signature visual style. This style has either been directly repeated or heavily informed every DC animated superhero series/film since (in no small part I’m sure because of Timm’s continued involvement as a producer). Under the Red Hood continues in this style, but Timm and crew are clearly trying to step away from The Animated Series, which the previous Batman animated films had been direct continuations of. Here Batman and the Joker look very different. I never read the Winick comics, but presumably some of the style changes were lifts from the “Under the Hood” artwork. The look is a little less cartoony; Batman now has a human-like chin instead of a flat square wider than the rest of his head. His coloring is also a little different.
Voice acting in an animated film is extremely important (more important than I think many people realize), and that means the voice casting is even more important. Voice casting is a great tip of the iceberg indicator; poor decisions made here are always indicative of deeper problems. Since Under the Red Hood does not take place in the Animated Series world, they’ve chosen to step away from the now classic voices (good by Kevin Conroy, so long Mark Hamill). A potentially risky move with the fanboys, but it makes sense to me.
Bruce Greenwood seems like a solid choice. I’ve long thought he had a great voice and he’s one of those guys that always delivers. The funny thing is his Batman often sounds so similar to Conroy’s Batman that I kept forgetting it wasn’t Conroy at times. So while that doesn’t really say much for replacing Conroy, it also says nothing against Greenwood. That said, I think there is room for some improvement.
Neil Patrick Harris is spot on for Nightwing, sounding every bit how a grow’d up wise-crackin’ Dick Grayson should. Jensen Ackles was the performance I was most worried about. I love Supernatural, but his inclusion felt more like fanbase pandering than anything else. He does ably enough though. I think the character could’ve used more but he took nothing away from it; I call it a draw. TV character actor Wade Williams really shines with a scenery chewing turns as Black Mask (this guy clearly does a lot of voice work), and Jason Isaacs is merely acceptable as Ra’s.
The real wild card here was Futurama’s John DiMaggio as The Joker. Very interesting casting choice. The worry with DiMaggio is of course… will the Joker sound like Bender for the whole fucking movie? Yes, there are a couple moments when the voice bends (wacka wacka) a little close, but DiMaggio has a versatile range and creates a separate vocal sound for his mad clown. Hamill is a tough act to follow, but Kevin Michael Richardson already took that bullet with The Batman series; DiMaggio’s Joker is somewhere between those two in tone. Hamill’s Joker was the image from the older comics come to life, smooth and silly to the point of creepiness. Under the Red Hood’s Joker is craggier, lines in his face, a bit more human in his presence, and DiMaggio’s voice fits that, full of rasps. At the end of the day a Joker performance comes down to the laugh. Bender has always had his own signature sinister chuckle, and I’m assuming it was on these grounds that DiMaggio snagged the role. Not as dementedly melodic as Hamill’s, DiMaggio gives his Joker a throaty cackle. It works. I’d definitely like to see him reprise the role and possibly perfect his approach.
Like I said, tip of the iceberg. The casting is interesting with a few great choices, some safe ones and a few bits of mediocrity. Same as the rest of the film.
Winick’s script is good (again, haven’t read the comics so I can’t comment on how closely is does/doesn’t hew to the source material). It is well structured, dramatically, though at 75 minutes it is also kind of over just when it is kicking into the high gears. Winick’s talents seem to lie in his dialogue, namely his banter and one-liners. The best-written portions of the film are the buddy-cop sections where Batman and Nightwing are together. A done-before gag, I nonetheless laughed out loud when Nightwing turns to find Batman no longer standing next to him and already inside an idling Batmobile, and Nightwing says “Could you just once say ‘Let’s get in the car’?” I love me a disappearing Batman joke.
The animation and Brandon Vietti’s direction of said animation is gorgeous. With the tools and technology being used in today, Red Hood makes Mask of the Phantasm look like 120 lbs of turds. The colors and blacks are crisp here and the melding of CG and hand drawn is seamless. Though this is just tech stuff. The soul of animation is the quality of the character animation (something Dreamworks has not understood until very recently). Red Hood’s character and dynamic action animation is topnotch and very cinematic. Vietti and Timm’s crew do some cool shit. There are some great chases and the framing and direction of a Joker bridge-top hostage showdown is right up there with the live-action films.
I’m a sucker for animated Batman and I’ll tell you why. Yeah, only in animation can you really get the cape to work, yeah only here can his acrobatics and city-swooping be believably pulled off, but for me it is all about the… eye squinting. No Batman animated program or film is complete without at least one (if not more) close up of Batman’s eyes – always white voids in animation – narrowing for effect. It can be used as a dramatic scene ender (Batman knows something is up!), or to show Batman is about to take the kids-gloves off in a fight, or even to comic effect. Eye squints = me happy.
There is a great moment early in Under the Red Hood where Batman has lost his temper and has a restrained Joker by the neck and the Joker says “You gonna do it this time?” This sets the stage for the rest of the film, for Red Hood is a filmic rumination on the age-old question of “Why doesn’t Batman just fucking kill the Joker?” The Red Hood thinks the Joker should die. Batman doesn’t. Eventually Batman is put into a seemingly lose-lose situation to test his conviction on the matter. For an animated movie essentially aimed at younger boys, the film manages to go into some interesting philosophical territory on the subject of how most effectively to fight crime.
Under the Red Hood and Mask to the Phantasm make interesting companion pieces, as the thematic crux of both films is vengeance. Where Red Hood ultimately falls short of Phantasm is Bruce Wayne. Bruce Wayne isn’t in Red Hood. We see Batman out of costume, but only in the Batcave. This is a very narrow story in scope, which holds the film back from being a well-rounded Batman tale. It is how Wayne balances his life as a billionaire playboy and a masked vigilante that really informs on the character and makes him accessible to non-comic fans.
I don’t think every Batman story needs this to warrant existing. On the contrary, I love that they make these DTV animated films for the very reason that it allows them to tell varied stories, like this one. But where Mask of the Phantasm was a fully formed, self-contained story, one that could be someone’s gateway into the Batman character, Under the Red Hood is a film for fans only (Wrath of Khan vs Undiscovered Country, to keep this in nerd terms). It feels like an installment. If you don’t already know who the characters are, you’ll probably want Wikipedia handy while you’re watching the film.
Okay, I got a great idea for a villain design. Normal body, but the guy has a red skull for a face.
What? Marvel’s already got that? Okay, make his skull black.
All-in-all Under the Red Hood isn’t a great film, but it is more than just good. Fans of Batman, especially animated Batman, will want to check it out. Casual viewers may not find enough depth here to enjoy themselves.
The single disc DVD is something of a joke. Bleh packaging and the only special feature is a First Look at Superman/Batman Apocalypse, which is actually quite interesting but, you know, not about the damn film you just watched.
Since I know a lot of people skip down to see the “score,” I don’t want to throw off the grazers, so I’ll give the film a…
…but recommend you buy the feature loaded blu-ray, for only a few dollars more. This DVD is worthy only of a rental.
EDIT: Check out what Commenter #1 has to say about the Blu-Ray. I never did any research into it, but you may want to if you’re thinking of buying it.
“Why?! Why didn’t I buy the Blu-Ray?!”