Batman: Under the Red Hood is the latest DC Comics animated film from Warner Premiere and WB Animation. The film is based on two well known Batman comic book stories: the groundbreaking 1980’s arc A Death in the Family and the controversial 2005 arc Under the Hood. The former was significant because it featured the murder of Jason Todd—the second Robin—at the hands of the Joker; while the latter destroyed the lasting impact of Jason’s loss by bringing him back from the dead in a rather ridiculous and convoluted manner. Batman: Under the Red Hood succeeds for the most part, bridging these two tales in a way that is both satisfying and action packed, while leaving an obscene amount of essentially useless continuity safely out of the picture.
As a preface to this review, I should state that I’m not much of a Robin fan. I have a hard time squaring the solo Batman with the Batman who has a sidekick; to me they feel like two very different characters. That’s not to say that it isn’t an interesting relationship or that great story opportunities haven’t arisen from the pairing, I just prefer my Batman lonely, dark and brooding.
Spoilers to follow
When you consider that the movie is only about 75 minutes long, it’s amazing how much they manage to pack into Under the Red Hood. Of the Dark Knight’s rogues gallery, the Joker, Black Mask and Ra’s al Ghul all figure prominently in the story—the Riddler even has a small cameo in the film. But the real focus of Under the Red Hood is the relationship between Bruce Wayne and his first two proteges: Dick Grayson and Jason Todd. Though they had both lost their parents to criminal elements, the two Robins could not have been more different. Grayson was a gifted athlete, master strategist and natural leader; while Todd was a brash, reckless and angry youth that often took things too far. In the guise of Nightwing, Grayson would go on to become a successful hero in his own right; whereas Todd, after a tumulteous stint as the Boy Wonder, would end up being brutally murdered by the Joker. The two represented Bruce Wayne’s greatest success and most crushing failure. It isn’t until a new player calling himself the Red Hood begins taking over Gotham City’s underworld that Wayne is given a chance to atone for his past.
The voice cast is for the most part very solid. Prolific voice actor John Di Maggio (Futurama, Gears of War) steps in for Mark Hamill as the Joker; His portrayal is similar to Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight than anything else, though he makes the role his own. Di Maggio’s Joker is cruel, calculating and thoroughly insane. Neil Patrick Harris fills the role of Dick Grayson/Nightwing, the original Robin. I always liked his turn as The Flash in Justice League: New Frontier, and Harris provides Grayson with that same plucky self-assurance. His character is the prodigal son who has struck out on his own; Nightwing provides a nice counterpoint to Todd’s Red Hood. Sadly, Nightwing doesn’t get much screen time and you’ll likely wish he had more. With so many great performances in the film, I wish I could speak as highly of Jensen Ackles’ (Smallville, Supernatural) performance. Ackles portrayal of Jason Todd/Red Hood is so over the top it’s almost laughable; what should be intense and dramatic scenes are instantly turned into hokey melodrama the second he opens his mouth.
But what about the Bat? While I’ll always be partial to Kevin Conroy’s portrayal, Bruce Greenwood’s performance is very good. For most of the film the Caped Crusader is gruff and menacing; very utilitarian—like his fighting style, every sentence he utters seems deliberate and calculated. If you made a list of things that really, truly traumatized Bruce Wayne, the death of Jason Todd would be second only to the slaying of his parents. Greenwood is tremendous in the scenes betwen Wayne and Todd, the rough exterior disappears and we’re left with just a father grieving the loss of his son.
Unfortunately, most of Under the Red Hood revolves around the World’s Greatest Detective trying to ascertain the identity of the Red Hood—something the viewer will likely figure out within a few seconds. The film spends most of its running time trying to unravel a mystery when there really isn’t much of one to begin with. The only real payoff is an emotional one, when Wayne finally realizes who Red Hood is. In the comics, the identity of the Red Hood was played out over months and numerous issues. Other criminals—including the Joker—had used the alias of the Red Hood in the past, so in the comics there may have been some doubt in reader’s minds. In the film, allusion is made to the Joker using this identity in the past. But considering that the Joker spends the majority of the film locked up in Arkham Asylum, little doubt is left as to who the Red Hood really is.
The animation is clean and fluid, walking a fine line between realistic and stylized. The action scenes are well framed and easy to follow—in animated films quick movements often have a tendency to blur—thankfully, things remain clear as a bell for entirety of the action packed adventure. As great as the visuals are, there was one strange aesthetic choice that irked me slightly: the use of 3D rendered vehicles in place of traditionally animated ones really took me out of the moment. The 3D Batplane works well, but everything else just looked really out of place. In addition to the stunning visuals the sound in the film is top notch, every gadget in Batman’s utility belt has a crisp, unique and interesting sound to it. Christopher Drake’s intense score is very memorable, which is unusual for these straight to video releases. The music feels heavily inspired by Hans Zimmer’s Batman film orchestration tinged with a bit of electronica.
For long time fans of the Batman comics, Under the Red Hood is likely worth checking out: The film makes up for the mistakes that divided readers of Under the Hood without ruining the impact that Death in the Family had. However, to people unfamiliar with the Batman universe the film may seem a little overwhelming at first: Under the Red Hood references some twenty years of continuity, numerous characters and many smaller details known only to comic readers. In many ways the film feels like a hybrid of Batman: The Animated Series and The Dark Knight, if you liked either of those you may enjoy this film. It’s an interesting character study of both Gotham City and her tortured protector. One that demonstrates once again that Batman must always deal with the consequences of his actions—both good and bad.