There’s something about the DC Comics characters that makes them open to multiple interpretations. Every writer, artist, filmmaker, or animator that takes one of them on usually puts his or her own creative stamp on the character, making multiple artistic versions of each one. That’s why these DC direct-to-DVD animated movies have been so interesting. Each one is more or less a stand-alone tale, set in its own continuity, without worrying about tying into anyone else’s story. This has given writers and animators opportunities to adapt stories from the comics in their own ways, with fresh new takes on the old classics.
This time around, writer Judd Winick adapted his own graphic novel Batman: Under the Hood into a movie, directed by Brandon Vietti (Legion of Super Heroes). It’s about how everyone’s past comes back to haunt them, even staunch do-gooders like Batman.
Years earlier, the Joker (John DiMaggio, Futurama) brutally murdered Batman’s sidekick Robin. Note that this was the second Robin, Jason Todd. The first Robin, Dick Grayson (Neil Patrick Harris, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog) is all grown up now, and is the crimefighter Nightwing. As Nightwing reunited with Batman (Bruce Greenwood, Star Trek (2009)), Gotham City is threatened by a new criminal mastermind, the Red Hood (Jensen Ackles, Supernatural).
The Red Hood was once a disguise adopted by the Joker before the accident that gave him his clownish skin coloring, so Batman and Nightwing interrogate the Joker inside Arkham Asylum, awakening memories of Jason Todd’s death in Batman. As Batman confronts this new Red Hood, rival crimelord Black Mask (Wade Williams, Prison Break) springs the Joker from the asylum and hires him to kill the Red Hood. The Joker, of course, has his own plans in mind. This sets the stage for Batman, Red Hood, and the Joker to battle it out across the back alleys and rooftops of Gotham.
Batman might be the marquee star, but plotwise, this one’s all about his famous (infamous?) sidekick. So let’s talk about Robin. Not surprisingly, Robin was created for editorial/marketing reasons, in order to get Batman comics to appeal to younger readers. The best way to do this, publishers assumed, was to add a young character to join Bats on his adventures, to give kid readers someone to relate to. Storywise, the reasons Batman has Robin running around is usually one of two reasons, either because Batman saw something of himself in Robin after Robin’s parents were killed or because Batman hopes that Robin would take his place as the new Batman someday. Fan opinions of Robin are varied, to say the least. Some believe that Batman is the ultimate badass, and the last thing he needs is some dorky kid in a yellow cape following him around. Others see value in the character, as a young martial arts master with genius-level computer and strategic skills.
From there, Robin’s history gets even more sordid. The first Robin was Dick Grayson, who grew up and became crimefighter Nightwing. The second Robin was streetwise tough kid Jason Todd, who was murdered. The Robins that came afterward—Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown, and Damian Wayne—don’t appear in this movie, so let’s not bother with them. The big controversy is Jason Todd, who was killed off in the comics allegedly because the fans hated him. After he was gone, though, his death always weighed heavily on Batman’s mind, and Jason’s uniform display became a permanent part of the Batcave, seen in the background throughout the years, becoming an iconic image of its own. That brings us to Under the Red Hood, in which the Red Hood’s Gotham City crime wave runs parallel with Batman being haunted by Jason’s death.
Putting so much emphasis on Jason Todd, and the effect his murder has on Batman, humanizes Batman in a way we don’t usually see. There are none of the usual tricks writers use to get us inside Batman’s head—there’s no romance with a femme fatale, there are no “Gotham is my city” monologues, and there are no scenes of him freaking out at his parents’ gravesite. Instead, Batman believes it was his fault that Jason died, and his “great mistake” still haunts him after all this time. Seeing Batman make a mistake and then carry around the guilt of it makes him feel like a real person, even as he lurks around in the shadows and unleashes awesome kung fu moves on bad guys.
Emotional torment makes for a solid story, but how’s the action? It’s pretty sweet. Both Batman and the Red Hood dish out all kinds of cool moves against their enemies. I don’t know if they used motion capture or the now-antiquated rotoscoping process, but there are times during the fights where it looks like two actual people (OK, stuntpeople) duking it out. The Batmobile and the Batcycle both make appearances, and the Batwing (Batman’s stealth bomber-looking plane) gets a lot of screen time with a lot of cool moves and gadgets of its own. Bats has these little bomb things that he likes to use in a fight, either by throwing them around or sticking them onto his enemies. I thought the creators had him rely on these little bombs a little too often, but they make stuff go kaboom, so I can’t fully hate them. The Red Hood is armed with both his fighting skills and kinds of deadly guns, so expect plenty of artillery mayhem as well.
Like a lot of superhero movies, this one suffers from “too many characters” syndrome. The main conflict is among Batman, the Red Hood, and the Joker. Popular villain Ra’s Al Ghul (Jason Isaacs, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) shows up for a few scenes, but they are integral to the story. Black Mask, however, gets almost as much screen time as the Joker, if not more, and yet he’s more of a plot point and not our main antagonist. He doesn’t even confront Batman at any point. Shouldn’t there be the obligatory scene in which he gets hauled off to jail and/or Arkham? Also, why exactly is Nightwing in this movie? Because he used to be Robin, I thought they were setting up a “Robin of the past versus Robin today” dynamic, but it never happens. We get a lot of Nightwing in the first half of the movie as he does the sidekick thing with Batman, but then he disappears. We never get Nightwing’s thoughts about Jason, and he never confronts Red Hood, which is a missed opportunity for both action and drama. Maybe they’re saving that for a sequel. On the plus side, a bunch of other super-powered baddies fill in various “thug” and “henchman” roles, and these characters make for some fun “spot the face” trivia for comic fans.
There are a lot of famous names in the cast, but I have to admit the acting didn’t fully work for me. It sounded to my ears like the actors were trying too hard to emulate the voices of the Batman: The Animated Series cast from the early ’90s. This is especially true of John DiMaggio. He’s one of my favorite voice actors, but in this movie, he’s stuck impersonating Mark Hamill’s Joker voice, so he’s not able to cut loose and make the character his own. This is also true of Greenwood, Isaacs, and the others. The best performance is Jensen Ackles as the Red Hood. He gives the character equal parts youthful energy and cold menace, creating a memorable villain to go toe-to-toe with ol’ Batty.
• The geography of Gotham City got a little confused after a while. How do they go from Crime Alley straight to a massive church rooftop and from there straight to a run-down apartment building that’s conveniently also the Red Hood’s hideout? Did I miss something?
• Parents be warned, this movie really earns its PG-13 rating. Onscreen blood is present, but minimal. Several characters are seen getting shot to death, though. The bad guys talk about drugs and drug smuggling, and there are more than a few swear words.
• If your knowledge of Batman comes only from The Dark Knight, you’ll likely be confused as hell, with all these references to past Robins and past Red Hoods. A previous knowledge of the characters’ basic histories in the comics is almost a requirement.
The animation here looks great, reminiscent of the ’90s series without being quite as stylized and angular. The DVD shows it all off with some excellent visual clarity. Similarly, the 5.1 sound brings to life the many explosions and gunbursts, so go ahead and crank up the volume. On this single-disc edition, the only bonus feature you’ll get is a 12-minute sneak preview of Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, an adaptation of the graphic novel that reintroduced the Kara Jor-el Supergirl to the DC universe. Note that there’s also a separately-sold two-disc version out there with a lot more bonus features than you’ll find on this one.
Batman: Under the Red Hood isn’t the greatest Batman adaptation (Bataptation?) ever made, but it delivers what it promises, a solid Batman adventure (Batventure?). Check it out if you’re interested (Bat-terested? OK, I’ll stop now.)