Batman: Under the Red Hood – Movie Review
The latest offering from the DC Animated Universe is an adaptation of a Batman story that dealt with the fallout of one of the darkest moments in The Dark Knight’s history. Spoilers will follow for those who aren’t too familiar with continuity from the last five or so years…
High in his mountaintop fortress, international terrorist and Immortal Ra’s Al-Ghul is horrified to hear that the Joker has taken Batman’s partner, the second Robin, hostage.
His fears are justified; the Joker is using a crowbar to beat the bound Robin into a bloody stain on the floor of a warehouse in Sarajevo. Batman is on his way to rescue his partner, but before he can arrive the Joker leaves and blows the warehouse up leaving the Dark Knight the grim task of pulling the dead and broken body of his partner from the wreckage.
Five years later in Gotham City, a new criminal calling himself the Red Hood is muscling in on the drug trade controlled by the Black Mask. Batman and the first Robin, now called Nightwing; investigate this new Red Hood (a common alias in Gotham’s criminal fraternity). However, this new Red Hood seems to know far too much about Batman and his methods. The Dark Knight soon becomes obsessed with unmasking the Red Hood, and comes to realise that he may be able to rectify one of the greatest mistakes of his career…
Since Warner Bros. Animation started creating original animated films based on the DC Universe but not directly linked to the popular DC Animated continuity, they’ve fallen into three distinct types; new stories, origin stories, or adaptations of popular/big events from the comics. Under the Red Hood falls into the latter category, but it’s an odd choice.
This film is based on 1987’s A Death in the Family and 2005’s Under the Hood. Big events to be sure, but they’re not exactly popular for the right reasons.
Time for some comic book history:
In 1982, Dick Grayson stepped down as Batman’s partner to become Nightwing. Realising that Batman needed a sounding board, in 1983 the editors at DC created Jason Todd, a likeable young circus acrobat who was adopted by Bruce Wayne after his parents were murdered by Killer Croc.
After the major reboot to the DC Universe due to Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985, Jason Todd’s character was changed to be “darker and edgier”. He now met Batman in Crime Alley, where Batman caught him stealing the wheels off of the Batmobile. Seeing potential in the boy, and to steer him away from a life of crime, Batman took on the young Jason as the new Robin.
This new characterisation was also far less likeable than the original, to further remove the character from Dick Grayson, the guy all the heroes in the DC Universe trust most after Superman. Realising his was unpopular with the fans, the DC Editors wanted to get rid of him, and used the opportunity to try something new with fan interaction. They were also probably inspired by the implied death and monument to Jason in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
In 1988, A Death in the Family was published as a four issue miniseries. DC invited fans to phone a number to vote for whether Jason lived or died. It was close, but fans voted that Jason should die. Incidentally, 1988 was the year that The Killing Joke was published. Between crippling Barbara Gordon and beating Jason Todd to death, it was a dark and busy year for the Joker.
With Jason’s memorial mounted in the Batcave that should have been the end of the story of Jason Todd.
Then in 2002, the Hush storyline began. The plot concerned a villain conspiracy trying to unbalance and overwhelm Batman to bring him down. Part of this involved tricking Batman into believing that a resurrected Jason Todd was behind the conspiracy. It was a ruse, but left the hanging plot thread of why Jason Todd’s grave was empty.
The answer was given in 2005 with Under the Hood, which revealed that Jason Todd was resurrected (via wacky comic book logic), and he has acted as a somewhat sympathetic antagonist to the Dark Knight ever since.
One of the main strengths of these new DCAU films is that they can streamline plots from older comics for modern audiences, especially those that aren’t familiar with some of the craziness that comic plotlines can generate. Here A Death in the Family and Under the Hood are stripped down to the basics, yet still manage to tell a compelling story with strong doses of action and emotion, despite the short running time.
Adapted subject matter aside, the influence of Nolan’s live action Batman films is felt all throughout this production; this film is brutal. The previous standard had been set by the Director’s Cut of Return of the Joker, and it has been surpassed here. The torture scenes are wince inducing and the fight scenes are hard hitting, and some of the best I’ve seen in Western animation.
Voice Director Andrea Romano once again shakes up the casting of otherwise familiar roles with unfamiliar actors. Cries of, “Why aren’t Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill in this?” are always going to be heard, but the cast here is strong, and in some cases a wonderful surprise. The performances are made even stronger by the animation style, which comes somewhere between a more detailed Justice League Unlimited look and a toned down version of the style from Superman/Batman: Public Enemies. Suffice to say, it looks great with interesting choices regarding character design that pay off. Special mention must be made of the Joker, which I’ll discuss in detail below.
As to the voice actors, Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek) portrays an older Batman than we’re used to seeing normally, and manages to alter his voice well between the present-day and younger Batman seen in flashbacks. This allows the viewer to differentiate between the two even if they miss the visual cue of the change his costume. He also manages to convey the emotion necessary for this story; this is Batman being forced to confront tragic elements of his past and, if not make up for them, at least apologise. Greenwood pulls it off.
Jensen Ackles as Red Hood has the tough job of playing a villain, but one that the audience must find sympathetic, and he manages to make it sound easy. This was Ackles’ first voice-over work, and it doesn’t show as he holds his own with the veterans.
Neil Patrick Harris’ Nightwing could arguably be the definitive take on the character; professional yet lighthearted, not taking his job as seriously as his former mentor does. He’s not really given much to do though, aside from show the viewers that there was a first Robin prior to Jason Todd. He is also given Captain Obvious’ shield to throw one too many times, but these are nitpicks.
Jason Isaacs plays the role of Ra’s al Ghul. He manages to make The Demon’s Head wonderfully noble and believably contrite in his brief screen time as he apologises to Batman for his actions.
Vincent Martella as the teenage Robin, Alexander Martella as the young Robin, and Jim Piddock as Alfred are worth mentioning as they all do yeoman’s work with their small roles.
The first surprise is Wade Williams as the Black Mask, who as a fairly standard Gotham Mobster with a gimmick chews the scenery with relish that adds humour and threatens to upstage the main villain in every scene they share.
The biggest and most welcome surprise is John DiMaggio’s Joker. If you’d told me that Futurama’s Bender would make a fantastic Joker, I’d have laughed. Though I suspect that was the reaction some had when they heard Luke Skywalker would be playing the Joker back in the day.
It’s unfair to DiMaggio, who has great range. He’s managed to even play my favourite take ever on Aquaman in Batman: The Brave and the Bold. His Joker here is funny, unpredictable, terrifying, and understandably influenced by Heath Ledger’s iconic take on the character. The performance is enhanced by the Joker’s redesign; a craggier and bulkier version than we’re used to, and the animators keep him doing interesting things and looking absolutely insane. Imagine Bruce Campbell in Joker make-up and you have a rough idea. DiMaggio’s Joker is a definite highlight here.
Despite the vocal talent here, two of the big emotional moments rely solely on the animation. Early in the film Batman knocks over his chair in shock when he realises the Red Hood knows his identity. Later when the identity of the Red Hood is revealed, Batman is startled by a crash behind him. The camera pans across to Alfred, gaping in horror and having dropped his tray in shock. These unspoken losses of composure demonstrate the enormity of what is happening to these characters.
Christopher Drake’s music is great, possibly the most noticeable of the DCAU movies. It seems to blend the best of all the Batman scores that have come before, giving us a score that fits perfectly with the tone of the film.
Penultimately, the best thing about this film is that in the climax it poses and answers an important question that is arguably long overdue; why hasn’t Batman just killed the Joker? He is a criminal who has killed hundreds, possibly thousands, threatened millions, and personally impacted Batman’s life by crippling the first Batgirl and murdering the second Robin and Commissioner Gordon’s second wife, Sarah.
The answer goes beyond Batman’s moral code and ties in nicely with comments made in the previous, unconnected film Crisis on Two Earths. If Batman started killing his enemies he would not stop, as he would enjoy it too much.
I have no problem with Batman; a functional psychotic; having thought about murdering his enemies but deciding it best not to cross that line. Whether this is a satisfying explanation will depend on the viewer, but it answers the question without fundamentally undermining Batman as a character, which is ultimately what keeping the Joker running around risks.
Finally, without spoilers here, I loved the ending. It’s an emotional sucker punch, but damn if it isn’t perfect and heartbreaking all at once.
Batman: Under the Red Hood takes a controversial story from Batman’s long history and manages to turn it into something special and worthy. This is the new high standard of quality future DCAU installments will have to meet. It gets a Cool Plus from me, and I strongly recommend you pick this one up and watch it if you’re a fan of Batman or the DC Universe.
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Do you agree with Magnus’ review or violently disagree? Is this the best Batman Animated movie since Mask of the Phantasm or Return of the Joker? Or is it more like Mystery of the Batwoman? Feedback let us know and give Magnus some love for an epically long review!
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