My childhood fandom of the Ninja Turtles has not stayed with me into adulthood, except for this excellent live action film. When people talk about comic book adaptations I don’t think many trigger this film in their heads due to the property’s larger visibility as a cartoon. The cartoon was very goofy fun while the comic was very violent and dark. This movie met them somewhere in the middle giving us something that was gritty and violent with strong substance, but also maintaining a great sense of fun. Even more impressive is how these filmmakers brought the Turtles into live action in convincing fashion.
A mysterious, severe crime wave is gripping New York as thieves slip in and out even in broad daylight sight unseen. Television journalistic April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) believes it to be the work of a Japanese outfit called the Foot Clan, and she is soon targeted by them in order to silence her. However, from the sewers of the city come four mutated crime-fighting and fun-loving turtles – Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael – and their rat sensei Splinter who fight at her side. Joining them in their battle is Casey Jones (Elias Koteas), a vigilante that utilizes sports gear as weapons. At the head of the Foot Clan is the merciless Shredder who has revealing links to the origins of the Turtles and Splinter.
Now, I don’t care how evolved CGI will become, I cannot imagine anything outdoing the brilliant craftsmanship of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop team here. Henson, for those that don’t know, was the premiere innovator of puppetry and animatronics in the 1970s and 1980s. This film was indeed a pinnacle achievement for him and his company. Nothing at all is sacrificed with the use of these elaborate suits of foam rubber and animatronic mechanisms. They have a full, wide range of abilities in expression and movement creating Turtles that can perform all of the dynamic, agile action, and convey deep emotion and character. Even adjusted for inflation, no film today could achieve with CGI what this film did on $13.5 million. Each Turtle is given a distinct look, design, and feel with extraordinary detail. They have a very realistic texture that feels natural to the environment around them and of the film as a whole. Splinter is undoubtedly the most impressive accomplishment in all his articulation as there was no one in a suit portraying him. He’s purely from the result of expert animatronics operators, and he still has the value of humanity to him.
Leonardo is the strong leader of the group trusting and enveloping himself in Splinter’s spiritual teachings. He forges the soul of the team. Donatello is more laid back, less like his scientist cartoon counterpart, but still works very enjoyably in this dynamic. His voice is even provided by Corey Feldman. Michelangelo is the fun loving party dude, and a bit of the mischievous one of them all. However, my favorite is definitely Raphael with his more tough guy attitude. He’s the most strong willed, but also stubborn one of them all. He shows the most passion and frustration of the Turtles, and I really like his first encounter with Casey Jones. It’s very funny to both of their credits. It would be easy to drive this premise into silly territory, but this film takes these characters seriously. The filmmakers do make them fun, but they are dimensional characters with interesting family dynamics and deep, real emotions that are beautifully conveyed. It’s a masterful mixture of the live action performances, and incredible dubbing work by highly talented voice actors. It all feels totally seamless and cohesive for an ultimate Turtle Power experience!
Judith Hoag does a stellar job as April O’Neil. She’s a spirited, serious journalistic that is determined to crack open this crime spree, and even suspects the police of not doing their all to combat it. Hoag injects a lot of spunky personality into the character, and as the film progresses, we see her heart and humor in touching fashion. Hoag makes April a very energetic and fun character. It’s a terrible shame that she declined to reprise her role in the sequels due to substantial cuts to some of her scenes here. She does a wonderful job in this role through and through. I also believe Hoag has some endearing natural beauty that entirely fits the tone of the film, and more important than looks is that she’s a pitch perfect casting choice. She has wonderful chemistry with everyone she shares the screen with, and carries her own in every single scene.
The one person that I’ve always dearly loved in this movie is Elias Koteas as the hockey mask wearing Casey Jones. For one, Koteas is one of the best, most consistently awesome actors I’ve seen. As Jones, he’s greatly entertaining with a real hard edged but not-too-bright attitude. Koteas is more of a street fighter, but shows off some good moves against the Foot Clan. Casey is charming in a dunderheaded kind of way. He’s surely street smart, but not all that smooth socially. He means real well with his heart in the right place, but often his mouth and machismo screws him over. Koteas and Hoag have this great endearing friction that Donatello perfectly relates to Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd on Moonlighting, which had that classic argumentative romantic tension. By the end, however, you see Koteas has great comedic charisma, and has Casey show his heart to really win everyone over.
And of course, the portrayal of the Shredder is chilling and perfect. The filmmakers set the right tone keeping him shrouded in shadows at first, and giving him grand reveals that elevate his mystique. The role was the work of two performers. James Saito was the on-screen performer giving the character all of his theatrical and frightening presence, and showcasing some stellar martial arts abilities. However, his low, ominous voice was provided by David McCharen, and that’s a major cog in the Shredder’s overall power. The theatrical trailer actually features a different dubbed voice which isn’t as effective, and so, all the right choices were clearly made with the execution and presentation of this arch-nemesis for our heroes in a half-shell. And surely, I have to mention the really tough right hand man in Tatsu that leads the Foot into battle, and is a very solid complement to Shredder’s presence and character.
The action sequences are done remarkably well. All of the martial arts action is superb with the Turtle suits impairing none of the stunt players’ ability with the fight choreography. The violence holds nothing back, short of bloodshed, as weapons are used regularly, and the fights show plenty of inventive ideas to keep it fun and original. The Turtles’ shells are often employed in quirky, smart ways. It’s a great showcase of fun, dynamic, but also, gritty martial arts action. When the Turtles finally square off against the Shredder, it’s a great sequence which intensifies the villain’s indomitable skill and cold blooded viciousness. Yet, the climax still has some surprises and humorous beats to make it both a dramatic, perilous sequence, and something to elicit some chuckles and laughs from the audience. It’s stellar and memorable all around. It’s greatly satisfying.
It is immensely admirable how genuine this film is. Director Steve Barron pays honest respect to this material, and never treats these six foot tall ninja fighting mutant turtles are jokes. Of course it’s an absurd concept, but it’s only as convincing as how you present it. If you can make the audience connect with the characters on a genuine, emotional level, a serious tone with the film will work, and it does so amazingly here. Leo, Don, Mikey, Raph, and Splinter are given as much weight and poignancy as any other character you might find. It is their film and they carry it. And they carry it with tremendous success. These are the characters you absolutely must fall in love with, and all of the work that went into them from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to the performers to the voice talents and beyond made that possible.
And this is one seriously catchy score by John Du Prez. These themes have been engrained my mind for over twenty years. He uses a strong urban flavor with electric guitars for most things, but there’s plenty of variation. For instance, the main theme is light-hearted and melodically catchy. Du Prez also gives us beautiful compositions in the more spiritual scenes with Splinter, and the tender moments out at the farmhouse where the Turtles, Casey, and April recover from their defeats. And even more so, his score accentuates moments of tension and danger for our heroes. It’s an awesome score that is filled with so much life and depth, but as with the rest of the movie, it never forgets the fun factor.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has excellent energy with spot-on rhythm and pacing. While it has lower key moments with lulls in the action to further develop the characters, it never drags. These filmmakers fill that 90 minute runtime tightly creating a film that is all kinds of fun while not skimping on the substance. This is due to the great action and charismatic humor that populates it. Every character is realized vibrantly and portrayed superbly. The balancing of tone between the serious drama and fun levity is greatly handled by director Steve Barron backed by a really solid screenplay It’s a shame this was at the end of the careers of both screenwriters. They seemed to have a real great knack for entertaining diversity, well developed characters, and cohesive storytelling.
Altogether, this is seriously one great movie! I really love it, and I think it holds up beautifully over the last twenty-three years. The gritty look of it really grabs me, and sets the Turtles in a unique world where it feels very real but their mere existence opens up the doors to far more fantastical possibilities. I think the spiritual qualities offered up are powerful as they add a further depth to these characters and concepts. I find it a real disservice that the sequels took a much more family friendly and lighter direction due to objections from parents about this film’s violent content. Neither sequel was received as well as this one resulting in declining box office returns for New Line Cinema. This first film was produced independently, and at that time, it became the highest grossing independent film of all time bringing in $200 million. That comes are no surprise to me because this is an excellent made film in every aspect striving to be more than just a fun flick. It gives you a weight of substance that is essential, in my view, to any successful comic book adaptation. Heroes will always battle villains, but it’s what you put into those heroes and villains that make it special. And to me, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a very special film to me. I give it a HUGE recommendation!
The summer of 1989 was one of the biggest with blockbusters like Lethal Weapon 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters 2, The Abyss, When Harry Met Sally, and Licence To Kill, but none were bigger than Tim Burton’s Batman. This was the summer of DC Comic’s caped crusader. The merchandising was inescapable. I have two posters from this film one with Keaton in the Bat suit and another of the Batmobile with all the vehicle’s specs on it, and I used to have a Batman cap until it got burned up in a small fire. Unfortunately, because of the film’s dark nature and PG-13 rating, my parents did not allow me to see it theatrically. I had to wait until Christmas for the VHS, and I still have that VHS twenty-three years later. Batman is my all time favorite superhero, and I have seen every Batman feature film theatrically from Batman Returns onwards. Unfortunately, ever since the Christopher Nolan films, I’ve found it hard to go back to these earlier movies because they just don’t fully satisfy what I want from Batman, anymore, but that doesn’t mean Tim Burton’s 1989 mega-blockbuster is not a good film. It’s an undeniable classic that stills holds up well nearly a quarter century later.
Gotham City is a grim urban landscape of economic downfall plagued with crime. Heading up the city’s organized crime is the powerful Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), and his “number one” is an egotistical psychotic named Jack Napier who, after falling into a vat of chemicals during a police bust setup by Grissom, is deformed into the maniacal Joker (Jack Nicholson). However, out of the shadows of this hopeless city is a creature of the night, the mythic crime-fighter known as the Batman (Michael Keaton). Secretly, he is millionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne who witnessed his own parents’ murder as a child, and that drove him to strike out into the night in this fearsome persona. The Joker’s reign of terror begins to engulf Gotham as his toxic chemicals, which are hidden in ordinary products, claim innocent lives. Meanwhile, photojournalist Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) teams with newspaper reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) to uncover the mystery that is Batman. However, Vale quickly falls in love with Bruce Wayne, and soon finds herself caught in between the clashing Batman and Joker while Gotham City’s fate and hope remain at stake.
As a lifelong fan of the character, I have seen numerous versions of him from Adam West to Super Friends to Batman: The Animated Series and beyond. It ranges a wide spectrum from colorful and campy to fun and exciting to dark and gritty. What Burton gives us here is a very gothic inspired Dark Knight. His intention was for Bruce Wayne to be a man who presents Batman as a frightening urban myth. Something that truly appears supernatural through the use of theatrics and nightmarish imagery. The Nolan films took a more ninja-like approach whereas Burton truly wraps the character up in horror ideals. He’s not frequently using quick vanishing techniques to be just a vague idea. Instead, he wants his prey to see him prominently in order to be scared out of their minds at the thought of him. He builds up his own myth with the regular street trash while eyeing the organized crime players of Gotham City, and does it with artistic mastery.
There was a lot of uproar over the casting of Michael Keaton in the title role. Physically, I can see what they were all worried about. At 5’9”, Keaton is not physically imposing, and not the athletic specimen you think of as a superhero. However, Burton’s thought was that a guy of Keaton’s build and ability would need to dress up as a terrifying figure to compensate for his physical shortcomings, and I think that works in this film’s approach. Michael Keaton is an awesome actor, and I’d love to see more of him in front of the camera, again. He has a certain manic charisma where you can believe Bruce Wayne is a bit psychologically unbalanced, and could snap at a moment’s notice. He engulfs himself in a dark, brooding aura that could destroy a lesser man, but because he has a purpose he is dedicated to, Bruce Wayne is able to focus that psyche into something positive. As just Bruce Wayne, Keaton has a light-hearted charisma and charm. He has smooth chemistry with Michael Gough’s Alfred and Kim Basinger’s Vicky Vale. Keaton and Basinger might not have the most exciting or interesting relationship of all the Batman movies, but it’s nicely understated and casual. For most of the film, it’s Vicky dealing with Bruce as Bruce. It’s not until late in the film that she has to knowingly deal with his alter ego. As Batman, Keaton is electrifying and powerful. The persona entirely works. You get to see the dichotomy of the man where he does desire a sense of normalcy and happiness, but is driven towards the shadows as Batman. Keaton allows you to feel the character’s somber sense that impacts both sides of his personality. Michael Keaton is amazing.
One thing that I have come to find odd is that the wealthiest man in Gotham City is hardly recognizable by most people. Neither Vicky Vale or Alexander Knox, both professional news people, seem to recognize Bruce Wayne, and the Joker and his henchman Bob barely seem to know his name. The idea almost seems to be that Bruce Wayne is a recluse, but reclusive people don’t often hold large fundraiser parties in their own mansions. This doesn’t seem to be carried over much into the sequel Batman Returns, thankfully.
The Joker has also had numerous interpretations over the decades, and I have found many of them enjoyable. Cesar Romero was always infectiously fun as the exuberant campy character, and Mark Hamill’s voice work as the Joker in the DC Animated Universe has been stunning. What Jack Nicholson gives us is something with shades of something dark and troubling as well as fun and hammy. He makes the Joker a larger than life villain, almost a twisted live action cartoon in a good way. He definitely throws himself fully into the role making him disturbingly funny. He’s truly psychotic, and really electrifies the screen with his vibrant presence. With this version of the character, I couldn’t see anyone else doing a bolder, more charismatic job. Unlike a lot of comic book characters, there’s rarely a wrong interpretation of the Joker as the character is so completely out of his mind that he can easily adopt a new personality depending on his disposition from day-to-day. When Christopher Nolan brought the Joker back to the big screen for The Dark Knight, it was a great iteration that worked phenomenally for the story being told, and the world of his films. For Tim Burton’s movie, Nicholson’s Joker was dead-on perfect.
Kim Basinger portrays Vicky Vale with a wonderful depth of class, but the character has just never done anything for me. Her fascination with the Batman legend helps to drive her part of the story forward, and it is a fine low key romantic relationship between Vale and Wayne. In concept, the two things being intertwined is good, but the script hardly plays with that at all. Later films did a more satisfying job playing up those conflicted dynamics. None of this is a failure of Basinger as she does all she can with the role, and she does it well. I just don’t think the character was given enough substance to be what the script seemed to want her to be.
The supporting cast is entertaining and nicely cast. Robert Wuhl adds a little bit of heart and humor to the picture as the upbeat journalist Alexander Knox. He’s got a nice counter-balance chemistry to Kim Basinger, and allows for a few moments of levity in what’s generally a dark, heavy toned film. Michael Gough, as the butler Alfred, also offers up a sense of family and heart opposite Keaton providing Bruce Wayne a fine confidant. Carl Grissom becomes an excellent heavyweight crime boss in the hands of Jack Palance. You would need someone of Palance’s imposing dramatic ability to rival Nicholson. Now, it would’ve been nice to see more of Billy Dee Williams’ charismatic and charming Harvey Dent beyond this film. The Christopher Walken character in Batman Returns was originally supposed to be Dent, and have the electrocution by Catwoman give birth to Two-Face. I’ll never oppose the inclusion of Christopher Walken into a movie, but there was definite further intent with the Dent character in Burton’s hands that Williams was game to dive into.
On the down side, I’ve never been too pleased with this version of Commissioner Gordon. Making him such an older gentleman with a more uptight sensibility took away the rich relationship Batman and Jim Gordon tend to have in the comics. There is usually a strong sense of respect and close friendship between the two. In this franchise of Batman films, that relationship is never developed, and I think that’s a definite negative mark against these films. We never see how Batman truly earns the trust and respect of the Gotham City police because he hardly ever interacts with them. Jim Gordon has been shown to be a great, rich character to explore, but this franchise just seems to include him because he’s supposed to be there. This is not a hit against Pat Hingle, who does a fine job with the character as written, I just know that it was a wasted opportunity by not developing or truly utilizing the character at all.
Back on the positive side, Batman certainly has a 1930s retro production design while still maintaining a modern sensibility. It gives the film an interesting appeal that avoids visually dating itself. The color palette is nicely toned down so that the Joker’s vibrant outfits truly pop out on screen. The overall artistic design of Batman is rather elegant at times while still integrating industrial aspects. The Bat Cave reflects the very depths of the industrial design making it a totally utilitarian environment for Batman to work in. It’s all just a striking achievement. Building off of that artistry is how Burton creates dramatic introductions for the film’s iconography. Batman enters the film with that powerful mythic and frightening style ambushing those muggers on the rooftop. The Joker theatrically reveals himself just before gunning down his boss. Even the Batmobile has an awesome reveal during the escape from the museum. This is what gives the film such an iconic status. Incredible moments are peppered throughout the movie to burn them deeply into an audience’s psyche. There are quotable lines all throughout the film which further strengthened its place in pop culture.
I really love the mystique the film builds around Batman. Tim Burton creates a sense of Batman being more than just a man in a suit capable of extraordinary things. He maintains a shadowy air of mystery around him so that others can still perceive him as an unkillable supernatural being. The leather and rubber suit gives a more black fleshy appearance to him, and the Batmobile is an imposing, fierce vehicle with a lot of muscle. It looks absolutely awesome barreling down a darkened road. It’s all carefully crafted to enhance the persona. Batman never gives away enough of his personality and methods for anyone to really figure him out. He is truly enigmatic.
The way the film is shot, with a lot of noir style lighting, strongly emphasizes that mystique. It definitely looks like a Tim Burton film with its dark visual aesthetic, and it is beautifully done. He worked with an excellent cinematographer in Roger Pratt who has also worked with the also off-beat Terry Gilliam on a few occasions. So, you know this is a director of photography who knows how to realize a unique vision with amazing results. I like the occasional Dutch angled shots to give the film a little bit of that comic book composition here and there. The look of this film really sparked off a whole dark, gothic visual style for the next several years, and was probably best and most beautifully showcased in The Crow. Batman itself has its own beauty and striking cinematic qualities thanks to Burton’s vision and Pratt’s artistry.
This film is filled with some great action sequences, and are all exceptionally well executed. While the intent is that Bruce Wayne does not have amazing athletic ability, Batman is still shown to have sharp prowess in hand-to-hand combat. He dispatches with thugs quite quickly and easily. He throws kicks and punches with a nice dash of martial arts talent, but keeps it straight and to the point. He’s very capable of holding his own opposite all styles of opponents with both physical capability and intellect. The more explosive scenes are excellently paced and give the film more bombast. It livens up the movie exactly when it needs a strong shot of adrenalin. The climax is very well done with Batman fighting through a couple of henchmen working his way to confronting the Joker. Although, I can’t say that making Jack Napier / the Joker the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents was particularly necessary. Yes, it does add a more personal, passionate purpose to Batman’s fight with him, but it’s only a minor part of the climax. Batman and the Joker have been passionately battling one another perfectly well in comics for decades without the aid of this element. It doesn’t bother me all that much now that Christopher Nolan has given us a more faithful adaptation of that event, but it’s not something that the filmmakers needed to do here.
Of course, one has to praise Danny Elfman’s iconic score. The theme he composed for Batman ranks right up there with John Williams’ Superman theme. Elfman’s work here is operatic with a gothic feel, and I’ve even heard it said that it’s very evocative of Christopher Young’s score for Hellbound: Hellraiser II. I surely cannot deny the similarities in the musical styles with the big, grand swells with the ominous, dark overtones, but I will never take away what Elfman achieved with Batman. I will also never downgrade the work of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard on the Nolan films, but Elfman’s theme is near impossible to overshadow. And yes, I am a fan of Prince. He does some fine work here composing numerous original songs for the film that suit the tone overall. They give the film some vibrancy in a few of the Joker’s most outlandish scenes, and help enhance some of the darker toned scenes as well. It’s definitely not Prince’s best work, but it is quite notable amongst his body of work to have done this soundtrack. Of course, even some of Prince’s lesser work is exceedingly better than some artists’ very best.
The story is very straight forward for a superhero film, but it does seem to lean more heavily on the Joker than Batman. You get to see a full character arc for Jack Napier as he goes from this dangerous gangster to a fully psychotic deformed madman with an objectionable conclusion. I generally don’t like killing off a villain at the end of the movie. They’ve existed in comics for decades with countless stories told about them, and then, a filmmaker essentially says that they’re only good for one story in movies. So, they dispose of them promptly at the end. For one, it goes against Batman’s ideals to outright kill someone. He stands for justice, and wishes to bring hope and balance back to his city. If he starts killing them, he ultimately becomes no better than those he is trying to combat. This became an ill trend in superhero movies, and I think it’s generally a bad idea in most cases. I don’t mind it in a Punisher movie, or even the Blade movies. It suits those characters to off their villains by the end, but not for Batman. Of course, over time, I have mellowed towards Tim Burton’s Batman movies, and while I still don’t think it was a good idea what was done to the Joker, it doesn’t greatly annoy me. Part of Jack Nicholson’s deal to star in the film was to get top billing, and it’s almost appropriate since the Joker is the one with far more back story and development put into him. Batman is just Batman throughout the movie, and really doesn’t go through much of an arc at all. The character remains fascinating and captivating, but he’s essentially the same guy at the end of the film that he was at the start. It’s only peoples’ perceptions of Batman that change, not the character himself. So, I would have to levy some criticism upon that aspect of the film. It’s a Batman film that’s not really all that much about Batman.
The visual effects can come off as dated. This was still in the optical composition, matte painting, and rear screen projection days. I have a fondness for some of those days, but regardless, these effects don’t have a fine polish to them to make them all that seamless or timeless. They do entirely fit Tim Burton’s filmmaking style of the time, and they serve the film’s visual aesthetics greatly. Still, anyone that’s first seeing this in the twenty-first century would likely not take to them too well. Thankfully, this is not a visual effects heavy film, and with these elements mostly being integrated into the final act of the movie, it can allow a modern audience member to comfortably adjust to this film’s style by then. For the late 1980s, these were still rather high quality opticals that gave Batman some admirable production quality on top of the marvelously designed sets.
Again, this movie was a phenomenon back in 1989. Everywhere you looked, there was that Bat symbol. Hell, you can see it in Times Square in Friday The 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan and the music video for The Cult’s “Edie (Ciao Baby).” You couldn’t avoid it if you wanted to, and in 1989, I’m sure this lived up to the hype and exceeded expectations. In retrospect, it is still a very good movie, and a greatly admirable true theatrical debut for Batman. It creates an engrossing mystique for the character in a dark, gothic industrial world where he blends in beautifully. There are amazing performances throughout the cast, but there are a few creative decisions that the film could’ve easily done without. And while Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger have nice chemistry, the Bruce Wayne / Vicky Vale relationship wasn’t all that stimulating or interesting. Personally, I do prefer Batman Returns over Batman. It has some stronger plotlines and better character dynamics to make a more entertaining and exciting movie, in my view. Regardless, Tim Burton’s 1989 film will always stand as a bonafide, respected classic which cemented Batman in our modern popular culture.
My interest in comics was re-sparked recently. I’ve bought them on and off since the 90s depending on cash flow. Since childhood Batman has been the absolute pinnacle of superheroes to me. The Adam West show, Superfriends, Batman: The Animated Series, the live action films from 1989 to 2008, and beyond has made me a hardcore Batman fan! My latest enthusiasm lead me to take an interest in the DC animated movie Batman: Under The Red Hood. There is some background to offer with this review on Batman comic history. In the 1980s, DC Comics decided to mature Dick Grayson, the original Robin, into his own man and became Nightwing. Batman was now without a sidekick, and DC hurried a new Robin into the comics. His name was Jason Todd. After a company wide continuity revamp called Crisis on Infinite Earths, what was previously a poorly conceived Dick Grayson carbon copy was changed into a punk kid that divided fans. So, a storyline was developed where the fans would call a 900 number to determine Jason’s fate. The vote came down to about 72 for Jason’s death at the hands of the Joker. About twenty years later, the choice was made to resurrect Jason Todd as a Batman villain in the guise of the Red Hood – the Joker’s original criminal identity. This animated movie adapts that story, and I feel it delivers an excellent piece of entertainment. Of course, this comes from someone who never read the “A Death in the Family” or “Under The Hood” graphic novels.
International terrorist Ra’s Al Ghul, one of Batman’s most formidable adversaries, comes into great regret over his latest actions which involve hiring the Joker as a diversion for the Dark Knight. It goes terribly wrong when the Clown Prince of Crime claims the life of Robin #2, Jason Todd. Years later, a new masked figure appears in Gotham City calling himself the Red Hood. Part vigilante, part crime lord, he begins cleaning up crime with masterful efficiency, but without Batman’s ethical moral code. He rattles the cage of the biggest crime kingpin in Gotham, the Black Mask, and they launch into a violent war. And when the Joker is brought into the mix, everything begins to fly out of control. However, Batman’s suspicions over this new violent player forces him to seek out startling revelations and confront hard truths that open old wounds.
What might first strike you about this is the darker, more violent tone of the animated film. It is rated PG-13. So, it’s not a children’s film. There is blood and a guy getting set on fire. There’s brutality and murder. It has heavy themes rolling through it of death, murder, redemption, revenge, sorrow, grief, and regret. It is designed for a mature audience able to handle heavier subject matter, and grasp the emotional weight of the story.
Now, I grew up with Kevin Conroy as the voice of the animated Batman from Batman: The Animated Series on through to Justice League Unlimited. I own all those series and movies featuring his voice as the Dark Knight. I even hear his voice when I read Batman in any comic book. However, Bruce Greenwood was tapped to voice Bruce Wayne / Batman here, and I was not at all disappointed or put off by it. Greenwood inhabits the tone of both the character and the story excellently. Much credit is to be given to screenwriter Judd Winick for capturing the essence of Batman here, but Greenwood slips into the proverbial cape and cowl smoothly. In true Batman style, he expresses his heart in subtle, brief moments. Similarly, John DiMaggio absorbs himself into the Joker. At first, I wasn’t entirely certain if I was hearing veteran Joker voice actor Mark Hamill or not, but DiMaggio brings a deeper voice to the microphone that makes Batman’s archenemy more unsettling. He’s a little darker, more Heath Ledger like in his portrayal, but still delivering the exuberant insanity that Hamill was a master at. It is a very appropriate portrayal for this darker edged story.
The focal point of the story is Jason Todd, and he is voiced by Jensen Ackles of The CW’s Supernatural. I feel Jensen does an admirable job here, but at times, the voice sounds a little too mature, too deep for the character’s age. Jason’s probably in his late teens, maybe early twenties. Jensen does lighten up his voice from what he uses in his signature role of Dean Winchester. However, he does portray the role here very well projecting Todd’s charisma, humor, intellect, aggression, hatred, and conviction in well rounded form. Jason started as a punk kid that Batman attempted to mold into a better person, but he never succeeded. What he evolves into is someone that has the same core ideal of Batman to combat crime and using much the same tactics, but with more extreme methods drawing the line of how much violence is enough farther out. He believes that Batman cannot ultimately succeed because he puts limits on himself. Jason is a character I have become very intrigued by as he walks that thin anti-hero line where he could be a hero or a villain at any given moment depending on circumstance and motive.
In the role of Nightwing is Neil Patrick Harris who perfectly captures the light-hearted charisma and sharp wit of Batman’s original protégé. How the story portrays Dick Grayson is fantastic. Dick & Bruce work in tandem battling foes with grace and efficiency. They finish each other’s thoughts, both thinking the same amount of steps ahead to swing in at the right time for the save. I’ve always enjoyed Nightwing as a character full of potential. Here, he’s mainly involved in just the action sequences, but he makes them so much more dynamic with his acrobatics and sense of fun in the face of danger. I am wholehearted believer in the unlimited potential of Nightwing and Dick Grayson. By trusted accounts, he made for a wonderful Batman following the “Battle for the Cowl” comic story arc.
I was never exposed to the Black Mask before this, but after this, I am very pleased. I laughed so hard at his scenes. His character is blowing a gasket at how the Red Hood is beating down his criminal empire, and he takes it out on every henchman he has. Slugging them left and right, and ultimately, fending for himself when danger comes crashing through his window. I found the character immensely entertaining here, but I’m sure, in normal circumstances, he’s portrayed in a more calm, in control, and vile fashion. Wade Williams just delivers an entertaining, personality rich performance that practically makes the whole movie for me.
I highly enjoyed the animation style. Very easy on the eyes with smooth motion, and fine, fresh character designs. They capture the characters very sharply with a good deal of personality injected into their look and movements. The action sequences are handled with so much detail and dynamic motion. They are beautifully cinematic and enjoyably exhilarating. The characters move fluidly with amazing fight choreography. There’s a fight between Batman and Red Hood late in the film inside a bathroom filled with hard surfaces where you not only get some inspired visceral moments, but the emotion is strongly, deeply ingrained into the intensity of the fight. However, what I very much love is the look of Gotham City. The color scheme of the city at night is very alluring and beautiful. It has a fine glow that gives it atmosphere and ambience, something Gotham must always have. It is a character unto itself with a personality all its own that forges these characters down these darkened paths.
I think how the story is handled is very smart and poignant. There are flashbacks throughout the film, but they are injected into the story and visuals in two ways. One is the straight flashback, but others are more ghostly. Ghosts of the past haunting Batman when Red Hood leads him to a place of remembrance. It brings special emotional context to this troubling story that puts so much in conflict for Bruce and Jason. The climax is brilliantly written and performed. Everyone gets their moment to shine at their strongest. Joker has probably the most hilarious, manic moment my memory can recall. You’re almost excited for him because he’s so exuberant. Still, it is the deep sense of love that Jason and Bruce have for each other like a son and father which strikes deep. By the end, it can be heartbreaking.
The only other thing to address with the movie is the absence of Tim Drake, the third Robin. In the comic book storyline, Tim was Batman’s current sidekick, and was apparently involved in the story. However, I understood why they did not include him in this adaptation. They introduced Jason as Robin, and then, introduced Nightwing as having been the original Robin. Throwing yet another one in there that came after Jason’s death could’ve been confusing for an uninitiated audience. You would see Robin die, and then, you see Batman working alongside another Robin without an immediate explanation that they are different characters would be highly disorienting. This is especially so since all three characters have the same basic character design – lean, athletic build with black hair in similar red-green-yellow costumes. Nightwing essentially fills the role that Tim Drake would’ve had in this story. No disrespect to Tim, but for me, I think having Dick Grayson present was a smart change. This is because he and Bruce have a longer history together, and really are like best friends instead of mentor and student at this point in time. It allows for a stronger contrast from Bruce’s original protégé who became a crowning achievement for him against the failure that was Jason Todd.
With all that said, watching this film makes me want to by the graphic novel to experience this in more depth. It is a wonderfully conceived and executed piece of work that I have watched three times within a week and a half. My only negative mark I have for the film is that it only runs 75 minutes. A full 90 minutes would’ve felt more fleshed out and a little more satisfying. However, DC Animated has been keeping about a 75 minute cap on their feature films, likely due to production costs. Regardless, what is here is powerful and impactful. It feels like a true Batman story filled with a lot of fun action, deep emotional drama, and rich, well developed characters. If you have enjoyed Christopher Nolan’s live action Batman films, I think you will find a lot to enjoy on a similar level here. I give it a very strong recommendation to anyone that has a love for Batman, as I do.