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.