Review: Batman – Under the Red Hood (DC Original Animated Movie)
It should go without saying, but for all three of you who don’t know the true identity of the new Red Hood, there are minor spoilers.
When Batman: The Animated Series aired nearly two decades ago, it set a milestone in regards to how dark and realistic an animated series could depict one man’s crusade against criminals of fearsome make and terrifying methodologies. Gone were the days of single-minded, plainly-obvious evils that needed to be defeated by the pure and righteous forces of good. Villains were now brutal, but human. Evil, but sympathetically so. Insane, but not beyond redemption. Heroes were no longer shining paragons of justice, but were now flawed humans capable of catastrophic failure and extreme self-doubt. It captivated a generation of not only children but also adults with its stylized visuals, incredible animation, epic score, and most of all its unparalleled storytelling, which explored complex issues of betrayal, hatred, vengeance, loyalty, redemption, and more.
One of my favorite episodes from the original series was “I Am the Night,” which has none of the token Batman villains, focusing rather on one of the Dark Knight’s most horrifying failures during his tenure as Batman. Alas, while Batman: The Animated Series (hereafter referred to as TAS) spawned a legacy spanning nearly 15 years (the DCAU, or DC Animated Universe), it never acknowledged or even mentioned, even in passing, the second Robin, Jason Todd. Instead, Todd’s character was melded with that of Tim Drake, and the animated series’ equivalent to A Death in the Family was told through a direct-to-video feature, “Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker.” Unfortunately, while an incredible bookend to the Batman Beyond series, the movie didn’t quite hit the emotional chords that A Death in the Family did. The DCAU has since ended, and Jason Todd’s story has never really been explored in animated form. But the creators of the DCAU have since began making DC Original Animated Features, and lo and behold, they have now told Jason Todd’s story in animation. It’s unfortunate that they have focused instead on the Red Hood storyline rather than A Death in the Family, but the skill with which they told the narrative can’t be denied.
When I first read A Death in the Family it quickly became one of my favorite Batman stories. It explored a deeper side of Batman, a side that he rarely showed – the side of him that still had not recovered completely from his parents’ murders, and had that dagger driven ever deeper by the Joker’s murder of Jason Todd. It was one of Batman’s most disastrous failures: he had failed again to protect a family member from the violence of his mortal enemy. A man who had, earlier that year, crippled Barbara Gordon, the first Batgirl, and attempted to drive Commissioner Jim Gordon, one of Batman’s closest friends and confidantes, insane. These events brought the conflict and hatred against the Joker to a personal level for the Dark Knight, and for readers as well.
Then they decided to resurrect Jason Todd.
It wasn’t really that they decided to do it, not entirely; it was the method in which it was done which took it to extreme levels of absurdity. In the comics, Jason Todd was brought back to life literally by having Superboy Prime punch reality so hard it caused Todd to be revived. Disregarding my general distaste for comic book character resurrections (I’m of the opinion that if a character’s death was meaningful, which Jason Todd’s was, then it should be left alone; hell, even if it wasn’t meaningful editors should think twice before bringing a dead character back to life), the sheer ridiculousness of this theory is mind-boggling. Thankfully, Batman: Under the Red Hood puts forth a more satisfying explanation for Todd’s return, and his death is appropriately rewritten to make this change as smooth as possible – instances of Todd’s search for his birth mother are written out, and the movie begins with his death and the now iconic image of Batman holding Todd’s body in mourning. The story then moves to the present, where the Red Hood arrives and forces Gotham’s largest drug cartels to come under his employ at gunpoint. He quickly shows himself to be a brutal and terrifyingly effective mob boss, using gruesome and lethal tactics to get his way.
Batman is now visibly older and working in concert with Dick Grayson, the original Robin, now known as Nightwing. It should be noted that for the first half of the movie there was an emphasis placed on Batman’s relationship with the younger vigilante. Nightwing is always there to lend a helping hand, but Batman is never really receptive to it. It may be due to his usual loner demeanor, or perhaps his reluctance now to get anyone else involved in his personal crusade against the underworld has something to do with the death of Todd. Nightwing’s presence in the movie is more in service to the plot than anything else. For the first half of the movie, most of Batman’s interactions happen with Nightwing, who, as a vigilante, is much more light-hearted and jovial than the always scowling and ever-serious Batman. When the dynamic with Batman shifts from the talkative and light-hearted Nightwing to the no-less-talkative but much more grim Red Hood, it is a shift that has great weight due to the stark contrast between the two and their distinctly differing histories. The Black Mask serves a similar purpose; he’s a villain that’s really only in the movie to move the plot forward – his only real significance is to have underlings who end up getting recruited or whacked by the Red Hood; as far as story contributions go, he has none. The Joker and Ra’s Al Ghul offer much more meat to their parts, having directly influenced and taken active parts in forming the events that set the stage for the Red Hood’s entrance.
Again, we are able to see how personal the conflict between Batman and the Joker have gotten, as just a few words from the Joker regarding Jason Todd’s death can cause the normally stoic and unwavering Batman to lose control of himself. For an instant, we wonder if this time Batman will really take the final step and cross the line, turning from righteous vigilante to cold-blooded killer. It is an song and dance we all know so well, and yet every time this stare-down happens we ask ourselves the same question – will Batman truly end the Joker’s rampage now? This movie explores all the same aspects of Batman that A Death in the Family did – regret, sorrow, loss, wrath, and the never ending struggle Batman faces to continue being the stalwart, incorruptible symbol of humanity, or to take matters into his own hands and exact vengeance upon those who would hurt others for no reason other than they are able to.
The movie touches on the most important and poignant parts of the Red Hood saga, and the final battle between Batman and Red Hood, and the subsequent unmasking of Red Hood is done incredibly well. Red Hood is not only a sign of Batman’s greatest failure, he has also returned as an antithesis to the Dark Knight, getting the job done through illegal and gruesome methods instead of the strict moral code Batman adheres to. The final battle is not only a clash of wits and skill, but also a conflict of ideology, of Batman’s unwillingness to kill anyone, not even someone as twisted as the Joker, and of Jason Todd’s subsequent departure from that code of honor that prevents Batman from being enveloped by anger and hatred.
One of the reasons the movie is such a success is due to the amazing voicework. Neil Patrick Harris makes a great Nightwing, and he pulls off the light-hearted banter flawlessly, especially during the first fight. John DiMaggio also plays the Joker incredibly well, delivering the maniac laughs and abhorrent behavior of the Joker with pitch perfect accuracy. Jensen Ackles plays a competent Red Hood/Jason Todd, but due to the nature of the character he’s given less chances to shine – the only real part of the movie where Jason Todd’s role has real meat is during the final scene, and he does an admirable job of voicing Todd’s conflict and anger. However, the actor who undoubtedly steals the show is Bruce Greenwood. For me, Kevin Conroy has, and always will be, the de facto Batman voice. Whenever I read a Batman comic, his Bruce Wayne voice and his Batman voice are the ones I hear when I read the dialogue. Rather than lament his absence in this movie, however, I will instead say that Bruce Greenwood makes a phenomenal Batman. Absolutely fantastic. His inflections and deep, gravelly voice are a perfect match for the Caped Crusader. I daresay that he is as good a voice for Batman as Kevin Conroy is. His incredible voicework not only makes Batman adequately badass, but is also incredibly adept at showing the chinks in Batman’s armor during the more emotional parts of the movie. The producers chose well when they cast Greenwood as Batman, and I look forward to his voicing of the character again when Young Justice airs on Cartoon Network during the Fall.
It isn’t often that an animated feature lives up to the standards already set by the countless milestones before and by contemporary features. With series such as Batman: TAS, movies such as The Dark Knight, and even games such as Arkham Asylum constantly setting newer and higher bars in terms of media quality for Batman, it’s amazing how impressive a new animated feature can be. A feature based on what was, in my opinion, one of the worst storylines Batman has suffered through in the comics, no less. While it doesn’t set a new standard in storytelling or break new ground in terms of how we perceive the Dark Knight, it does challenge us to view Batman in a different light – as a human, a fallible man who has flaws and failures, and who, despite these flaws and failures, remains ever dutiful, undaunted in his unending battle against crime. As an animated feature, it’s no masterpiece, but Batman: Under the Red Hood is a solid and incredibly well-done foray into one of the Dark Knight’s most troubled and painful journeys.