I’ll admit, I had been starting to lose hope about the continuing series of DC Animated films, but Superman/Batman: Public Enemies was a step in the right direction, and the latest installment, Batman: Under the Red Hood, is even better.
Under the Red Hood is based on the story-line that ran through the Batman comic books in 2005-2006 (and was eventually collected in a two-volume collection called Under the Hood), written by Judd Winick and illustrated by a variety of artists but primarily Doug Mahnke. In the story, Batman must confront a new nemesis: The Red Hood. The mysterious character at first appears to be a new crime-lord, vying with The Black Mask for control of Gotham City’s criminal element, but he turns out to be a vigilante aiming to destroy those criminals, albeit using much more violent (and deadly) methods than Batman ever employs. That’s troubling enough on its own, but when evidence points to the Red Hood as being a mysteriously resurrected Jason Todd (once Batman’s second side-kick Robin, murdered by the Joker in the infamous A Death in the Family storyline from back in 1988), Batman finds himself painted into an impossible corner.
At the risk of repeating the point I have made in my last several reviews of these DCU animated films, I’m much happier seeing direct adaptations of famous comic book story-lines, rather than all-new stories (like the mediocre Wonder Woman and Green Lantern: First Flight films, or even the Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths film which I found more enjoyable). So Under the Red Hood had that going for it, in my book, right off the bat. The problem is that, with the exception of the graphic novel New Frontier (which is a phenomenal piece of work by Darwyn Cooke), I haven’t been too wild about the choice of comic story-lines these films have adapted. Superman: Doomsday adapted the sprawling, months-long Death of Superman storyline, and while that story-line was a smash hit at the time it came out, it has aged very poorly. I thought Jeph Loeb’s Superman/Batman storyline (adapted for Public Enemies) was over-rated at the time — all flash and dazzle without too much actual meat to the story. And Judd Winick’s Under the Hood story-line was, in the comics, fairly mediocre in my opinion. It had a killer hook, bringing back Jason Todd, but rather than building to a powerful climax I felt the story was abandoned. There was no clear resolution as to what happened to Jason/Red Hood, and when we finally got the answers as to how he was resurrected (in Batman Annual #25) it seemed like a convoluted mess. Also, read the Under the Hood collections today and I think you’ll find, as I did, that the whole thing was awash in crossovers and references to other story-lines (such as Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis) that really bog the story down. Plot threads are introduced and then abandoned, such as Black Mask’s recruitment of Mr. Freeze in volume one. I assume Batman defeated him in some other storyline in one of the other Bat-books of the time, because Freeze was nowhere to be seen in volume two. These things disrupt the flow of the story, and prevent it from reading, today, as a complete tale.
Well, major props then to Judd Winick, who wrote the DVD adaptation based on his original comic books, because I’ll be damned if he didn’t craft a phenomenal script for the film. He jettisoned everything that bugged me about the original stories, and really honed in on the dramatic core of the piece – the Bruce Wayne/Jason Todd dynamic. The result is a really strong film, probably the strongest of the DVD animated films so far. (The closest competition is the first one, Superman: Doomsday, which also did a tremendous job at taking a sprawling, bloated comic book storyline and honing it down to its dramatic core for the film).
I love the way Mr. Winnick has re-shaped and focused his narrative. What once felt sprawling and somewhat rambling now feels lean and taut. I loved the way he was able to weave critical flash-back scenes from Batman’s relationship with Jason in and out throughout the film. These scenes are great, and demonstrate a wonderful economy of story-telling — telling us exactly what we need to know about who Jason was, how his relationship with Batman soured, and what tragic fate ultimately befell him. Mr. Winnick also made a brilliant decision to take a scene — and a great line of dialogue — from the middle of his original story (it’s the scene that closes volume one of the collected editions) to be the end of the film.
And what most bugged me about the original Under the Hood — the ridiculous and convoluted explanation, when it finally arrived, for Jason Todd’s resurrection — has been much more skillfully handled here. Gone is any silliness about Superboy prime punching the walls of the universe really hard. Instead, Mr. Winnick has utilized an established element of a familiar Batman villain’s lore to provide the key for the return of Jason Todd. This feels much more organic to the Bat-universe. While it’s of course still a little silly for a character to return from the dead, the adjustments made for the film sit much better with me, and are plausible enough (for the Batman world, anyway), that they didn’t distract me as an audience member from getting into the story.
Under the Red Hood is really well-paced. The film jets along right from the opening scene through to the climax. And boy is it action-packed. The action in the film is spectacular, really well-animated and surprisingly vicious. (I was very pleased to see how well they took advantage of the PG-13 rating.) The animation over-all was quite smooth, and captured the dark, grim feel of Gotham so well-established in Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series. There were a few instances where I felt some computer-generated action sequences didn’t mesh so well with the animation style of the rest of the film, but that’s a minor complaint. Overall the film looked terrific.
But what separates this film out from the rest of the animated DVDs so far is that there’s a powerful dramatic storyline to accompany all of the bone-crunching action. Although I’ll repeat my standard complaint that I wished they’d just keep using Kevin Conroy and the rest of the amazing voice cast from Batman: The Animated Series, they’ve assembled a great new team of voice actors for this film who really elevate the dramatic story-line of the film. Bruce Greenwood (an incredible actor who most recently stole J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reinvention as Captain Christopher Pike) is terrific as Bruce Wayne/Batman. He brings enormous gravitas to the role, and is able to inject a ton of emotion into his line readings without ever making Batman sound wimpy or silly. While Greenwood’s Batman is serious and tough, Neil Patrick Harris brings an intense joy to his performance as Nightwing (the first Robin, Dick Grayson, now all grown up). Patrick Harris is absolutely inspired casting — he’s so good, that it’s a terrible shame that he’s only involved in the early part of the film. Equally great — and totally holding his own with those two fine actors, is Jensen Ackles (Supernatural) as Jason Todd/The Red Hood. This is the toughest role in the piece — he needs to be able to be sympathetic and totally evil, presenting a dangerous threat to our heroes without ever sliding into moustache-twirling villainy. Ackles nails the performance.
Then there’s John Di Maggio as The Joker. Mr. Di Maggio is a master voice-over artist (he kills as Bender on Futurama) and he turns in a fascinating portrayal of the Joker here. This is a much tougher, more masculine Joker than we’ve seen before in the Bruce Timm animated shows and films. While his performance doesn’t equal Mark Hammill’s iconic performance as the Joker from Batman: The Animated Series, Di Maggio fills the role well.
Even the smaller roles are well-cast. Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films) is Ra’s al Ghul, Gary Cole (Pineapple Express, The West Wing, and a million other great film and TV roles) is Commissioner Gordon, Jim Piddock (Leonard Crabbe in A Mighty Wind) is Alfred… I could go on. Am I giving you a good idea of the pedigree of talent assembled for this film?
Bruce Timm, Judd Winick, and their amazing team of collaborators have really nailed the adaptation. They’ve crafted a lean, mean Batman film that — while it doesn’t equal the magnificent animated Batman: Mask of the Phantasm or Return of the Joker (films created under Bruce Timm’s leadership back when his animated DCU shows were still on the air) — it’s the first of this run of direct-to-DVD animated DCU films that I think feels of a piece with those great works. While Under the Red Hood is steeped in Batman lore, it succesfully stands on its own two legs as a complete film. There are plenty of bits for die-hard Bat-fans to dig (for example, the opening scenes are pretty direct adaptations of iconic scenes from 1988’s A Death in the Family), but nothing that would detract from a newbie’s enjoying of this film.
It’s gonna be a long wait before Christopher Nolan is ready with his next Batman film. Let Under the Red Hood help you with the wait!