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Non-Review Review: Batman – Under the Red Hood

This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. This is one of the “stand-alone” animated movies produced by the creative team that gave us the television shows. 

You did it! You found a way to win and everybody still loses!

– The Joker

The story of Batman, boiled down to its most essential elements, is a tragedy. He’s a character defined by hurt and loss – the suffering and failures he has endured while fighting simply to stay alive in an uncertain world. The reason that the animated Batman: Under the Red Hood works so well is because it manages to capture that observation perfectly in its relatively tight runtime. Over the course of the movie, Batman has several of his rather glaring failures touted out in front of him and – what’s more – faces the possibility that he may himself end up obsolete.

The joke’s on Batman…

Bruce Timm and the team behind the adaptation of Judd Winnick’s controversial twelve-issue story arc have suggested that this is the darkest entry in the DC animated universe to date. While I’d argue that Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker is at least as dark, I can see where they are coming from. It’s a Batman movie where a child is killed before the opening credits. Although it’s clear at points that the movie itself has been cut down to avoid an “R” rating for graphic content (and most of the violence is relatively bloodless), there’s still an astonishing amount of violence on display – from headshots to arson to brutality. However, it’s in tone that the movie is darkest.

The film opens with what Batman himself considers his “greatest failure” – the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd, at the hands of the Joker. We jump five years forward in time to discover that Batman has become a grimmer, darker figure as a result of that loss (even dropping the bright yellow oval from his costume). There’s an ironic flashback where Batman reprimands a young Robin for using excessive force (“you broke his collarbone!”), shortly after we’ve seen the modern Batman threaten that being thrown through a window will be “the least painful thing”to happen to a henchman if he doesn’t talk.

That’s what happens when you let a teenager fight a bunch of psychopathic mass-murderers…

However, a mysterious vigilante, the Red Hood, has arrived on the scene and begins cleaning up the city’s organised crime – a Batman “who doesn’t mind the blood,” to quote a besieged mob boss. There’s just one catch: the Red Hood was a criminal alias originally used by the Joker.  Possessing intimate knowledge of Batman, the Hood proceeds to offer an exploration of Batman’s biggest mistakes – from the accident which created the Joker (“your first great failure … but not your last”) to offering a more successful method of controlling organised crime.

Indeed, Batman notes that – since the Hood’s arrival in Gotham and his strategy of controlling rather than eliminating the mob – “crime is down”. However, this vigilante is more than willing to kill, and will allow the drug trade to continue, albeit under his supervision (“no dealing to children!”). Perhaps the Hood is “a better Batman” than Batman – he’s certainly more effective.

The Red Hood wants to be top gun…

The death of Jason Todd is a watershed moment for modern Batman. Although he’d returned to his “grim and gritty” roots after the light camp of the Adam West television show, it was the brutal murder of the second kid to bear the name Robin which really made him into the dour avenger we know today. Some might argue that the moment that Bruce picked up the limp body from the wreckage is just as important as the loss of his parents (the movie itself alludes to this with a quick shot of his parents’ tombstone alongside Jason’s).

Todd himself was a somewhat controversial figure. He was designed to replace Dick Grayson as the Batman’s sidekick (Dick having grown into the hero Nightwing), but was a lot more aggressive than his predecessor. He was introduced stealing the wheels off the Batmobile (in a scene replicated here). The fans didn’t exactly warm to him, and so DC wrote a comic – the famous A Death in the Family– where he would be placed in peril.

Love that Joker!

Fans would then be asked to phone in to decide whether Robin would live or die. You can guess how that turned out. It’s an important moment for Batman, but also comics as a whole – it’s a startling failure on the part of the hero, and perhaps a grim deconstruction of the idea of child sidekicks. After all, how could Batman not have seen something like this coming?

These little movies are wonderful, because they offer a chance to tell stories that would otherwise remained consigned to the page. It’s a wonderful opportunity for a non-comic-book reader to soak in some of the classic comic book moments. Of course, the fairly short runtimes mean that the movies themselves tend to feel rather light (for example, Superman: Doomsday ran into a bit of bother trying to condense The Death and Return of Superman into an hour and fifteen minutes).

Raising the crowbar…

Thankfully, Judd Winick – who also wrote Under the Hood, the comic book arc upon which this is based – offers a fairly effective distillation of his story ideas. In fact, a lot of this movie flows a lot easier than it did in the original material (for example, the ridiculously convoluted explanation of who the Red Hood is in the comic books literally involved a superhero punching the walls of reality – here it’s offered a lot more efficiently). Winick smartly exercises a lot of the fat from the story – Superman no longer makes an appearance and the Black Mask’s role is greatly reduced – but keeps the essential elements. The story works a lot more effectively as an intimate portrayal of a flawed Batman than as a big “event”.

Of course, it helps that the animated movie pitches its mood somewhere between Batman: The Animated Series (note the use of police blimps) and The Dark Knight (particularly in the wonderfully moody soundtrack), given those are two of the stronger adaptations of the character. Bruce Greenwood as Batman and John DiMaggio as the Joker in particular seem to be pitching their performances somewhere between those of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill in The Animated Series and Christian Bale and Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. It actually works surprisingly will, with the movie jumping from superpowered androids to bloody headshots in a surprisingly organic fashion.

It’s a Boy Wonder a tragedy like this hasn’t happened before…

However, the script isn’t necessarily perfect. The Red Hood clearly has a point about how ineffective Batman has been combating crime in Gotham, but he never really gets a chance to make his case properly between all the well-choreographed action sequences. And the script is a little heavy on the exposition – particularly from Neil Patrick Harris’ Nightwing (who, by the way, drops at least an octave for the role). I don’t need to hear a character shout “Lasers! He has lasers!” after a crazy android fires lasers, or “A sniper!” after a sniper kills some goons. The movie acknowledges this (Nightwing likes to “belabour a point” and confesses, “I’m chatty”), but it feels awkward. Surprisingly, after the character disappears, the tendency stops.

It’s interesting to note that the movie dropped a lot of screentime for lesser known Batman baddie the Black Mask in favour the Joker. At first, this seemed to be because the Joker is an infinitely more popular bad guy, but I think it also fits because – at least in animated form – this is very much the Joker’s story. Or, rather, the story of Batman and the Joker. Any story which charts Batman’s greatest failures must eventually dwell on the amount of carnage that Batman has allowed the villain to create, simply by refusing to kill him.

A Boy in the Hood…

After all, it’s the Joker’s twisted attraction to Batman (not necessarily a sexual one, though he does like to play the card from time to time – “you look good,” he flirts during an interrogation and later is relieved to hear that Batman dreams of torturing him to death, remarking, “aww, you really do think of me”) which has led him to cause so much harm to those close to Bruce. At one point, as Batman tightens his grip around the clown’s neck, the Joker taunts, “Are you gonna do it this time? Or you just gonna put me in another body cast for six months?”

The film’s climax revolves around the Joker, and the notion that the world would be a far better place without him in it. In fact, the Red Hood makes a pretty convincing case for the Joker’s death (highlight for spoilers):

Ignoring what he’s done in the past; blindly, stupid, disregarding the entire graveyards he’s filled, the thousands of who have suffered, the friends he’s crippled; you know, I thought… I thought I’d be the last person you’d ever let him hurt. If it had been you that he beat to a bloody pulp, if he had taken you from this world, I would’ve done nothing but search the planet for this pathetic pile of evil death-worshiping garbage and sent him off to hell.

A little birdie told him…

Speaking of spoilers, the movie doesn’t really concern itself with hiding the Red Hood’s identity in the same way that the original comic book story did. Perhaps because it doesn’t have time, or perhaps because it’s a fairly commonly know secret at this stage – whatever the reason, there’s no way that any genre-savvy viewer (or even reader of this review) can’t deduct the character’s identity from the moment he appears, using the rule of conservation of detail.

This is a DC animated universe film and – as such – you pretty much know what you’re getting technically. the casting is pretty near perfect. It might have been nice to have Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamilton, but I quite liked Bruce Greenwood as the Caped Crusader and DiMaggio offered a somewhat deeper-voiced Joker than we usually see. Even the supporting cast – filled with actors like Gary Cole and Kelly Hu and Jason Isaacs – is fairly high calibre. It’s not the most geeky DC animated universe cast, nor the most starstudded, but it’s a well-put together group of people. Andrea Romano should be proud.

Parting shots…

The music is superb, and the animation is great. I’m not really pleased with the use of CGI in certain places (for Batman’s plane, for example, or an early car chase), but it’s a lot better than it has been in other films. The animation and sound are to the highest quality. In particular, the action sequences are well executed and clearly brought to the screen by people who want to have a bit of fun with the superheroes. There’s even a wonderful shoutout to Richard Donner’s Superman as Batman saves a falling helicopter. Of course, this is Gotham – so the chopper is filled with weapons rather than reporters – but what are you going to do?

Under the Red Hood is a pretty finely adapted key piece of Batman lore. It’s a story that is frequently discussed in comic book circles, for obvious reasons, but it also just works as a great Batman story of itself. It’s a tragedy that plays out in a horribly twisted way, effectively illustrating that tried-and-true idea that Batman never really wins – he just loses less than he might have otherwise. It’s one of the better films in a line of superb direct-to-video adaptations.

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2 Responses

  1. I believe you mean Mark Hamill.

    Good to hear this is good. I was wondering if it would keep with the quality of B:TAS.

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