When it was announced that Batman: Under the Red Hood was on the docket for the DC Universe of animated films, I was skeptical. The storyline seemed too recent - an admittedly naļve perception of time in the comics world - and it just didn't seem to have rocked my world enough to justify yet another Batman project.
Taken as a whole, however, this latest offering could provide the link that brings fans of Christopher Nolan's Batman films toward dipping their toes into actual Batman comics. The story, adapted by Judd Winick from his own run on Batman, explores the dark side of Batman running around with a kid sidekick, an idea that Nolan doesn't seem to want to touch because it's hard to make believable.
Well, it is believable enough that Robin would get killed. And not everybody picking up Under the Red Hood would be aware that it happened thanks to fan voting back in 1988. Winick skillfully weaves that event into a re-telling of his own story, and the chance to "do over" for an animated film cuts all the fat out of a story that had been tied down to the larger DC Universe.
Instead, the movie stays insular to the world of Gotham City. R'as al Ghul (Jason Isaacs) and The Joker (John DiMaggio) are the recognizable villains whose machinations got out of hand five years earlier, resulting in the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin.
In a nice touch, Winick implies that the Joker was caught fairly soon after, and has been locked away in Arkham Asylum ever since. Despite the appearance of everyone being a little more colorful than in Nolan's films, it's not a terrific stretch away from that more realistic approach.
Black Mask (Wade Williams) runs the criminal activity in Gotham, but he's being pushed aside by the mysterious Red Hood (Jensen Ackles), who's willing to let some crime go on, as long as everyone adheres to a code of ethics. If they don't, they're dead. It's that simple.
Winick acknowledges a bigger "superhero" world by bringing in the android Amazo for an opening big ticket fight scene. That's to appease those getting this for the "DC Universe" part, but really, it would have been just as strong, if not stronger, without it. At least it's an excuse to bring in Nightwing (Neil Patrick Harris), the identity assumed by Dick Grayson after he graduated high school.
It's a strong, haunting story in a way that the original comics just didn't quite deliver, again probably because it had been teased so much over the years. Seeing it this self-contained, it packs a whollop, boiling Batman down to the most difficult questions about who he is and what he does.
Bruce Greenwood does a decent job as Bruce Wayne/Batman, an older actor giving more weight to a Batman who has been doing this for a while longer than people assume. But honestly, as good as he is, there's nothing he brings to it that wasn't already there in Kevin Conroy's interpretation, and it still strikes me as odd that Andrea Romano has to keep casting different Batmen when one voice has become so iconic - and keeps getting used in other projects anyway.
That's a minor quibble. Warner does other things on this
package so incredibly right. Though a mini-documentary on
Dick Grayson seems like just a time filler, or a perfunctory
answer to newbies who say "I thought Dick Grayson was Robin,"
it's at least well done.
The real find for comics fans is an in-depth look at the
original "A Death in the Family" storyline, "Robin's
Requiem: The Tale of Jason Todd." Sorry, this one's
only on the Blu-ray, talking about the controversy and really
giving it some weight as an important event in the history
of the comics industry.
And then there's the DC Showcase: Jonah Hex. In
tone, a good match for the dark main story, this short gets
everything right about the character. It's done in a very
anime style, which I'm just going to have to get over, because
in all other ways it shows that you don't have to do a lot
of tweaking to a character to translate him to another medium.
Thomas Jane makes a great Hex, so if Warner wants to continue
with this animated perhaps on Adult Swim or something, there
would be no objections here.
Included on the Blu-Ray edition are four classic episodes
of Batman: The Animated Series, tangentially related
to Under the Red Hood, in that they feature Robin
and the Joker. Any excuse to introduce someone to Harley
Quinn's origin story, "Mad Love," works for me.
For this being the project I'd been least looking forward to, this jumps up to being the one I think I'm most likely to pull off the shelf and watch again, even over Wonder Woman, which had been my previous high point in the series.