Batman: Under the Red Hood (DVD Review)
August 2, 2010

Batman: Under the Red Hood is the latest original DC Animated movie, written by Judd Winick based on his graphic novel telling the story of a new, more violent vigilante. The Red Hood challenges Batman’s methods for cleaning up Gotham City, but what is the historical connection between the two?

There’s nothing like sitting down to watch a superhero cartoon and opening on a scene of a demented clown beating a teen boy to near-death with a crowbar, then blowing him up. That’s a bit unfair of me — these movies, rated PG-13, aren’t for kids. Especially given the scenes of torture and murder, this is not a family film; it’s aimed squarely at adults. That does make me wonder about the short running time, though. The movie is only an hour fifteen minutes, although adults have a longer attention span.

At first, I didn’t care for the voice of the Joker (John DiMaggio, who also plays Futurama‘s Bender) — it wasn’t distinctive enough for me — but by the end, I was very impressed with what he’d done. But that’s all introduction to the real story here: a grown-up Jason Todd Robin, instead of being dead, has returned as a new vigilante with uncertain loyalties, calling himself the Red Hood (voiced by Jensen Ackles, Supernatural).

Looking at the rest of the cast, Bruce Greenwood, playing Batman, does a good job with some truly difficult lines, as when he’s threatening punks with clichés or dropping exposition to explain some new villain. Neil Patrick Harris was my favorite as Nightwing, “the pretty boy in a leotard”, who was allowed to have a sense of humor and thus a bit more humanity in his voice. He combines professionalism with youthful exuberance well. He’s what kept the movie watchable for me, tweaking super-grim Batman every so often. I think he should have been drawn cuter, but this generic art approach isn’t distinctive in a lot of ways. It’s better than the last couple of animated films, though, and it has the proper sense of setting for Gotham City.

How boring would it be to be Batman, who has already thought of everything? His plane even has a button to reduce wingspan so it can fly through a traffic tunnel. (One of my favorite moments, since I was looking for lightness in this grim story.) And when he scowls, his mask’s eyebrows make a little bat on his head. This animated film aims for more artistic effect than some of the previous, which just wanted to tell adventure, often origin, stories.

Batman’s grimness in this film serves a couple of important points — it better distinguishes him from Nightwing, who otherwise is a carbon copy with more blue highlights and no cape, and it reminds us of the effect of Jason’s death. Which we get fully explained to us 50 minutes in, although I’d already guessed what the main outline was going to be. (Hint: Ever seen Pet Semetary? And there’s a continuity glitch there that I don’t want to talk about because it will spoil things, but it involves the standard operating procedure of Magic Plot Device not being different from what we see, even though we’re told this time is different.)

I admit, I don’t pay 100% attention to these movies while they’re on, but I did find the use of flashbacks confusing at points. The movie jumps into them without much warning, and at times, we wondered which kid Robin we were seeing. As viewers, we were in a difficult situation, but one I believe most viewers will share — we know the important Batman comic stories, but we’re not sure we read the one this movie is based on, and we got mixed up between what we remember from the comics and what we’re seeing here. The structure here is ambitious and rewards close attention.

Fanboys will quite enjoy the climactic confrontation, which turns into a “should heroes kill?” debate, but I was unsatisfied. The lack of conclusion regarding one character frustrated me, and I found the circumstances so extreme (and some of the actions so unbelievable) that I was disappointed. It’s not an honest way of approaching the topic, but a stacked deck. In a comic book, I’d be looking forward to the next collection to find out what happened to that character, but here? There’s nowhere else to find out.

On the bright side, the movie spurred KC and I to have fun talking about the Titans story where Dick first became Nightwing and that glorious disco collar costume. And laughing at how Jason wears a mask under his mask. And trying to remember what the comics did with the Black Mask.

One last gripe: Continuing from the last original DC animated movie, I really hate the tendency of these films to introduce second- or third-tier bad guys who look vaguely familiar from the comics, but without bothering to explain or name them. In this case, who was the chick with the red ponytail and glowing swords who was part of the armorered ninja squadron?

Also on Disc One

There’s a first look for Superman/Batman: Apocalypse. The news on that film somewhat took the steam out of this one, causing Under the Red Hood to be overlooked in the race to get to the new one later this year, since it introduces Supergirl. Plus, there are some additional trailers for some past DC animated films, the animated Lord of the Rings, and something called Legend of the Guardians about fighting owls.

The 11-minute Jonah Hex DC Showcase cartoon is a period Western, just what you’d expect, except I kept getting distracted by the way the women’s costumes looked more like typical superhero bathing-suit designs instead of something from the Old West. The title character is voiced by Thomas Jane, who does a superb job, ironically, since he should have had the movie role. (He also played the Punisher.) The music was great, very atmospheric.

I found it odd that instead of simply the usual “Interpol will get you for copyright violation” notice, there are an additional ten notices in varying languages and for different countries to let us know that it can’t be resold, distributed, or exported without a Warner license, nor can it be shown at “clubs, churches, hospitals, hotels, oil rigs, prisons, and schools.”

Disc Two: Special Features

Batman: Under the Red Hood cover
Batman: Under the Red Hood
Buy this DVD

The only significant special feature in the two-disc DVD package is the 24-minute “Robin: The Story of Dick Grayson”. Various talking heads, including Phil Cousineau (editor of The Hero’s Journey), writer Judd Winick, and DC execs Dan Didio and Paul Levitz, explain how Bill Finger, credited as Batman’s writer, reportedly found it hard to write Batman without someone to talk to or explain things to, so Robin was created to be the first sidekick. Then Levitz narrates Robin’s origin and Matthew Mahoney (from LA’s Golden Apple Comics) tells us that both Robin and Batman lost their parents.

Most anyone interested in this film would already know these things, I suspect. I wish instead we’d gotten people arguing about just how old Robin was when he started. Levitz suggests he was 15 or 16, but I always thought he was closer to 12 (but that causes child-protection issues to arise). I also wish we’d get art credits for the images they selected to show the character.

Len Wein and Dennis O’Neil weigh in later, and the heads (with the addition of Thomas Andrae, writer of Creators of the Superheroes and co-writer of Bob Kane’s autobiography Batman and Me) start talking about whether Batman and Robin were intended to have a relationship similar to father/son or closer to brotherly. They also discuss the costume design, including the brighter colors, and how they dealt with the character growing up, including the origin of Nightwing.

Also on this disc are two episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, “Robin’s Reckoning Parts 1 and 2″. It tells the origin of the original Robin and, according to Wikipedia, “earned the series an Emmy for Most Outstanding Half Hour or Less Program and is considered to be one of the best episodes of the series.”

Missed Opportunities

There were a lot of opportunities for extras missed, I think, since there’s almost no making-of material. For instance, I’d liked to have known more about how the story was changed from the comic version. Since Judd Winick wrote both, it would have been interesting to have heard him talk about the changes he made and why.

Also, why not include the already-existing first look for this film (as seen on Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths)? It includes footage of the voice actors and talks about why they chose this story, as well as showing a little of the original comic. It should have been included, since it functions well to fill the gap left by omitting the makings-of that used to be part of these packages.

This might be too fannish, but I would have loved to have seen someone discuss how Robin is the character that breaks the continuity timeline of the DC universe, because you can’t make his stories work within the framework of the rest. He and his Titans buddies aged up from young teen to adult while no one else grew older. Although some of the participants of the “Robin” feature talk about that aging, no one really touches on why they chose to let it happen or what that meant for the bigger picture.

Batman: Under the Red Hood Blu-ray cover
Batman: Under the Red Hood Blu-ray
Buy this DVD

DC wants to keep their heroes under 30, in many cases, so as more stories happen, more events get squeezed into 12 years or less. When readers were kids in the 60s and 70s, they knew that the heroes were real adults. Now, those readers are firmly middle-aged or older, and the heroes seem like kids. That problem, and possible solutions, and whether it was the right thing to do with Robin — that would all have made for a much more interesting discussion than the story retellings we got. Robin is a fascinating character from so many perspectives, from the “Boy Hostage” brightly colored target to how his presence changed comics in historical ways. The extra touches on very little of what makes him interesting and doesn’t do the character justice.

Blu-ray Only

There’s a second feature, the 21-minute “Robin’s Requiem: The Tale of Jason Todd”, that talks about the second Robin’s origin using much of the same voices from the other extra. I really thought it should have been included in this package as well, given how much the subject bears directly on the background of the film, and I could have used the reminders. According to those who’ve seen it, though, it covers material already known by comic fans.

Plus, there are two more cartoon episodes, the Joker-focused “Mad Love” and “The Laughing Fish”. (The studio provided a review copy.)

21 Responses  
Thad writes:  

No Jerry Robinson on the Robin feature?

Anyway, per the “Should heroes kill?” debate ending in a copout — hasn’t it always? In American superhero comics, at least. The Death of Gwen Stacy raises the question, only to have the Green Goblin conveniently impale himself by accident; Batman spends a good chunk of Dark Knight Returns agonizing over why he doesn’t just kill the Joker, who finally manages to kill himself by improbably snapping his own neck. Hell, it’s not even particular to comics, superheroes, or America; the last original-series Doctor Who serial, Survival, puts the Doctor in an impossible situation where he has to kill the Master in order to survive — and then deus ex machinas him out of it so he doesn’t have to choose.

Back on to Batman, the “Batman confronts Joe Chill” story has been told in numerous iterations and they ALL come down to killing Chill while leaving Batman’s hands clean. In the original Finger version (most recently adapted by Paul Dini in an atypically dark episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold), Batman unmasks himself to Chill, who then begs a group of thugs to protect him because he’s the one responsible for creating Batman; the thugs kill him before he lets Batman’s identity slip. In the Year Two version, Batman unmasks and threatens to kill Chill, who slips and falls off some scaffolding. And in Batman Begins, Bruce is prepared to kill Chill, but he’s killed by Falcone’s gang before Bruce has the chance.

Basically, any writer who poses the question has already written himself into a corner and has to cheat his way out of it. At least when Finger did it, it was fittingly Golden Age melodrama.

Dwight Williams writes:  

Actually, the Reaper shot Chill in Year Two.

Johanna writes:  

Thad, you’re right about it being a rigged game. Which is why I wish they wouldn’t even bring it up — it’s like picking at a scab. Is it ever beneficial for anyone?

Thad writes:  

@Dwight: Ah, been awhile since I read it.

Was it the Reaper who fell off the scaffolding, then? Or am I just making that part up?

Dwight Williams writes:  

Reaper fell off the scaffolding by choice; He thought Bruce’s hands were good enough to leave Gotham with, given what he’d seen of Bruce with Chill before the latter caught the Reaper’s bullet.

Dwight Williams writes:  

As for Grayson’s age when he started as a mask…I’ve read accounts putting it at anywhere from eight to twelve. Depends on the writer and editors.

Anthony writes:  

Re: Robin’s age: 90s and 2000s comics (starting with the “Zero Hour” miniseries) tried to get around the question of “how come Dick Grayson grew up but Bruce Wayne stayed the same age” and the increasing years’ worth of stories packed into Superman and Batman’s 10- or 12-year-long career timeline by trying to bump up Superman and Batman’s ages to 35 (from 29/30 as it was in the 70s and 80s). However, they *also* bumped up/kept aging Robin and his Teen Titan cohorts, which seemed to negate anything gained from bumping up Superman and Batman’s ages…

James Schee writes:  

Now you add in the third(?) generation of heroes aging and it really becomes complicated. Tim Drake looks lik he’s about 2 years younger than Dick Grayson in comics these days. Superboy hardly looks like a boy, Wonder Girl (Cassie) is a lot older than the skinny awkward girl from Byrne’s run.

I wonder if a part of it is just artists not knowing how to draw teens? Or perhaps feeling uncomfortable doing so? Maybe it dates back as far as when the Legion of Super-Heroes started looking a lot less like Lads and Lasses?

Which I guess can make a sort of sense, when you start having them put in more adult situations. Such as sex or violence for instance. I know my local library just got in the Nancy Drew graphic novels, and its a bit weird to see people so young looking put in some of the dangerous situations they are in at times.

Of course the whole age things bring me back to my youth. There was a Summer I was laid up for a couple of weeks, and my mom was a big Days of Our Lives fan. I couldn’t help but see some of it and remember being startled that mid 20 year old adults had these kids that were 18 or 19. My mom explained that the year before the show had sent the characters who were played by 6 year old actors off to a boarding school. When they returned to the series 6 months later they were now played by these older actors. (years before the X-Men’s Cable storyline!! lol)

David Oakes writes:  

The Young Robin voice actor said about the same thing at SDCC, though he saw it as an opportunity:

“The Phineas and Ferb scripts don’t usually open with me getting beaten to death with a crowbar.”

Anthony Boulton writes:  

The animation wasn’t too bad, although I prefer the “straight against curves” design sense of the old Timm series. The action sequences were well-staged. The story was adequately entertaining (I did not read the source material so I can’t compare).

My big beef was the coloring. Why were dark characters always moving against dark backgrounds ?! The rim-lighting was poor and distracted me from following the action. Arrgh!!

Noir means stong contrasts, not black against navy blues !!!

DC Showcase Original Shorts Collection Announced » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[…] Jonah Hex (from Batman: Under the Red Hood) […]

James Schee writes:  

Just watched it on Blu-Ray, decent movie coud have used more of Nightwing but it was a Bruce vs/ Jason story at heart.

I liked both of the documentaries, I knew a lot of the stuff but it was still good to see some fresh people talk about it. I found it interesting that a lot of the art used for the Robin origins was of Tim Drake Robin who was missing. I know with time limits there wasn’t room for the character n the movie.

Would have been nice to seen a mention though, as it was an important part of the story because here was someone that to Jason would have been galling. Someone replaced him and is doing the job better than he was. (historically too he’s one of the few replacement characters that was so widely accepted)

James Schee writes:  

Oh and the red haired character was actually (along with the other characters on her team) made up for the movie. Never been in the comics before.

Johanna writes:  

Good point on Tim, James. Jason was a failure both in and out of the story. Regarding the redhead, maybe superhero costume design is just beginning to all look alike to me, so she reminded me of someone else. :)

James Schee writes:  

Yeah its a natural thing, that you just kind of assume that a character has appeared somewhere. I’m sure they are similar to some characters out there.

Oddly DC seems to heading down the same road with Damian as they did with Jason.

Ed Sizemore writes:  

I actually ending up enjoying this much more than I thought I would. I admit the opening sequence almost made me turn this off. But it also made me prepared for the worst and that didn’t happen.

I enjoyed the characters and thought they did a good job of giving you three distinct personalities that play off and clash with one another in Red Hood, Batman, and Nightwing.

I think I liked best seeing three different people with different takes on being a superhero. I love the Nightwing line, “I’m chatty, it’s part of my charm.”

It’s nice to see this movie acknowledge the first Robin is a hard, if not impossible, act to follow.

Also, there is a subtle questioning of Bruce’s moral line drawing. He’ll beat up the Joker so badly that he has to be in a body cast for six months, but he won’t kill him. How many beatings of that level do you give to someone until it’s seems more mericiful to kill them? That kind of constant damage seems more like slow torture than holding the moral high road.

My problem with the “superheroes don’t kill” debate is that it was unnecessary when villians didn’t kill either. You only have a problem when you radically change one side of the equation and not the other. This is what people didn’t get about Watchman. Moore was trying to demonstrate the fundamental unreality of the superhero genre. Watchman was suppose to expose the juvenile nature of the genre and how it couldn’t handle real world issues. Unfortunately, no one got that message. Insted, they took Watchman as a license to make comics more ‘realistic’ and gritty. At least Moore played fairly. If villians got to kill so did the superheroes. Personally, I say take kililng off the table for everyone.

Johanna writes:  

I’m glad you liked it. There’s a lot to admire about it — including that it’s more visually sophisticated than some of the other movies. And good analysis. I agree that I’d rather see no one kill, “unrealistic” as that may be. They’re superheroes, they’re already unrealistic.

Superman/Batman: Apocalypse » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[…] previews start with Batman: Under the Red Hood, a well-done trailer that makes the movie look more interesting than it is. I feel that one got […]

Young Justice Season 1 Volume 1 » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[…] location gave Aqualad more to do, which was nice to see. Batman, voiced by Bruce Greenwood, as in Under the Red Hood, gives them the mission. The high-tech camo-costume versions are nifty, as are the jokes around […]


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